WASHINGTON, Feb. 23, 2016 – The In Series surprised Washington’s cabaret-starved audience this weekend past as it opened its acid-tipped, politically charged new production entitled “Kabarett & Cabaret.” Set on both sides of the Atlantic primarily in the 1930s, the new show focused on the Nazi persecution that brought numerous German and Austrian composers and performers across the pond to ply their musical trade—sometimes reluctantly—in the U.S. of A.
The In Series has featured a number of these composers before. But the current production, which runs through March 6 at Source, has an edgy, raunchy twist to it that recalls a financially and politically turbulent European decade while throwing some interesting light on America’s own political perspectives of the time.
An edgy tale of the 1930s Jewish musical diaspora
Set in the Tingel-Tangel cabaret club, circa 1931, located initially in Berlin and later in the U.S., “Kabarett & Cabaret” is a kind of musical and dramatic “variety show” created by Jesse Croll and Sasha Olinick, the latter of whom also directs the production. The show’s musical highlights are knit together by a political and historical narrative that charts the literally star-crossed careers of Jewish German and Austrian expatriate composer-musicians who got out of Hitler’s Dodge while the getting was still good.
In the main, most of the musical geniuses who populate the show are reasonably well known in America as movie or Broadway composers, although several were (and sometimes still are) somewhat better known in Europe as classical composers. Most also penned occasional pieces intended to be performed in popular, post-World War I nightspots that dotted the urban landscapes of Berlin and Vienna.
The composers we meet in the production include Hanns Eisler, Erich Korngold, Tingel-Tangel founder Friedrich Hollander, Franz Waxman, Kurt Weill and that notorious ur-serialist and Second Viennese School stalwart Arnold Schoenberg, who actually wasn’t beneath musical slumming on occasion. (And was surprisingly good at it.)
We are also introduced to a trio of ladies who hung out with the guys. Two of them, Lotte Lenya and Hedi Schoop, were, at least on occasion, married to Kurt Weill and Friedrich Hollander respectively, while the third—actress and chanteuse Marlene Dietrich—stood on her own and needs no introduction.
Separated by an intermission, the show’s two acts follow the often troubled and clearly bifurcated lives and careers of its characters in more or less the same manner as they unfolded in real life. Act I features the rise and fall of the often edgy Berlin cabaret and club scene after the “Great War,” while Act II focuses on their successful but often misunderstood reincarnation as Broadway and Hollywood composers of popular show and movie music.
Social and political themes
Uniquely reincarnated over the years by the In Series, the company’s cabarets have generally been bright, witty and satirical musical evenings with a distinctly literary touch and a carpé diem emphasis on indulging in the joys of life (as well as its occasional dark episodes) wherever one finds them.
In the current show, however, the Series takes the opposite tack via two distinct yet related threads. The first charts the artists’ close and unfortunate encounters with political and ethnic persecution—on both sides of the Atlantic—while the second explores the gender-bending entertainment sub-genre that for a brief moment was an exotic but accepted sidebar to the wide-open Berlin cabaret scene.
“Kabarett & Cabaret” is a significantly raunchier show than what we’ve seen in past In Series productions. That’s not a knock. It’s just our way of saying we’d rate this show somewhere on the outer edge of “PG,” largely for sexual innuendo.
The raunchiness actually plays into the themes of the show, given that Hitler and the Nazis, just like their sometime friend Joseph Stalin, posed as public-spirited prudes who loved to ban “decadent” and modernist “claptrap” in the arts, while frequently indulging in their own behind-the-scenes cabaret lifestyles. Both dictators proved that the Victorians don’t have an exclusive lock on social and sexual hypocrisy.
The show’s narrative is on thinner ground in the second act, positing somewhat simplistically the moral equivalence of both the German and American persecution of Marxists and Communists before, during and after the Second World War.
Hanns Eisler, in particular, is treated as something of a people’s hero who was essentially thrown out of both Europe and later the U.S. for his Communist Party sympathies and membership.
