Bjorn Bolinder
Jeremy Lawrence as his Weimar alter ego Tante Fritzi in “Lavender Songs” at Pangea through April 8. Bjorn Bolinder
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When Life Really Was a Cabaret—and Cabaret Was a Life

An evening of Jewishly inflected, queer songs brings Weimar Germany back to life with humor and music

Marjorie Ingall
March 15, 2017
Bjorn Bolinder
Jeremy Lawrence as his Weimar alter ego Tante Fritzi in "Lavender Songs" at Pangea through April 8. Bjorn Bolinder

I felt a little daring as I went out alone last weekend—in a leopard-print dress and red lipstick—to a dimly lit boîte to experience Lavender Songs: A Queer Weimar Berlin Cabaret. Sans spouse or spawn, I sat solo at my own little table in the back of the room and ordered a gin and tonic. It was served to me in a wine glass; the show had sold out and the club had run out of tumblers. “Classy, no?” the handsome waiter said with a dimpled smile as he set my drink down. It felt right.

Suddenly, on the tiny stage in front of a deep-blue velvet curtain, there was Tante Fritzi. A woman of a certain age, she wore a sparkly black sleeveless dress, two boas, a long rope of pearls, dangly rhinestone earrings, a rhinestone choker, a jeweled hair clip, armfuls of bracelets, and a loosely pin-curled short wig in an ashy tone not found in nature, much like the one my own bubbe used to wear. Her huge eyes were framed with enthusiastically applied blue eyeshadow and giant false lashes (one came semidetached partway through the evening). She looked like a Hirschfeld drawing, made of animated swoops and droops. In a brassy yet tremulous voice, she began to sing:

Can love really be a sin?
If it is I’ll tell God up above
Sorry, but I cannot live
No, I simply will not live
Sorry, but I cannot live
Without love

As the applause died, she cooed, “Thank you ladies and gentlemen and gentlemen who want to be ladies and ladies who want to be gents and everyone in between two slices of bread.” She paused. “I love sandwiches.”

Tante Fritzi, a former rent boy turned “kabarettist extraordinaire,” is Jeremy Lawrence, a playwright, translator, and actor who often plays Tennessee Williams. Lavender Songs premiered in 2008, but has been rewritten to reflect our current political realities.

The show spotlights the work of Friedrich Hollaender and Mischa Spoliansky, two Jewish songwriters who managed to escape Nazi Germany. Other Jewish artists featured include lyricist Fritz Löhner-Beda and composer Richard Fall, both killed in concentration camps; lyricist Marcellus Schiffer, who committed suicide in 1932; composer Rudolf Nelson, who survived the war in hiding in the Netherlands; lyricist Kurt Tulchosky, who killed himself in 1935; singer Fritzi Massary, who fled Germany for Switzerland in 1932; and singer Paul O’Montis, who died by hanging at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in 1940. Several of the creators and performers were both gay and Jewish. Only three LGBT artists represented in the show survived the war—including Marlene Dietrich.

As the evening goes on, we learn more of Fritzi’s story and the glorious yet tawdry, thrilling yet lonely world she inhabits. As the show starts, it’s 1923, and she’s optimistic that the Reichstag will throw out Paragraph 175, the law criminalizing male homosexuality in Germany. (In fact, it remained law for decades, long after the fall of the Nazis.) She’s defiant and proud, belting to Ariela Bohrod’s piano accompaniment, “They march in lockstep; we prefer to dance.” She mocks the brownshirts who stomp around spouting “Heil! Heil! Heil! Heil!” like toddlers. She teases, “I’ve slept with nationalists, socialists, national socialists…I’m very social.” (She also notes, “No, I’m not Jewish. Can I help it if I look intelligent?”)

But as the political picture in Germany darkens, so does the show. At first, Fritzi is dismissive of Hitler, mocking his ridiculous facial hair and political chances, and then … well, not so much. “I thought because we live in a democracy we had some control over our lives,” a more subdued Fritzi says. “Guess not.”

At the end of the show, the audience sat in silence for a moment before bursting into applause. An older bald gentleman and a blousy redheaded woman on a nearby banquette wiped away tears. “God,” said the man next to me, in a shaky voice. As you may know, I’m hypercritical of Holocaust-related art, but here the emotion felt earned, grounded in character, not manipulative or maudlin. (It’s not too late to see the show at Pangea and judge for yourself.)

The next day I spoke to both Lawrence and director Jason Jacobs (who’s also a co-founder and former creative director of Theatre Askew and a teaching artist with the Roundabout Theatre). They told me that the show’s genesis was a 2002 lecture at the U.S. Holocaust Museum by Alan Lareau, a University of Wisconsin historian and author of The Wild Stage: The Literary Cabarets of the Weimar Republic. This was in conjunction with the exhibition “Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-1945,” which is currently traveling the country. (It’s in Asheville, North Carolina, through April 9 and in St. Petersburg, Florida, from April 30-July 3.)

Lawrence, who has studied German but doesn’t consider himself fluent, reworked Lareau’s literal translations of the songs to make them more idiomatic, lyrical, and funny in English. “In German, the verb most often comes at the end of a sentence,” Lawrence noted in an email interview. “That makes triple and quadruple rhymes rather easy. It’s harder in English.” But Lawrence sought to preserve the verbal gymnastics in the original, and succeeded; the English versions are witty and sharp, with nearly as much internal rhyme as a lyric in Hamilton. Lawrence updated references that wouldn’t be familiar to modern-day Americans and found a balancing point between sounding too obscure or too contemporary. “In ‘A Little Attila,’ I changed the reference to Attila from Tamerlane,” he explained. “Since not only would most Americans—except Marlowe scholars—not know Tamerlane, but Attila was more fun to rhyme.” (My own favorite rhyme, in which Fritzi imagines a return to a more-humane world, goes: “And nowhere will you see those flags that sport that thing that zigs and zags.”)

Back in 2008, “the show didn’t have anywhere near the narrative and arc it does now,” Jacobs, who also directed the earlier version, recalled. “It was informed by Bush and Cheney and Iraq and militaristic empire-building, but there wasn’t the level of authoritarianism we’re feeling today.” When the two began working on a new version a few months before the November 2016 election, Donald Trump was still viewed as a cartoon. “We wanted the show to address the long-term implications of the anger Trump had tapped into,” Jacobs said. “But we didn’t think at the time he was actually going to win.”

Lawrence said, “Jason challenged me to create a specific time period and a specific character for these performances. I was resistant, but knew it was better to accept a challenge than to dodge it. So I did an exercise I have always assiduously avoided as an actor: I wrote a biography of Tante Fritzi. In one night. It was spontaneous. And when I finished, I knew, without the mysticism of the Ouija board, that I had found someone real for the past: myself in the Weimar years. Tante Fritzi is alive in me, and I love to tap into her for these performances.”

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.