DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Ute Lemper Plus News of Minnelli, Peters and Chenoweth

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Ute Lemper Plus News of Minnelli, Peters and Chenoweth
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Ute Lemper
Ute Lemper Photo by Fran Janik

There is no one quite like Ute Lemper. The German-born singing actress, who starred in the London and Broadway productions of Chicago, invests her work with a striking emotional intensity that is often riveting. The Olivier Award winner plays large concert halls throughout the world performing songs from the Weimar era and the Great American Songbook, and she occasionally rewards her fans by performing in more intimate venues. In fact, Lemper is about to return to Joe's Pub — the cabaret located within the Public Theater — with a new act entitled Pirate Jenny Comes Back, Nov. 14-29. The statuesque chanteuse has also released her latest solo recording, "Between Yesterday and Tomorrow," which is now available on the Chamaleon Productions label. What makes it unique? It's Lemper's first disc boasting songs all penned by the internationally renowned performer. In the liner notes for the CD Lemper writes, "It is a collection of memories, impressions, moments of joy, but also vulnerable moments of doubt and outrage. It moves between clearness and painful confusion, hope and despair about world issues but always wants to stay poetic in its thought and language." I recently had the pleasure of chatting with the intelligent, forthright artist; that interview follows.

Question: Your home base is Manhattan now.
Ute Lemper: Yes, for ten years.

Question: How do you find living in New York, compared to other cities where you've?
Lemper: Well, I grew up in a little city in Germany, in Münster, between Cologne and Hanover. That was definitely too provincial for me and too conservative. There was no freedom of the mind in this very little controlling city where values were dictated. Then I lived in Vienna and studied there, then I moved to Berlin for many years. I was in Paris for many years and moved to London ... then back to Paris. . . . The triangle between West Berlin, London and Paris: I would just cruise there and lived basically three places at the same time. I was working in those three places. In '97 I moved to London, and then in '98, to New York. I have to say, once you experience the unbelievable vibe of the city, there is nothing like it. Just the fact that people are coming from everywhere in the world to become New Yorkers, and it really is possible. Even though I lived for five or six years in Paris, I never became a Parisian in a certain way because things are very uptight in Europe with the national identities and the style and the nationalistic pride of each country. Especially for a German, it was rather difficult to escape all of the...prejudice against the country. I loved it everywhere, but I would say I feel really home in New York. I love the openness. Where I live, the Upper West Side, is a great neighborhood. Lots of kids, lots of schools and a very spirited and inspiring place to be. The diversity is great. My three kids grew up with the diversity and people from everywhere. I love it. It's a whole different thing than the European upbringing I would say.

Question: How old are your kids now?
Lemper: My oldest son is 14, and my daughter is 12, and my little one is 3.

Question: How do you find combining motherhood and your performing career?
Lemper: It always was a balance act. Fifteen years ago when I started with my first kid, it was definitely difficult to combine it. I was still just 30, and my career was just taking off in a way that it became really international. Interesting jobs came in and all of the different genres, from movies to musicals onstage and the record companies. Those were the years when the record companies still did very, very good... especially the classic companies with the crossover projects like I always did with the recording of the Weill music and Piaf. It was a very busy time, and it was hard to say no to the jobs. I actually feel like I missed out a little bit here and there on just being home with them. And then I was abroad in the West End in London and Broadway every night for two years, when my kids were very little, in the musical Chicago. I totally overworked myself, I would say... just trying to do everything good and everything right. I don't even know how I did it. [Laughs.] Now I really have to pick my choices. For example, movies — I still do here and there European movies, but only if it's really interesting to make, with a very short shooting period that I don't have to be gone too long from home. I really pick my choices now. I do symphony orchestra performances, but I try to keep the family a number one priority, and I am very happy and blessed and grateful to be able to do the job I do and find my time writing music, but not really put my family ever in the second place. They are definitely in the first place, and this is what I want. I love them most. Life goes by so quickly. My God, you turn around and 25 or 15 years have gone by. What I really embrace the most — yes, I love to be onstage and make music and be creative and all of that; this is definitely my passion — but my family is everything to me.

