October 24, 2018

The German Cabaret Legacy in American Popular Music by William Farina

Evanston resident, author William Farina has written an excellent book about how Germany’s Weimar cabaret culture has impacted much of Western music and culture in the past several decades.

The Weimar Republic is loosely defined from 1919 to 1933 which is the time after World War I in Germany until the run-up to World War II. The 1930s saw the rise of Nationalism and the Nazi Party leading up to the global maelstrom between the Allies and the Axis. As one has watched the rise of nationalism in our own country, one could draw some unsettling parallels between our present day and that of this storied era of German history.

Troubled times frequently result in artistic ferment and the Weimar Republic is a particularly good example. Kurt Weill and Frederick Hollander were writing music, Lotte Lenya (Weill’s wife) was setting new standards in performance and a young Marlene Dietrich was creating a persona that would find world-wide popularity.

Josef von Sternberg (The Blue Angel), G. W. Pabst (Pandora’s Box with Louise Brooks), F. W. Murnau (Nosferatu) and Fritz Lang (Metropolis) were but a few of the filmmakers working in Germany at the time. Leni Riefenstahl was also writing and directing films throughout the 20s and 30s before signing on as the official visual recorder of the Nazi regime.

German performers, writers, directors, composers and authors, many of them Jewish fled and created new lives for themselves in Hollywood, in New York and in countless cities in the U. S. and other European locales. Little wonder that all of the arts would be impacted by this diaspora.

Lotte Lenya & Louis Armstrong

Interesting connections are made throughout Farina’s book. Jim Morrison of the Doors was a film student of Josef von Sternberg which may explain why he recorded Weill’s Alabama Song. The Beatles got their true start playing cabaret venues in Hamburg, Germany, even recording German versions of some of their songs. Singer-songwriter Bob Dylan wrote that he became semi-obsessed with the song Mack the Knife. Lotte Lenya also recorded a version of Mack with the legnedary Louis Armstrong.

Marlene Dietrich, who performed live cabaret shows from the early 1950s to the mid-1970s, was instrumental in creating the “big name” tradition on the Las Vegas Strip. No less than Burt Bacharach was her music director/pianist before his run of song hits. In her final film appearance, Dietrich shared a scene with David Bowie singing the song Just a Gigolo.

Marlene Dietrich

Broadway writers Kander and Ebb renewed interest in the Weimar Republic with their groundbreaking musical Cabaret which cast Lotte Lenya in a supporting role on Broadway. Many of the songs from their other musicals, most notably Chicago, have a Berlin cabaret feel.

Weill songs can be found on recordings by the likes of Bette Midler, Marianne Faithful, Teresa Stratas and Dee Dee Bridgewater. Mack the Knife alone has been sung by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Michael Buble, Bobby Darin, Sting and Lyle Lovett, to name a few.

Ute Lemper

Current German cabaret artists like Ute Lemper and Max Raabe continue to play to sold-out houses across the globe.

My show at Dank Haus on Friday, April 6 will include a short presentation by William Farina and my interpretation of songs by Kurt Weill, Kander & Ebb, the Beatles, Burt Bacharach, Bob Dylan, selected song hits of Marlene Dietrich and Edith Piaf along with some of my own creations.

Show details below. Tickets must be ordered in advance.

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