Unfortunately, historians charting the “anti-Communist hysteria” in the U.S. dating from the late 1930s and HUAC tend to ignore the fact that from initiation Stalin’s “Popular Front” movement here, circa 1934-1935, it was Moscow’s strategy to infiltrate America’s government, educational institutions, legal systems, mass media and arts. The ultimate aim was subvert both the system and America’s foundational story over time, with the eventual intent of overthrowing the American government.
To his credit, Eisler was generally open about his beliefs. But ironically, he attracted the attention of Congress not necessarily because of them. He was actually “outed” to the authorities by his own sister, a former Communist herself who later turned on the party and became an informer.
After leaving the U.S., Eisler easily returned to the “German Democratic Republic,” the then-Soviet controlled East Germany, endorsing its Communist government and even penning its new national anthem. None of this, of course, detracts from Eisler’s artistic accomplishments, which were considerable. But he was not quite the political martyr in this country that the show’s narrative seems to imply.
New careers on Broadway and in Hollywood
That said, the bulk of the show is on target, highlighting the often-radical ways the lives of its depicted composers were forced to change by cataclysmic world events, each in his unique way. These individual narratives color this production throughout.
Waxman’s rather so-so European career suddenly bloomed after his arrival in the U.S. He went on to pen popular film scores ranging from James Whale’s “Bride of Frankenstein” to his extraordinarily imaginative Oscar-winning score for director Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” (1950).* Of note: A native of Austria and a Jew, Wilder himself was another European exile who found a new home in the U.S.
Friedrich Hollander often protested his unhappiness with Hollywood, but still ended up making a handsome living there, composing music for numerous films, including his early score for “The Blue Angel” (1930) as well as later music for “Destry Rides Again” (1939) and “Sabrina” (1954).
Most classical fans are well aware of Arnold Schoenberg’s post-Germanic career, which eventually ended up in the U.S. Putting his occasional popular-music compositions in the rear-view mirror, he generally made his home in Los Angeles, and settled into a largely academic career, primarily in the California university system.
Kurt Weill, who started out his serious compositional career as a distinct modernist, first famously collaborated with Berthold Brecht for the still-famous, music hall-straddling “Threepenny Opera” (1928), later became a popular Broadway composer and collaborator. Several of his works are still regarded as operatic and are still performed as such—most recently here in Washington, where the Washington National Opera’s production of Weill’s last stage work, “Lost in the Stars” just closed earlier this month at the Kennedy Center.
In perhaps the saddest twist of fate, the music of Erich Korngold has to a certain extent been almost entirely ignored on both sides of the Atlantic.
Read also: Classical music hideout? It’s in Hollywood
Due to some extent to his traditionalist music critic-father’s point of view, the young Korngold—a child prodigy actually born in what is today the Czech Republic— along with composers as diverse as Zemlinsky, Scriabin and a few others, developed a compositional style dubbed “extended tonality.” This modernist approach pushed the Western Romantic classical envelope in fairly extreme directions while not entirely abandoning tradition as Schoenberg was to do.
Korngold first won fame as an opera composer, but later effectively founded what became the Hollywood “school” of symphonic film composers. He came to movie music reluctantly, largely because, as an exile, he could find little else in the way of employment in Depression-era America. His sweeping film scores, most notably his Academy Award-winning score for the Errol Flynn “Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938). Korngold’s Oscar marked the first time ever that a composer, rather than the head of a movie studio’s music department, received that coveted award.
The key to his movie-music success was simple, although he sometimes resented the rather restricted format. As I noted in the Washington Times in 2004 in an article still currently available via the Korngold Society website, “…Korngold envisioned his film scores, including ‘Robin Hood,’ as ‘operas without singing.’”
“Kabarett & Cabaret” opens its second half with a portion of what is likely a fairly recent recording (on the Marco Polo label) of Korngold’s lushly romantic score to the film.
