Ute Lemper: 'I want to incarnate Marlene Dietrich and tell her story'
Ute Lemper has a theatrical pedigree that has taken her around the world, both as an actor and concert, cabaret and recording artist. Originally from Germany, she now makes her home in New York; but she's also lived in Vienna, Paris and London at different times as work commitments have dictated - a true citizen of the world.
And now she's returning to London with a show that has a very personal story to tell, and is an attempt to repay a long-held debt from one performer to another. "It was 1988, and I was living in Paris playing Sally Bowles in Cabaret, which won me the Molière Award. I was being called the new Marlene Dietrich in the press - so I decided to write her a letter. She was 88 and living in Paris as a recluse on the Avenue de Montaigne. I didn't even know the number [of the house she lived at], but I wrote apologising for the comparison, and expressing my admiration for her and thanking her for everything she'd done, for what she stood for and her courage and the inspiration she'd given."
That she felt she had to apologise for a comparison that had not originated with herself was a sign of her own integrity and generosity as an artist. "We only shared our German heritage, but other than that there was nothing in me that was like her at the time - not in the looks or anything."
Yet it clearly struck a chord with Dietrich. "I didn't expect an answer, but a month later she found me and called me. I was staying in a hotel at the time, she called and left a message at reception. They told me Madame Dietrich called - I thought it was a joke - but they told me she said she'd try again in ten minutes, and she did. I was completely overwhelmed - I wasn't really ready to talk to her! But the good thing was that she didn't want a conversation, she wanted to talk and I listened."
They spoke for three hours. Now, over 30 years later, she's turned that conversation into a unique theatrical tribute. "It stayed with me as a secret - and now I feel I've grown into a certain consciousness and compassion and responsibility and love for her that I want to incarnate her and tell her story."
In the play, she strips away and separates the myths from the legend and tries to find and portray the real woman she spoke to. "Central to the story I tell is the German story she experienced of rejection, and how she was treated as a traitor fifteen years after the war. It was a painful part of her history, but she was also an outrageous, progressive, crazy, wonderful flamboyant woman out there in the world, enjoying sexual openness with both men and women; the elite of international culture were her lovers and best friends."
There have been other theatre shows based on her life, notably Pam Gems's Marlene that was seen both in the West End and on Broadway starring Sian Phillips - but says Lemper, "they don't nail the essence of what made her to be the person and the older person I encountered on the telephone. There is so much style about her that portraits of her become stagnated in the style and not the human life experience she had. I'm making her real in a story that needs to be told nowadays - of courage and pain and a progressive, emancipated woman in a very unusual time when that kind of emancipation wasn't current."
Like Dietrich, Lemper has herself been a trailblazer for her own emancipation as a performer. She did a lot of theatre early on - from the original Vienna production of Cats to Sally Bowles in Cabaret in Paris, Lola in The Blue Angel in Berlin and Velma Kelly in Chicago in London. "I did it for 15 years, but it was enough. I was more comfortable actually creating my own shows, evenings with music and storytelling, in which I felt much freer as an artist, and I could organise it better with my family life. It was tough to be gone every night to be onstage with little children - it broke my heart." (She has four children, two of them now grown up and two still of school age).
She also admits to valuing her own creative freedoms. "I'm utterly dependent and addicted to freedom and not to submission; if a director allows me that, they're a great director. If I have to submit to another's vision, it can be a problem if I don't agree with it."
She duly ran into conflict with Ann Reinking, who choreographed Chicago: "She's a complicated person, a dark person - and I really did my own thing, I put Berlin into it. It scared the shit out of her - she didn't get it at all." At her audition for the role, director Walter Bobbie asked her to sing Surabaya Johnny - "I only knew it in German, so I did. From the beginning, it was intended that I could implant Brecht and Weill into the show - it was meant to be that way. But she couldn't see that, and was giving me hell for it. But I had to do it my way."
And that, of course, chimes with Dietrich's career, who also did things her own way. Lemper has duly written the show herself - "Only I know what I wanted to say. Why am I doing this? Why did she call me back? Am I the voice that speaks on for her, her angel of the future?
She is currently also channelling Dietrich's voice in a new album that's being mixed, singing some twenty of her songs: "It won't be out yet when we do the shows, but it's a very important album - to me its the quintessential album to my career."
Both the show and the album will also reclaim Dietrich from the reclusive way she ended her days: "It was pretty clear that she became tired of being that persona of perfectionism she'd created, so she sheltered herself from that judgement by staying inside. There's a price to living with all the senses open, and intellect being clear and seeing the world the way it is and living life profoundly and with great freedom."
The paradox, of course, is that it led to a kind of imprisonment. Now Lemper will release her from it as she brings her back to London.
Ute Lemper will star in Ute Lemper: Rendezvous with Marlene at the Arcola Theatre from 14th to 19th May.
Photo credit: Brigitte Dummer