Question: Your new CD features songs that you've written. Have you always written?
Lemper: I started, actually, in the year 2000, when I had recorded this album "Punishing Kiss" with the songs of Elvis Costello, Nick Cave, Tom Waits...They were written for me by these great artists. It was a very cool project, and suddenly it lifted me into a different generation audience-wise. It was definitely, with the re-recordings of the Weill music and the French chansons and all of that, I was definitely in a very theatrical audience crowd. Suddenly I got the edgy rock crowd into my concerts, plus the older ones. It was a wide variety of audience, and I felt that suddenly I'm in the contemporary music world, and I enjoyed it very much because I always felt [I was] a very contemporary artist. I never [wanted to just re-create] the old nostalgic Weimar Republic [songs]. It wasn't in my interest. It was about making those songs alive today and connecting them to contemporary issues of the political and social world out there, the world of the big cities and anonymity and decadence and all of that. So I was always thinking very contemporary. After this album, the musical genre was different: It was wonderful to sing a Tom Waits song. He's definitely one of the best here in the States to be sung by an actor. I was always very connected to the words, and there were lots of stories in my head about the cities where I lived, about the places and different cultures, life chapters, philosophical things about life and love. And then I just had to have the courage to sit down at the piano and find the harmonic world for them to live in. It was much easier than I thought. I do play the piano, but I would say not good enough to play onstage and accompany myself. I would rather just bring it out with an open chest and not be covered at the piano. But it was really a very fascinating puzzle of work to put this all together — to put the music to the words, the words back to the music, and back and forth until suddenly this piece of painting of some worth had its organic flow. Then I presented these little songs to my band. We arranged them and had a run here at a jazz club in New York. It was very successful and then we started recording it.

Question: Do you find any difference between singing a song you've written or singing one written by someone else?
Lemper: I find [that] when I sing my own songs I don't have to do the interpretive work the way I would have to do with a Kurt Weill song or a Brecht song. They are characters. Most of these songs are taken out of theatre plays. Specific characters are singing them, and there is more of a theatrical edge to it. My songs are rather poetic. I would say the music, and the sound images really speak for themselves. I just have to lay out the poetry and let the music take its course and paint its own picture. I would say it's a more subtle work.

Question: Your upcoming show at Joe's Pub is called Pirate Jenny Comes Back. Can you tell me…
Lemper: That's how it's called? [Laughs.] That's how they advertised it? That means I should definitely sing the "Pirate Jenny" song! I didn't know that they chose that title. [Laughs.]

Question: What songs can people expect to hear?
Lemper: Joe's Pub is kind of my home base. I've been there for so many years, and I'm like a regular there every year, and sometimes they just pick the names of the shows, like this one! [Laughs.] I don't even know yet what I'm going to do. There is such a vast variety of repertoire which I can pick from. This is the place, the Public Theater, which brought Brecht over for the first time in the fifties. There is definitely a good amount of Brecht and Weill songs, Threepenny Opera and definitely "Pirate Jenny" will be part of it, as I've decided now. [Laughs.] But there will be French chanson, Brel, Piaf . . . and there will be a whole bunch of my own songs. I've decided, because I haven't sung them for a long time, I want to include the Tom Waits songs, too, this time.

