It is 9.30 in the morning in New York, and I am calling a doyenne of the theatre and music, the German-born Ute Lemper. I am a little nervous as she rarely gives interviews and is something of an enigma.
Ever since I saw her coming up through the stage as Velma Kelly in Chicago, I have been in awe of this woman. She looks like she has been plucked from a different era. Ute does not impersonate anyone – she is simply, and effortlessly, the quintessential Hollywood star.
Ute is coming to the UK as part of her one-woman show ‘Rendezvous with Marlene’. The show is based on Ute’s three-hour telephone conversation with Marlene Dietrich over thirty years ago.
When I call her, the voice that answers is very distinctive. As I introduce myself, she replies “Oh, the interview! I am not long up and have not had time to read the questions.” Ute didn’t sound enthused. I offered to call back, but she reassured me it was fine. What followed was a fascinating hour with the 56-year old Broadway actress and singer that I will not forget in a hurry.
During the period in which Marlene Dietrich telephoned you, she was considered to be a recluse; only a neighbour and a few others were privy to her life. Did her call surprise you? How did her mental wellbeing seem to you at the time, and how did you feel after a call from such a legend?
Well, shocked would be one word! Honestly, when I dropped a card to her, I really did not see her reading it, let alone calling me. How she actually found me remains a mystery as I had moved to a hotel. She actually called when I was out. On my return, the receptionist said to me, “Someone called Marlene Dietrich called, she will call back around 7.00. You are to wait for her”.
Now, to be really honest, I thought this was a joke. But sure enough, she called and stayed on the phone for three hours. To think that I was 24 at the time and she was 87! She was clearly of sound mind, but she had no censorship or filter. She spoke her mind with passion. Plus, we went back and forth in several languages! There is a lot to be said about being bilingual, as you can use sayings from each language.
It felt like a dream and, looking back, it would be easy to say, “if only I had asked this or that”, but when I put the phone down, honestly, I rang my family and everyone I knew.
Marlene was described as a legendary lover and was also bisexual. How does her love life compare to your own?
Yes, Marlene was bisexual, but personally, it’s not something that I would say a hundred percent is me. However, lesbian women have always been attractive to me as friends and for company. Their energy is independent, and they do not rely on men. I am happily married but still very much a free spirit. My love life has never been as promiscuous as Marlene’s was, but it’s a happy one.
I was lucky enough to see you in the revival of Chicago on opening night in London, where you played Velma Kelly. You won an Oliver Award for your performance. You have incredible stage presence, very much like Marlene, who was dictatorial about her shows and other finer details of her act. How much input do you have into the technical aspects of your performances and theatre shows?
Well, when I was playing Velma, absolutely none. It’s a format that you follow. In fact, the director said to me “Could you maybe stop playing Velma so Berlin?”. It was not my intention at all; it was just me, being me. Touring, I have a fabulous sound man that comes with me. Lighting can be tricky as I go from me to Marlene and back again. I have people working with me who I trust, so there would be no need to be dictatorial.
After being such a hit in London, you also went on to play Velma on Broadway. How do American audiences differ from London audiences?
Well, I live in New York and have since 1998. It is just where I feel comfortable. But if you asked me if I was American, the answer would be no. I am very much European. Equally, you can’t really say that New York or LA is typically American. New York opens up its doors to a rich, diverse tapestry of talent and performers and embraces them, as does London. You would not say the same for some parts of America. In fact, you would not need to venture too far from New York to find the arts embraced with less tolerance.
What music do you like to listen to at home?
The sound of silence is my favourite, to be honest. Really, my music is selective. Though my children sometimes inflict the current trend on me. My personal choice would be jazz music, such as Dizzy Gillespie, Stevie Wonder or Barbra Streisand – also some classical music.
In a world of selfies, quick fixes and often instant fame without studying the craft, does it worry you that we are losing the glamour and talent older stars used to have?
We have to move with the times. But in a world of instant fame, what worries me is that, without the craft and foundations, those people who are quickly made famous are more easily disposed of. Even performers that have the foundation of performing arts school, they have to keep learning and polishing their craft. For instance, I am not the same performer I was twenty years ago, having grown and grown. You should constantly be learning.
We all know Marlene was shocked by Madonna. Are you a fan of the “Material Girl”? What do you think Marlene would say about the Kardashians?
Well, Marlene had no filter, and she was talking about a certain period of Madonna’s career. Let’s not forget that Madonna’s image has changed. For Marlene, who was all about the glamourous style, no matter what her personal life might be, she kept the image of class and allure. Something she advised me was to stay an enigma. So, someone dressing in their underwear or showing that much flesh to attract attention must have shocked Marlene. Even Marlene’s fight scenes were choreographed to maintain her style and glamour. Personally, Madonna is not to my music taste. As for the Kardashians, well, if she felt that vocal about Madonna, can you imagine?
When you’re not looking like a Hollywood icon, what do you wear to hang out, and what do you do to relax?
At home, you can find me in PJs and relaxed wear. Out and about, even going to the supermarket, I like to look presentable. In the evening, let’s say my look is dignified and classy. You won’t see in me in obvious labels, that’s not my thing. Relaxing, well it is great to spend time with my family. Two of my children are grown up now, so it is great to catch up with them. Also, I enjoy reading, watching movies and playing tennis.
Do you prefer dinner parties or big parties? If you gave a dinner, who would you invite living or dead?
Oh, I am a one to one person, or small dinners, maybe four people at the most. You don’t really get to connect to big parties.
Well, there are so many but Marlene Dietrich for one, and Billy Wilder.
Or maybe the director, Fassbinder Volker Schlondorff, who directed the Tin Drum.
Babylon Berlin has been a massive hit worldwide but particularly in the UK. When I watched it, I thought it would be something you should be in. Do you have plans to do more television or film work?
Well if I am offered film or television work, never say never. But my priorities are my family and uprooting them is not an option. Recently I was offered a project in Canada that I had to turn down as it involved too much time away from home. Let’s see what happens in the future.
Favourite place in London?
Any of the beautiful parks. I just love walking in them.
French or German food?
Thinking! I would say, French!
Yentl. It is not a perfect film, but I love Barbra Streisand.
Your biggest turn off in a person?
One thing you would change about the world?
Politics. They’re meant to create a humane life but just don’t.
Rendezvous With Marlene
UK Tour, 2020
Thursday January 30
St George’s Hall
Friday January 31
Sunday February 2
Monday February 3
The Old Market
Tuesday February 4
The Old Rep Theatre
Wednesday February 5
Royal Northern College of Music
Friday February 7
Leeds City Varieties
Saturday February 8
The Queen’s Hall
Recommended Age: 14+