Jeremy Lawrence’s Illumination of Queer Weimar Cabaret
January 16, 2017
By Alix Cohen for Cabaret Scenes
“My whole drive in this is to keep the songs alive.”
Jeremy Lawrence, actor/playwright/lyricist/translator, began his immersion in Weimar Cabaret (1918-1933) around 1990. When The Los Angeles County Museum approached The Mark Taper Forum to create an event coinciding with their exhibit Degenerate Art: The Fate of the the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany, Lawrence was Literary Manager. He found himself putting together a show eventually entitled Cabaret Verboten, which featured songs and sketches, rewriting material translated verbatim to be as funny as it was dark. Increasingly fascinated, his scholarly side kicked in, eliciting extensive research. Politics, gay rights, and the holocaust had always absorbed him.
“One of my most haunting memories of Cabaret Verboten’s first performances was an audience member who was a German émigré… When we got to the moment that Bebe [Neuwirth] slipped into German, this woman started singing along. I realized that far from being a horrible memory of what this period led to, those who survived remembered it as the best part of their lives.”
The piece, with four performers, played both here and abroad. Its creator directed several productions and studied the language for several years. He then began to translate songs without middle men. Ongoing work led to a daisy chain of connections among scholars, translators, and progeny of original songwriters. Work on Verboten lead to his being named official translator of songs by Frederick Hollaender by his daughter Melodie Hollaender.
Hollaender’s widow, Heidi Schoop, told him her husband had emigrated to Britain, leaving a maid who was to keep him abreast. “She somehow misunderstood,” so they went back in 1933. The taxi was met by his brother who said, “Turn around, they’re just going through your apartment.” Returning to the station, the vehicle was stopped. Hade threw Hollaender to the floor and covered him with her coat. Miraculously, the driver said nothing and they escaped.
Additionally, Franz Waxman’s son, John Waxman, commissioned English lyrics for songs his father wrote before emigrating to the United States. (These will appear in the forthcoming Franz Waxman Songbook.) Lawrence was also asked to create English lyrics for Ute Lemper’s Berlin Cabaret Songs CD on Decca.
In 2003, Alan Lareau, author of The Wild Stage: Literary Cabarets of the Weimar Republic, asked Lawrence to participate in a lecture/performance for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The institution had mounted an exhibition called The Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals. It was the first time it had dealt with any persecuted group besides Jews. Lareau lectured, Lawrence sang. This was the origin of what became Lavender Songs. The duo performed together on several other occasions. Then Lawrence did a one-man version at NYC’s Cornelia Street Café.
Weimar cabarets were neither all about Nazis as depicted in the musical Cabaret, nor all degenerate. Many were family entertainment. “Drag existed for hundreds of years; it’s a perfectly respectable thing…The clubs were suggestively subversive entertainment.”
Next, TOSOS (The Other Side of Silence), “dedicated to preserving the theatrical heritage of the LGBT community through the development of new plays by emerging artists as well as revivals of established works,” asked whether Lawrence would like to perform the show. It was here that director Jason Jacobs, who had been—wait for it—his intern at The Mark Taper Forum, asked to help reshape the piece. Lawrence then decided to push the envelope by performing in full drag. That iteration of Lavender Songs won a Backstage Bistro Award.
When I ask whether drag is liberating, Lawrence retorts, “It’s liberating for the character. Years ago, gender-bending was humorous. These days, it’s a very serious question. When I first starting writing these, there were few contemporary lyrics like this. I sent them to friends and asked whether I was saying it right. THAT empowered me…”
In 2015, the organization approached him again. Jacobs suggested Lawrence now pick a specific time and that he play a specific character. They decided on 1929-1930, just before Hitler took power (1933) so that anxiety about the future would be present. “It was happening then. Nazis were beating people up, the unemployed were marching, Communists fought. So I sat down and did something a lot of actors do, but I never did: I wrote a biography of Tante Fritzy. He/she hit the streets at 15, was a rent boy, served in WWI, and finally became a successful cabaret artist. The ensemble and makeup were for performance purposes only.”
Fritzy is playing in a gay club during the rule of Paragraph 175, the anti-homosexual law on Germany’s books at the time. Though it was difficult to enforce—penetration was stipulated—harassment and physical abuse were rampant. “The horrible thing was that after the war, gays who had been in the camps for homosexuality and released were rearrested.” (This statute was not dissolved until the 1970s!)
Still, there was no rule of thumb. Wilhelm Bendow, a gay cabaret performer was “questioned by the Gestapo with direct reference to his homosexuality. He responded bluntly, ‘Yes, but I don’t practice it. The Fuhrer doesn’t want me to do it.’ Bendow was released. Surprisingly, he was able to stay in Germany throughout the Third Reich, though he played down the more transgressive elements of his act. He was just too popular to lock up. His canny humor was considered too outrageous to be dangerous” (Al Lareau in his lecture.) Toward the end of the war, the artist was arrested and interned for an improvised political joke about two shipwreck victims which ended “Isn’t it too late to save us now?!” (The crowd had roared.)
Artists (gays and Jews) went underground, emigrated, served in the army, and died in obscurity as well as being rounded up for camps. Zara Leander, Hitler’s replacement for Marlene Dietrich, saw to it that a gay songwriter was released in order to write for her.
Did you adjust anything because of current politics, I ask? “No. This material has been relevant from the very beginning. The point of the cabarets was that Hitler was a joke, like Trump was three months ago. Issues of the Weimar era are the same that we’ve been working on in this country forever.” Amen.
Jeremy Lawrence’s Lavender Songs: A Queer Weimar Berlin Cabaret
Second Avenue at 11th Street
January 20, February 4, March 11, April 8