Ute Lemper

Question: What's it like working in that space, which is so intimate?
Lemper: It's very small, and it's a total difference than most of the other concerts I do, which are in concert halls. I enjoy very much the audience. It's like being in your living room, basically. And most of the crowd, I probably would invite them for dinner at home because the crowd is great there! People of my spirit — free thinkers and paradise birds and people who just want to have a good time, interested. They all have the foundation to understand the German and the French. They know the European chanson is what they're going to get from me, with a little bit of a take into different areas. The people who come there, they know it's not going to be a Cole Porter evening, but it will be a more edgy, European chanson evening. Most of the audience is super-educated. Plus, half of them are very crazy. Half of the audience is crazy, and they are out there to play, so they just want me to go down there and please them until they get mad and wild and come with me on this funny journey! Question: Since you do perform concerts all around the world, do you find any difference in audience reaction in different countries? Do you find you have to tailor your concerts to different audiences?
Lemper: I would say probably one of the best audiences anywhere in the world is the New York audience, especially the downtown audience. It has the students, it has the international crowd. Lots of Europeans and Americans and people from everywhere, South America. You have a broad musical taste and also an audience who really digest as much classical music as they do theatrical music or jazz music or pop music. It's a really fine audience who is familiar with a lot of different genres of music and speaks a lot of languages — also a large amount of gay audience and Jewish audience, which I like because I sing Yiddish song cycles, too, and they really love it here in this place in the city.

I would say that Germany, in a funny way, is the country where I avoid most of Brecht and Weill and anything political about the Weimar Republic. . . .The Germans just don't want to hear it. They don't want to face the past and think about it. They just want to have a good time, so I choose mostly, in Germany, the contemporary repertoire. My album works very good in Germany because it's contemporary. French audiences are always very special, always very connected to the words, very poetic: the purer, the better. The more fragile, the better. They don't like the powerful, rather American, energetic, forthcoming thing. They like the very intimate, Impressionistic, broken soul performance. [Laughs.] The simpler the songs, the better out there. Every audience is a little different. The Mediterranean audiences all love anything French, also the German — they always want me to sing "Lili Marlene" there. In Spain and Portugal, they have this very nostalgic and passionate love for the performers. Also, [there are] great audiences in South America. Buenos Aires is fantastic, and Brazil. It's always surprising. I go so far away, and I can't believe that even people know my name there. Even New Zealand or Melbourne, Australia... it's unbelievable. I'm very grateful for that, probably through the recordings, the early recordings, my stuff got spread around the world that way. What a fantastic gift that was.

Question: Do you have an interest in returning to Broadway?
Lemper: Of course, it's a fantastic place to perform, and yes I'm talking to my agent regularly. He says this and this, but it just doesn't seem the right thing for me [at this time]. . . . I have already booked my performances two years ahead, especially if I go to classical venues, then I have to break the contract. It feels like, over the years, I have settled really into this concert career, which is an international podium for me. It feels like it works out better, because I am, after all, an ambassador to this niche of music of the European chanson. I am trying to keep it alive in the world, the stuff of Brecht and Weill. The music of the past, which was banned music by the Nazis, had a very strong meaning — this music and the composers which were banned out of Germany and oppressed from the Germans. As a German from a different generation, it almost became a mission for me to really sing this repertoire worldwide, to keep it alive. Now I am rather an older generation. I'm not the young one anymore, and I stand there and represent this music. I connect it to the present time, which is a very important aspect, of course. This is a fantastic mission, and I take it as an honor to be an ambassador to this music and to work that way.

[Ute Lemper plays Joe's Pub, 425 Lafayette Street in Manhattan, Nov. 14-15, Nov. 22 and Nov. 28-29. For reservations visit www.joespub.com. For more information go to utelemper.com.]

Two-time Tony Award winner Bernadette Peters, most recently seen in the Lifetime film "Living Proof," will be the headline attraction at the 2009 Adelaide Cabaret Festival in Australia. Peters will bring her acclaimed concert act to the Festival Theatre June 6-7, 2009. Richard Jay-Alexander will direct; musical director Marvin Laird will conduct the orchestra. The annual festival, which is run by new artistic director David Campbell, will be presented June 5-20. For more information about the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, visit www.adelaidefestivalcentre.com.au.