After the Second World War, Korngold attempted to re-establish himself as a serious classical composer in Europe, but was essentially ignored. His delightfully Hollywoodish Violin Concerto, Op. 35 (1945-1947), while still ridiculed by stodgy critics, is performed with some frequency today. The National Symphony Orchestra performed it here in 2014 at the Kennedy Center with violinist Gil Shaham as featured soloist.
At least one of Korngold’s earlier operas, his 1920 “Die tote Stadt” (roughly, “The Dead City”) is still performed, and actually received two fairly recent performances here in DC, both by the now sadly defunct Summer Opera company.
Read also: Korngold’s lush ‘Dead City’ revived
The show, the singers and the music
The In Series’ cabaret productions uniquely highlight the cultural and political history of their period settings, making them unique within the DC arts community. Most audience members, however, remain primarily interested in the music that’s a part of each show, and this one is no exception.
The show’s musical selections are quite varied and include a few better-known songs, but also many clever, tuneful and sometimes viciously satirical numbers.
All are performed by the show’s extraordinary cast, all of whom know how to deliver a song and give each tune an appropriately dramatic punch. The singers in this production include Kenneth Derby (Friedrich Hollander), Jase Parker (Erich Korngold, plus the naughty Petronella), Andrew Adelsberger (Hanns Eisler) and Brian J. Shaw (Franz Waxman).
The ladies, too, are well represented in this show. They include Meghan McCall as Hollander’s second wife Hedi Schoop, originally a cabaret singer and dancer but later renowned as a California-based pottery and ceramic designer; Jennifer Suess as Lotte Lenya, an actress, singer and storyteller who became Kurt Weill’s wife—twice—but is perhaps best remembered today; and Karin Rozniseck who provides a spot-on impersonation of Marlene Dietrich in the show’s second stanza after serving as our genial cabaret hostess in the first act.
Notable songs in this production include the amusingly Mozartean pastiche, “Boom, boom, boom” by Schoenberg/Shickaneder that opens the evening; “The Prostitute’s Song” (Eisler/Brecht); “Sex Appeal” (Hollander/Schiffer); “Take It Off, Petronella (Hollander/Tiger); “Let’s Blame the Jews” (satirical lyrics to Bizet’s “Carmen” by Hollander); “Who Wants Love?” (Waxman/Kahn); “Speak Low” (Weill/Ogden Nash); and “Marietta’s Lied” from Korngold’s “Die tote Stadt,” as gorgeously sung by Meghan McCall, a marvelous soprano we were delighted to see again after many years.
Another welcome sight and sound was the production’s music director and co-director Joseph Walsh. His piano accompaniment throughout was uncommonly flawless and fully in tune with the show’s era. His amusing impersonation of Arnold Schoenberg proved a delicious additional treat.
We hadn’t known that Joe had recently re-located to Northern Virginia after spending many years in the Tidewater area conducting performances of the Virginia Opera and, more recently, serving as general and artistic director of Lyric Opera Virginia. We hope to see him in future In Series productions.
A final hat tip to writer-director Sasha Olinick, whose brisk pacing of this production never left the audience with a dull moment.
Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half out of four stars)
“Kabarett & Cabaret” continues at the In Series’ home: Source, 1835 14th Street NW, Washington DC 20009, through March 6. Show is a little more than two hours in length, including one intermission.
For tickets and information, including information on group discounts, visit the In Series website.
*By coincidence, I chanced to view this classic film just a few weeks ago via an online movie site. Waxman’s music is fascinating and evocative, including the bizarre, twittering passages occurring near the end of the film that underscore the mental deterioration of the film’s anti-heroine Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). Those passages reminded me of a similar figure used by composer Richard Strauss to emphasize the obsessive madness of Salome in his eponymous and still shocking one-act opera. After some additional research, I discovered that film music scholar Mervyn Cooke has noted the same influence, further evidence that Waxman, like other long-ignored émigré Jewish composers in Hollywood’s Golden Age, brought deeply classical roots to bear in their best film scores.