UTE LEMPER Ute Lemper is one of the most unique, arresting performers on the cabaret/concert circuit today. When one watches the statuesque and stunning singing actress perform, it is obvious that she has the utmost respect for the songs she chooses, treating each song as if it were a precious gem, giving careful attention to each and every word, investing each lyric and melodic twist with as much emotion and style as possible. And her expressive eyes, her lanky frame, her striking, angular face and, of course, her German heritage lend authenticity to and heighten her interpretations of tunes by such composers as Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. In her newest show at the Café Carlyle, Blue Angels and Demons, Lemper offers Weill and Brecht as well as healthy doses of Friedrich Hollaender and a medley of Yiddish songs featuring music by Chava Alberstein. I recently had the chance to chat with Lemper, who spoke with great intelligence and surprising humor and warmth about her career and life, which now includes three-month-old Julian Lazaar Lemper-Turkisher, born to Lemper and her partner (and drummer) Todd Turkisher. My interview with the Olivier Award-winning performer follows.
Q: Congratulations on the new baby. How has it been combining motherhood and performing?
Lemper: Well, it always was a difficult thing. It's a balance act, and you always feel you can't do [it] entirely justice. You don't want to leave and go on the road. It's not an easy undertaking. My other two kids, they're eleven and nine, are a little older — they're certainly into their lives, well-established, they have their hobbies and their school. They're so much more independent now that actually this baby is very wonderful because we all take care of him. We have like four parents in the house! [Laughs.] My son is great, and my daughter is mommy number two, and we all love the baby, and it's just a very beautiful thing to have in our family, to bring the little one up all together. But, of course, it's not easy to combine all of these things. We have a wonderful nanny, and she'll come with us on the road.
Q: Does the whole family go on the road when you tour?
Lemper: No, [Max and Stella] stay with my ex-husband when I'm on the road. They come with me on the summer tours, when they're on vacation from school, and on the winter tour — the June, July, August trip and the December trip.
Q: What do the two older kids think of Mom's music?
Lemper: They actually love it. They're so used to it. In the summer tours, a month on the road, they love the life with the musicians and the tour buses. They assist with all the sound checks — they're onstage with us. They sing into the microphones. My son plays the guitar. He plugs his guitar into the amp and jams a little bit with the other musicians. They know it all by heart, even though they don't even understand the words. They mock the words. They have such a great time. They're very expressive, and they sing along. Obviously, they also love lots of other [music], but they have good taste — good rock-n-roll music, music from the seventies — the good stuff.
Q: Getting to your current show at the Carlyle. How did you arrive at the title of the show, Blue Angels and Demons?
Lemper: Obviously, it's very difficult to [choose a] title of a show which has elements of a lot of different cultures. I like always to have my Kurt Weill, my Edith Piaf, my more exotic song cycles, songs from different parts of the world — there's the German shtick in there, but there's also George Gershwin and something more jazzy. I had just read this book "Angels & Demons" from Dan Brown, who wrote "The DaVinci Code." It's a fantastic, really exciting book about crazy things in the Vatican. And, there's "The Blue Angel," the famous old movie with Marlene Dietrich filmed in Berlin, and the club called The Blue Angel. So I just threw it all together in one pot, and what came out of it was Blue Angels and Demons. It's very appropriate because the angel-looking femme fatale is literally a demon who seduces people and drives them crazy — tries to seduce them and tempt them. It's very appropriate for the repertoire I sing. I sing some Berlin Kabarett songs, and they're provocative songs. And then, of course, all the characters in the world of Weill and Brecht are always these exotic outcasts, who are demonized by society but who really, if you look at them, are little angels by themselves — in the way that they have their own morals apart from the society. Q: You play large concert halls and smaller rooms like the Carlyle. What do you like or don’t you like about performing in a more intimate place like the Carlyle?
Lemper: Well, the Carlyle is certainly one of the very, very small venues I've played. I have to say this time — it's the third time that I'm back — it does feel very much like home. I'm very used to the room. I love what I see from the stage — the room, the way it's spread out to the left, to the front, to the right, the door in the back, the bar. I know every little inch of it. I like the intimate contact, the fact that you can see the people's faces — most of the time these faces are just adorable and they love what you do. Sometimes you see a sleepy one, but that's okay. [Laughs.] It's just a very intimate and personal atmosphere. Sometimes I find the audience a little too conservative because, after all, it is an Upper East Side spot. Sometimes I feel like the Joe's Pub audience or the Bottom Line audiences would be slightly more appropriate for what I do. But I do actually get in [to the Carlyle] a lot of the downtown audience. I look around, and certainly not everyone's dressed in a tie and a suit. [Laughs.]
Q: I know in your current show you're doing a few songs by Hollaender, and in your previous show you did a great song called "Muenchhausen, The Baron of the Lies." Where did that song come from, and can you tell me a little about the composer?
