It was 1987 in Paris and young cabaret performer Ute Lemper was opening as Sally Bowles in the stage musical Cabaret.
The production was a huge success, with Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey in the front row on the first night. Many of the show’s rave reviews dubbed Lemper ‘the new Marlene Dietrich’ and, somewhat embarrassed by the comparison, Lemper sent a postcard to her hero, then aged 78 and a recluse in her Paris apartment, essentially apologising for the media hype. Lemper, after all, was just at the beginning of her career in theatre and music, whereas Dietrich could look back on a long, fulfilled life of movies, music, incredible collaborations, love stories and stardom. To her utter astonishment, Lemper recalls that “Marlene rang me, out of the blue, and we had a three hour phone conversation about her career, her love affairs, her songs. I put it away in my memory and rarely talked about it.”
Five years later, Dietrich was dead. But she lives again in Lemper’s enthralling new show Rendezvous With Marlene, inspired by that remarkable conversation. “I decided it was time to give her life again, mixed with my own choices and my own personal experiences,” explains Lemper. “It’s a dialogue between the two of us, and I had to grow to a certain age to capture her bitterness, her craziness, to bring her story back and tell people today how important she was.
“She was a woman of the future in the 1920s, in the 1930s, and the 1960s and she still is today. She broke the rules. She hated authority and autocrats. She was against male domination of society. She was androgynous in her style. She was very much the boss and absolutely sexy. It was a new aesthetic at the time. She was equally attracted to both sexes, and slept with virtually everyone she worked with, men or women.”
All of these things, as well as a virulent hatred of the Nazis which led to her exile to Hollywood and a whole new career there collaborating with the likes of Billy Wilder and Hitchcock, as well as fervently supporting the Allies’ war efforts, are touched on in this fascinating, enlightening, intense, often moving, and always entertaining two and a half hour show. Adeptly supported by a four-piece ensemble of keyboard, violin, upright bass and drums, Lemper performs most of the songs you might expect, including Just a Gigolo, One For My Baby, The Boys in the Backroom, Lola, and, of course, Lili Marleen (Lili Marlene). Her performance is exceptional, aided by, like Dietrich, a fluency in English and French, as well as their native German, but this is much more than a mere imitation; this is clarification of the themes of loneliness, tragedy, love and friendship that informed Dietrich’s choices. Equally, tales involving such familiar names as Wilder, Burt Bacharach, Edith Piaf, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and many others become far more than just showbiz anecdotes in this superb tribute to one astonishing woman from another.