Presenting Tante Fritzi, Doyenne of (US) Weimar Kabarett
Jeremy Lawrence, the actor, recently reached out to the CFR about Lavender Songs — an evening of Weimar-style cabaret that won acclaim and awards when it premiered in 2008, and which is now being reprised at Pangea (178 Second Ave.), in New York City’s East Village. For those who delight in such entertainment (if you don’t, what’s wrong with you?), Lawrence’s shows have been the talk of the town for years — since his Cabaret Verboten in 1991. In its full-length version, it was produced across the US and in London and Sweden; in a business in which success breeds success and one thing leads to another, Lawrence’s kick for cabaret inevitably snowballed. He was asked to create English lyrics for Ute Lemper’s CD Berlin Cabaret Songs. He was named by Melodie Hollander — daughter of famed Hollywood composer Friedrich Hollaender, a German Jew who escaped Nazi Germany — to be the official translator of her father’s work. He was commissioned by the son of Franz Waxman — yet another German-Jewish Hollywood composer, with a few Oscars on his shelf — to create English lyrics for songs written by Waxman before he, too, escaped Hitler’s wrath.
All this as Lawrence’s acting career kept apace, with lots of Off-Broadway work and regional credits and the film and TV character work that keep any journeyman actor afloat. Back in 2008, when the CFR was still Leonard Jacobs’ personal blog, one of Lawrence’s critically acclaimed one-man plays about Tennessee Williams also earned him an admiring post.
The full title of the Pangea show is Lavender Songs — A Queer Weimar Berlin Cabaret. It’s further described as a “cris de coeur against the dangers of intolerance, filled with remarkable gems and curios by queer composers and performers from the Berlin underground during Nazi Germany.” So, relevant.
As directed by Jason Jacobs, we become acquainted with Lawrence’s “flaming alter-ego,” Tante Fritzi, a “kabarettist extraordinaire who kicks up a storm of risqué, bawdy and gender-bending material.” The show is also based on an evening created by Alan Lareau for the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC (in conjunction with the exhibition “Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-1945”), Lavender Songs includes material originally written or performed by Hollaender along with Lothar Brühne, Richard Fall, Horst Platen, Rudolph Nelson, Ernst Sennhofer and Mischa Spoliansky. All of whom — since we had to look up those folks — gave us here at the CFR an idea.
With Tante Fritzi, you can just tell what kabaretts means to her. And what it means to Tante Fritzi’s identity in real life. (This just got a little more complicated, hm?) And so we asked the gentle question: Could Tante Fritzi grant the CFR an interview? Well, no, it turns out. She’d rather grant Lawrence an interview — being her muse, her medium. And so we present, herewith, the result of their dialogue.
You’ll notice is that Tante Fritzi is — how do you say? — saucy. What’s German for “saucy”? The closest word we could find is frech: naughty. How delicious is that?
INTERVIEWER: I arrived at the appointed time to interview Herr Kurt Schmidt. Back in the days of the Weimar Republic, he had achieved a degree of fame as “Tante Fritzi” in the kabaretts of Weimar Germany. He had escaped Germany for the States as Hitler took over in 1933, but he had returned to Berlin after the wall came down. I found him in a small flat in what had been the East. He was dressed in a beautiful silk robe. He had on some makeup that perhaps disguised some of his 90 years, but his face was remarkably smooth. His eyes sparkled as he opened the door.
INTERVIEWER: Herr Schmidt?
FRITZI: Schmidt? I abhor that name. It describes everything about my family: common and ordinary. Do you know how many Schmidts there are in Germany? Thousands! Look, already you have me all riled up. Perhaps you had better go. No…let me look at you. Ja. Such a face I can enjoy looking at. Sit down. May I give you some schnapps? I have already started. What do you say in the States? “It is always five o’clock someplace in the world”? That works for me.
INTERVIEWER: (pulling out some bottled water) Thank you, I have water.
FRITZI: That works for you, that works for me. So, Liebchen, you have a darling face. What do you want to know? I was Tante Fritzi — a star of the kabaretts of Berlin. Then Hitler came. Then I left.
INTERVIEWER: But you came back.
FRITZI: Of course I came back. What was that song Marlene sang? Ich hab’ noch einen Koffer in Berlin. In English: I still have a trunk in Berlin.
INTERVIEWER: You still had things here?
FRITZI: Ach, Schatzie, don’t be such an American. You are all so literal. I had nothing here. I had already “lost everything yesterday,” as the Hollaender song goes. It is better auf Deutsch. But na! You don’t verstehen. And even if you spoke you wouldn’t, you couldn’t verstehen what it was to lose all that. Das war ein schoner Traum.
INTERVIEWER: A beautiful dream.
FRITZI: You are trying to make points with me, pretty face?
INTERVIEWER: But I thought it was decadent.
FRITZI: Nein. What was decadent was the Nazis. Decadence is not having fun, being naughty. Decadence is when you round up people for the slaughter. Decadence is when people see people being rounded up and choose to ignore it. Decadence is what you are starting to have now in America with that orange man who thinks you can tell the size of a man’s dick by the size of his hands. There is only one way to tell the size of a man’s dick. (Fritzi grabs the INTERVIEWER’s crotch.) You have a nice one. I am happy to make its acquaintance. Don’t worry, I leave you alone. Unless… What I can still do I am very good at.
INTERVIEWER: You were a rent-boy at one time.
FRITZI: Ach! We are all rent-boys at one time. I mean, we have to pay rent! And if you cannot support yourself you remain a rent-boy or a rent-girl all your life. It compromises you but it pays the rent. And sometimes it opens doors.
INTERVIEWER: Did it open doors for you?
FRITZI: I was taken to intellectual salons. The boys were there to look at, not to talk. But I could see that most of the talk was — how you say? — “Jerking off into a priceless urn”? It is a favorite expression of mine that I learned in the States. It was pretty talk but it was scheisse — bullshit. I learned that in the army. The army was what really opened doors for me. Because I survived. Surviving in the streets was one thing; surviving in the trenches another. And when I got out, I knew how to get around obstacles. That is what kabarett is all about. You pretend to be one thing, then reveal who you really are. You keep — how do you say? — pulling up the carpet from under the publikum, the audience. And they love it. Because you are dangerous, but very funny. And you reveal truth they are afraid to speak. Someone who does not understand this would say that your orange man who is now your Führer pulled the carpet out from underneath your feet, as Hitler did here. But that was not to reveal the truth. It was to make their lie into the truth. Once that starts to happen, then the publikum is fucked. Hitler ruled for only 12 years but managed a devastating world war and a holocaust in which more than six million were killed. Imagine what the orange man may do in eight years in the White House.
INTERVIEWER: Four years. If that.
FRITZI: Schatzie, Schatzie! You are even more handsome when you are angry. But he is already running for reelection, no? I tell you, I am glad to be back in Germany, because I don’t believe the German people will ever allow this to happen again. But you, in America, have fallen so easily. His hairdo has won you over more quickly that Hitler’s mustache conquered my country. Ach! This is so depressing. I don’t go out as Fritzi very often these days, but the boys in the clubs have come to love me. If you like, I could perhaps make some introductions. I will change into something more appropriate and then we go.
(A moment later, Tante Fritzi appears in her full glory.)
FRITZI: You are paying. That is understood, ja? I am still the rent-boy. But you will meet a divine fuck tonight — that I guarantee.
(She offered me her arm and off we went into the Berlin night.)
For some footage of an earlier production of this show, see below: