How Margo Lion, a real-life Sally Bowles, is being brought back to the stage
In the 1920s and 1930s, provocative chanteuse Margo Lion wowed the Berlin cabaret scene before she fled to Paris. Nick Smurthwaite meets the singer recreating her decadent world at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe
Margo Lion was one of the blueprints for Cabaret’s Sally Bowles. Originally from France, she conquered the interwar Berlin cabaret scene with her provocative songs, forthright style and ambiguous sexuality.
Christopher Isherwood, whose book Goodbye to Berlin inspired Cabaret, would certainly have taken note of Lion in action.
“She was part of a cliquey group of performers who worked at Berlin’s cabaret venues all the time,” says Melinda Hughes, whose one-woman show Margo: Half Woman, Half Beast opens at the Assembly Rooms on August 2.
The hour-long show looks at Lion’s colourful private life – she is best remembered these days as being Marlene Dietrich’s mentor and lover – and her interpretation of songs by Kurt Weill, Werner Heymann and Mischa Spoliansky, among others.
There are also new songs in Weill’s style written by Hughes and her musical director Jeremy Limb. Their work has been admired by Barry Humphries, whose own show Weimar Cabaret played recently at the Barbican in which he performed with the cabaret star Meow Meow.
The Weimar singing style – half singing, half speaking – is not easy for an opera singer. I’ve had to work at it
Hughes says: “We’ve mixed up genuine Berlin cabaret songs with new ones written by Jeremy and myself reflecting Margo’s inner drama and emotional life. Some of the songs are in English, some in German. I’ve often sung in German as an opera singer. The Weimar style of singing – half singing, half speaking – is not easy for a trained opera singer. I’ve had to work at it.”
Hughes and Limb produced an album of songs by Spoliansky in 2012, which also contained some of their own compositions. There was an accompanying show, Weimar and Back, which Hughes performed in London and New York.
Hughes trained as an opera singer at the Maastricht Conservatory of Music and the Royal College of Music in London before touring as a soloist all over Europe with the Andre Rieu Strauss Orchestra. Following a serious spinal injury in 2005 she took some time off from operatic singing.
“It gave me an opportunity to reassess my career and to read and research the Weimar culture, which had always fascinated me,” she says. “Weimar cabaret became my inspiration for taking things forward. Margo Lion was the performer of that time I felt I could bring back to life. My show is like Cabaret but with real songs of the period.”
Weimar is the generic term used to describe German counterculture during the later years of the Weimar Republic, which ran from 1919 to 1933 and were socially and sexually relaxed to the point of decadence. The rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in the early 1930s clamped down on the excesses of Weimar and drove cabaret underground
Kabarett, as it was known there, was an extreme expression of Weimar culture, taking place in bars and nightclubs, mostly in Berlin, its performers trading in sex and politics. The Weimar government’s lifting of censorship allowed it to flourish and become ever more outrageous. Topless dancers performed regularly, and shows included open displays of transvestism and homosexuality. Hitler’s notorious Brownshirts, who used threats and violence to fuel the rise of Nazism, were regularly mocked in songs and banter.
The flipside was that, as Hitler rose to prominence in the 1920s, so the decadence and satire of Kaberett became more of a target for his uniformed thugs. Nightclubs were raided, performers were beaten up. When Hitler came to power in 1933 the Berlin cabaret scene was under constant threat of disruption and worse. Its producers and performers feared for their lives.
Songwriter and accompanist Spoliansky, one of cabaret’s leading lights, like all Jewish artists in Germany, was no longer allowed to work and emigrated to London. Lion’s long-time Jewish partner, lyricist Marcellus Schiffer, committed suicide in 1932, rather than succumb to the Nazis. Lion herself fled to Paris in 1933.
In Paris, she continued to work as a singer and actor, specialising in the work of Bertolt Brecht on stage. She also appeared in 18 films, including Martin Roumagnac with Marlene Dietrich, in 1946.
Dietrich, who was three years younger than Lion, had been greatly influenced by Lion’s appearance and composure when she started out in the 1920s. They performed a lesbian duet, written by their friend Spoliansky, in the 1928 revue Es Liegt in Der Luft (‘It is in the air’), and were thought to have been lovers.
Lion returned to Berlin in 1977, when she was 78, appearing at the Berlin Festival and performed the number she had sung with Dietrich, accompanied by its composer, the 79-year-old Spoliansky, on the piano.
Hughes has ambitions to bring the new show to London in an extended form following its Edinburgh run. “I’d like to make it a bigger show, say two hours instead of one, with a bigger band,” she says.
“This show combines everything I’ve always wanted to do – music, gutsy humour, drama and history. I’ve definitely found my niche. Not all opera singers are great at acting but I was always praised for my acting in opera and this show gives me an opportunity to build on that.”
Margo: Half Woman, Half Beast runs at the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, until August 18
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