Lemper: Friedrich Hollaender was one of those Berlin Kabarett composers in the twenties. . . [In my current show I also sing] "Black Market," which he wrote for a later movie by Billy Wilder for Marlene Dietrich and then, of course, "Lola" from "The Blue Angel." And "Muenchhausen, Baron of the Lies" is a song he wrote in 1928 about civil rights, human rights, freedom of expression, freedom of sexuality, freedom of choice — even the abortion issue is in there — corruption in court, equality, that you treat the Jew like the Christian — all of that is in there. It's a very advanced song, and it tapped into the taboos of the time, and still is tapping into the taboos of today. . . . I want to mention the guy who did the fantastic translations because originally all the songs were written in German. His name is Jeremy Lawrence, and he's a New York writer. He did a really brilliant adaptation into English, and this year he wrote me an updated verse about George Bush's politics, and it's fantastic. I already tried it out at Town Hall at the Nightlife Awards, and it brought down the house, and I'm also singing it at the Carlyle.
Q: Tell me about your decision to include a selection of Yiddish songs this year.
Lemper: I put it together especially for this show. Usually people just love it when I sing a little bit of something in Hebrew or Yiddish. I did an Arabic-Hebrew collage last year, and this year I thought I'd find some more songs. There are three different songs written by Russian poets and music by Chava Alberstein — beautiful poetry, very melancholic. I just love to sing this dialect. It's very passionate and full of emotion. It's a little island in the middle of the show with its own identity.
Q: You also have a new DVD out.
Lemper: This is the show from last year. It was called "Blood and Feathers." They recorded three different shows plus the Kurt Weill show, which was only on Thursdays last year. . . . They were not the greatest conditions in this little room to make a live DVD, but you can sense that somehow it has a nostalgic aspect. When it skips to black and white, I feel like it looks like it's filmed 100 years ago, and it has a historical aspect to it, and then it goes back to the more glamorous color projections. That was last year, and it's a totally different show this year. But I'm very happy to have a live document of this. I was very surprised when [DRG] proposed to do a live CD and DVD.
Q: When did you start making New York your home?
Lemper: That was in 1998 when I came from London, from the West End show Chicago to the Broadway show Chicago, and I took over from Bebe Neuwirth as Velma Kelly. I was hired for a year to do the show here. I played Chicago for two years, and I thought, "I can't ever do this again!" It was so difficult to do the same thing. I was so happy to go back into my usual concert situation. It was almost like a learning process again to be free, to improvise, to use the voice more like an instrument and not like a belting machine. [Laughs.] It's a very different school, these concerts I do — they have so many different aspects of drama, comedy. It almost took me a year to really learn this again and its freedom. But I did enjoy the Broadway run very much, also the West End run. I was very proud to get the Laurence Olivier Award. Everything was very unexpected, and I thought, "Wow, one more time back into the world of musicals." I was so blessed, but this is what I really do, the concert situation.
Q: Would you be interested in doing a theatrical run again?
Lemper: Yes, my agent is coming. I have a nice script in front of me right now, but I can't tell you what it is. It's something new; it's very exciting, and it actually is right up my alley, but I shouldn't probably speak about it.
Q: So, you've been in New York since 1998 . . .
Lemper: I had done concerts here before, in the U.S., since the late eighties, and I've always looked for the right opportunity to make it over here, for a reason to really move here. I had lived in Paris for many years, and then [Chicago] came up, and by that time the kids were starting school, at least my oldest. And, suddenly we were in the scene here, and I like New York very much. After living years in Paris, years in Berlin, years in London — that was even before Chicago — I have to say [in] New York, you become a New Yorker very quickly regardless of your nationality, your heritage. You are always somehow the German in Paris, the German in Britain because they are so stiff with their own national styles . . . the neighbor countries really judge each other. And, here in New York everyone melts into the scene very quickly. I enjoy this kind of freedom of spirit here.
Q: What composer would you say most speaks to you, the one who best reflects your philosophies or political ideas?
Lemper: Well, the political ideas — that's difficult to say because I'm not that direct [in] the repertoire. It doesn't really go into politics. But I would say, stylistically, my root repertoire is the repertoire of Kurt Weill, especially the German period, of course, the period with Brecht. That, I would say, really expresses where I come from. Beyond that I explored so many other — the French repertoire: the Piaf, the Brel, the Jacques Prévert poetry. And then [the last] six years I write my own repertoire, I write my own songs. There's an album about to be coming out in the fall with all my original material — new songs [with] music and lyrics written by me and produced by my band and co-arranged and really created together in the studio.
[Ute Lemper will offer Blue Angels and Demons through Feb. 25 at the Café Carlyle, which is located within the Carlyle Hotel at Madison Avenue and 76th Street. For reservations call (212) 744-1600; visit www.thecarlyle.com for more information.]