Liza Minnelli
photo by Rick Day

She's already a hit, and performances have yet to begin. That's right: The limited engagement of Liza's at the Palace . . .! — starring Tony, Grammy, Oscar and Emmy Award winner Liza Minnelli — has been extended by two weeks. As previously reported, Liza's at the Palace — produced by John Scher/Metropolitan Talent Presents & Jubilee Time Productions — will begin performances at Broadway's Palace Theatre Dec. 3. Originally scheduled to run through Dec. 14, the production will now play through Dec. 28. A holiday matinee on Dec. 24 has also been added to the playing schedule. The Palace Theatre is located at Broadway and 47th Street. Tickets, priced $25-$125, will be available by calling (212) 307-4100 or (800) 755-4000. For more information visit www.lizasatthepalace.com. Tony Award winner and "Pushing Daisies" Emmy nominee Kristin Chenoweth, who recently released her first holiday CD, is scheduled to be part of the upcoming Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Chenoweth will perform "Christmas Waltz" — a song featured on her new disc "A Lovely Way to Spend Christmas" — at the Nov. 27 annual parade. The acclaimed singing actress will also be featured on CBS' "Sunday Morning" (Nov. 23), NBC's "The Today Show" (Dec. 1 and 2) and ABC's "The View" (Dec. 1). The ever-busy performer will also join the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra for a one-night-only concert Jan. 10, 2009 at the Fox Theatre.

A new version of The Diva-lution of Molly Pope, which premiered this past summer at Joe's Pub, is headed to the Laurie Beechman Theatre on West 42nd Street. Directed and produced by Ben Rimalower (Joy, The Fabulous Life of a Size Zero), Diva-lution will play the intimate theatre Nov. 19, Dec. 8 and Dec. 15 at 9:30 PM. Musical director Sonny Paladino will lead a small band. Cabaretgoers can expect to hear Pope's renditions of Dietz and Schwartz's "By Myself," Cole Porter's "It's Alright With Me" and The Cardigans' "Love Fool," among others. The Laurie Beechman Theatre is located within the West Bank Café at 42nd Street, just west of Ninth Avenue. There is a $20 cover charge and a $15 food-drink minimum; for reservations call (212) 695-6909 or e-mail beechmantheatre@aol.com.

Singer-actress Kate Pazakis will make her debut at the Zipper Theatre Factory in a brand-new show entitled Kate Pazakis: Unzipped! The Dec. 9 concert, which will feature a mix of pop, rock, country and musical theatre tunes, will be recorded live for future CD sale. Brian J. Nash will head a live band, and Seth Rudetsky will be the evening's special guest. Show time is 10:30 PM. The Zipper Theatre Factory is located in Manhattan at 336 West 37th Street. Tickets, priced $15 (advance) and $20 (at the door), are available by calling (212) 352-3101 or by visiting www.TheZipperFactory.com.

LaVon Fisher-Wilson, who made her Broadway debut in The Color Purple, will join the Tony Award-winning revival of Kander and Ebb's Chicago Nov. 14. Fisher-Wilson will succeed Carol Woods as Matron "Mama" Morton. The singing actress is scheduled to stay with the long-running production at the Ambassador Theatre through Jan. 1, 2009. The musical revival will also celebrate its 12th anniversary and its 5,000th performance on Broadway Nov. 14. Visit www.chicagothemusical.com for additional information.

Linda Eder, the powerhouse singer seen on Broadway in Jekyll & Hyde, will offer a holiday-themed concert in Chicago next month. Linda Eder Rocks the Holidays is scheduled for Dec. 13 at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University. The evening will feature Eder's holidays favorites as well as tunes from her new solo recording, "The Other Side of Me." Show time is 8 PM. The Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University is located at 50 E. Congress Parkway in Chicago, IL. Tickets, priced $40-$75 (with $95 premium seats), are available by calling (312) 902-1400 or by visiting www.BroadwayInChicago.com.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

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