A New York concert debut could easily be a nerve-wracking event for any artist, but from the moment Victoria Clark asked "Do I Hear a Waltz?" — in an opening medley that featured that Rodgers/Sondheim tune as well as a giddy "Wonderful Guy" and a lilting "Ten Minutes Ago" — one could sense that Clark was in complete control and had more than waltzes on her mind. In fact, it was a radiant Clark who, dressed to the nines, made her solo New York concert bow Feb. 10, opening her American Songbook evening with the aforementioned Richard Rodgers melodies and concluding with a tune penned by Rodgers' grandson, Adam Guettel. In between a joyous Clark said she would examine a host of love songs, and in doing so the Tony-winning actress spoke more about the meaning of friendship, as she delivered an array of tunes by songwriting friends Jeff Blumenkrantz, Jane Kelly Williams and Ricky Ian Gordon, all of whom were in attendance for her special night.
It was composer Williams whose work provided the most touching moments of the evening, a New Jersey-based songstress who combines the traditions of folk storytelling with more modern urban angst. In Williams' "Horizon" Clark movingly sang, "If you can't find a partner, you need to give yourself a partner's love," and Clark's rendition of "Thomas" — a song Williams gifted Clark after she gave birth to her now 11-year-old son Thomas Luke — brought tears to both the singer and more than a few listeners' eyes.
The comedic highpoint of the evening was provided by actor-songwriter Blumenkrantz, who composed "Victoria's Secret" for Clark's concert debut. The single Clark said she hoped her American Songbook concert might be just the place to meet an eligible date for Valentine's Day. After the house lights were raised, the singing actress asked all the men in the audience to raise their hands. "If you were born after 1975," Clark sang, "kindly drop your hand." (A few hands dropped). "If you were born when Hitler was still alive," she continued, "Y'all can drop your hand." (A few more hands dropped). "If ya got a girlfriend or a wife, or if ya never had a girlfriend in your life, or if being with a woman just isn't part of the plan — and you know what I mean," Clark deadpanned, "then drop your hand, drop your hand." (About 100 hands dropped, leaving but two raised!).
Ricky Ian Gordon's "Coyote" — performed atop the grand piano — demonstrated the power and range of Clark's soprano, and her simple, heartfelt renditions of "Fun to Be Fooled" and "They Say It's Wonderful" showed Clark knows her way around a standard. She also scored with the little-heard Styne-Comden-Green gem "Hold Me, Hold Me, Hold Me" from Two on the Aisle.
The Tony winner ended her evening with what is now her signature tune, Adam Guettel's "Fable" from The Light in the Piazza, demonstrating once again why she won the Tony for her nuanced, spirit-moving performance.
If one may have desired a few more better-known tunes, it's hard to find fault with such a generous performer, one whose warmth and joy seemed to permeate the souls of all around her. When she encored with the traditional hymn "How Can I Keep From Singing," one simply hoped she'd never stop.
Tony Award winner Faith Prince and recent Glengarry Glen Ross star Tom Wopat are currently entertaining audiences at Feinstein's at the Regency with their new act, Let's Fall in Love. The duo, who will play Feinstein's through Feb. 25, are offering such tunes as "I Love Being Here with You," "Baby, It's Cold Outside," "It Amazes Me," "I Can't Say No," "Makin' Whoopee," "If," "Sue Me," "Everything I've Got," "The Honeymoon Is Over," "If These Walls Could Speak," "Two Lost Souls" and "One Hand, One Heart." Prince and Wopat are accompanied by musical director Tedd Firth on piano, David Finck on bass, Peter Brant on drums and Bob Malach on saxophone. Feinstein's at the Regency is located at 540 Park Avenue at 61st; call (212) 339-4095 for reservations or visit www.feinsteinsattheregency.com.
Speaking of Feinstein's, one Tony Award winner will replace another when Linda Lavin steps in for Sutton Foster on the Feinstein's spring schedule. Foster will be appearing in the new Broadway musical Drowsy Chaperone at the time of her previously announced cabaret engagement. Lavin will play the posh nightclub in her place, March 7-11. Lavin's act will be directed by Jim Caruso and will feature musical direction by Billy Stritch.
Three women who played Annie Oakley in international productions of Irving Berlin's classic musical Annie Get Your Gun can be heard on a new Bayview recording. Part of Bayview's Classic Series, "Annie Get Your Gun" is set to hit stores in the U.S. Feb. 20. The recording features the Annie Oakleys of Dolores Gray, who starred in the London production of the musical; Evie Hayes, who spent six years touring Australia and New Zealand with the Berlin musical; and Lily Fayol, who had a hit with the show in Paris. The London and Paris tracks were recorded in the studio, while the Australian tracks were taped live at Melbourne's Majesty Theatre on March 16, 1948. The recording also features the talents of Bill Johnson, Wendy Toye, Irving Davies and Webb Tilton. "Annie Get Your Gun" has a list price of $10.95. Visit www.bayviewrecords.com for more details.
And, finally, multiple award winner Liza Minnelli will be interviewed by John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey on "Radio DeLuxe with John Pizzarelli," the new radio program co-hosted by the husband-and-wife musicians. The Minnelli chat will air during the Feb. 25-26 weekend. Visit www.johnpizzarelli.com for broadcast details.
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to [email protected].