The state-funded Friedrichstadt-Palast holds two huge productions every year with tickets at €20. The team behind its current production, Vivid, tell Francesca Peschier about keeping alive the German tradition of revue and cabaret and bringing in world-famous fashion designers to spice things up
Germany has a cultural fondness for over-the-top spectaculars where revue theatres such as Berlin’s Chamäleon and the GOP Variety theatres in Hanover, Bremen and Munich offer cabaret coupled with the latest technology – while in Bochum, rollerskating extravaganza Starlight Express has been running since 1988 in the purpose-built Starlighthalle. But none compares in scale to the biannual Grand Shows at the Friedrichstadt-Palast Berlin.
Its latest production, Vivid, is the theatre’s most expensive yet with a budget of more than €12 million. It features more than 200 headdresses, with 100 of the hats designed by British milliner Philip Treacy, a ballet ensemble of more than 60 dancers, with 32-strong in its famous kick line. It has a full orchestra on stage playing its original score with everything from upbeat pop solos to thumping techno.
Perhaps most surprisingly, the theatre is 100% state-owned. “The governmental funding helps us to do art. We do not have to do what pleases others but can create and offer the audience what is important to us,” says Berndt Schmidt, who has been the Palast’s general director for the past 12 years.
His aim has been to marry the German tradition of revue shows and cabaret with state-of-the-art performances and production values to create a ‘show palace’ for the 21st century. With tickets starting at less than €20, it is intended to be a spectacle for the many, not the few.
Vivid is Schmidt’s eighth show and the first to have a woman at the creative helm. The Las Vegas touch of Vivid’s author and director Krista Monson is palpable throughout the production. Having contributed to multiple ground and record-breaking shows for Cirque du Soleil including O and the annual fundraising event One Night for One Drop, Monson knows a thing or two about sourcing the best global talent.
Before Monson, the show had never employed an aerial choreographer or centred the importance of an overarching concept. It is very much a concept that powers Vivid rather than a coherent plot, with Monson given the job of creating a show that reacts against an increasingly miserable world.
In Vivid, a young girl is transformed into an android named R’eye, played by German musical theatre star Devi-Ananda Dahm, who sets out to rediscover her humanity in the “jungle of diversity”. This allows for a visual feast as the perfectly coordinated android chorus robot-dance in a huge animal-themed drag ball/circus menagerie.
At its heart, the show’s message amounts to little more than “life is not a piece of shit”, says Schmidt, but in dark times perhaps such a message could be radical in its own sequinned glory.
“What we do here is the opposite of what our audiences are seeing in the world,” he says. In creating such a flamboyant fantasy with an underlying message to embrace difference, the show claims to stand against the horrors of our current global political climate. “We talk back despite being state-funded,” he adds. “We have a responsibility not to be neutral.”
It may seem that a tonne or two of rhinestones and feathers won’t do much to resist the rise of the far right in Europe, but the Palast clearly has experience of winding up the right people. The theatre has had multiple bomb threats in the past two years, including one leading to a mass evacuation of the theatre in October 2017.
Vivid is accompanied with a manifesto to ‘respect each other’ with its own rainbow-inspired flag calling for respect for all races, religions and sexual orientations as well as for the environment and the right to create art. “A few years ago, it would have seemed ridiculous that we felt the need to make such an obvious statement,” Schmidt says. “But where the world is now, we felt it had to be said.”
The Grand Shows take reference from the risqué Weimar cabarets of the 1920s. However, while any actual radicalism or erotica is thin on the ground, Vivid is certainly sexier than you might expect from a show that bills itself as suitable for kids.
Its Fun House routine features a celebration of freedom with silhouetted naughtiness, rather rude costumes and a proclamation, sung by the Entertainer – played by Andreas Bieber – that here “there are no taboos”.
‘We talk back despite being state-funded. We have a responsibility not to be neutral’
“The genre ‘revue’ is rather sexy, it’s evening entertainment for enlightened and tolerant people,” says Schmidt. “Whether it’s family-friendly depends on the cultural background of the observer. For someone from Saudi Arabia or Texas it might be provocative, whereas in Germany we think this show is suitable for children over eight.”
The Palast also produces The Young Show, created for children by the largest youth ensemble in Europe. Currently the ensemble is in training for the next Young Show, Im Labyrinth der Bücher (In the Labyrinth of Books), that will run from November to January concurrently with the Grand Show.
The Grand Show and the Palast theatre are inseparable entities. The stage is the largest in the world allowing for the huge ensemble and Vivid’s gigantic set pieces – which include a two-storey recreation by Treacy of Grace Jones’ iconic crystal-covered bowler hat.
The site has been occupied by a revue-producing theatre since 1924 with the original Palast gaining a wide-flung reputation for glamour and decadence.
During the Palast’s years as part of East Germany, the theatre continued to operate and host international stars such as Liza Minnelli, making it one of the few places East Germans could engage with Western culture. The current building opened in 1984 with an art deco style, modern facade and plenty of neon.
1. The Friedrichstadt-Palast has the biggest theare stage in the world, with the building measuring 80 by 110 metres. It also has the widest proscenium arch in Europe at 24 metres across.
2. For its Beatles-themed spectacular The Beatles Love, Cirque du Soleil built a custom theatre in The Mirage at Las Vegas. Instead of a live band, the show only used recordings and placed a speaker in every seat.
3. Cirque du Soleil director Franco Dragone is also responsible for the highest-ever grossing show on the Las Vegas strip – Celine Dion on her 2003-07 residency, which made more than $465m.
4. The world’s largest water show is Macau’s $250 million The House of Dancing Water. It features a 3.7 million-gallon performance pool and more than 30 scuba divers.
5. At the Moulin Rouge, Paris, due to superstition every resident revue show begins with the letter F, the latest being Féerie. This is in hope of replicating the success of its 1963 show Frou-Frou.
Currently, the Grand Shows continue to appeal locally with audiences made up of 80% German nationals despite efforts to appeal to international tourists. No knowledge of German is needed to understand Vivid, with the plot being largely conveyed visually and songs performed in multiple languages.
A large part of the shows’ draw in recent years has been the collaboration with fashion designers including Christian Lacroix, Thierry Mugler, Jean-Paul Gaultier and, most recently, Treacy, whose light-up hats, based loosely on his design for the Brit award, are a highlight of Vivid.
The translation of high fashion to costume is not without its challenges. Garments that would typically be made to measure and carefully handled must withstand vigorous dancing and thousands of performances. This presents a tough task for designers, resulting in some truly glorious, inventive creations.
The international designers have done wonders for the shows’ marketing and critical attention. A decade ago the Grand Shows were rarely reviewed in the German national press and where they were mentioned, they were treated as “something of a joke”, according to Schmidt. It is the haute couture that has made critics sit up and pay attention.
It seems incredible that a performance as excessive and dedicated to fun as the Grand Shows should be state-funded in the current times. It is undoubtedly a huge undertaking creating a fresh and relevant show on this scale every two years and packing out nearly 2,000 seats night after night – but one that the 300-plus Palast team seem to relish. “It’s a big playground,” Schmidt enthuses. “You can imagine something and make it happen. It’s really beautiful.”
General director: Berndt Schmidt
Founded: 1919 (current theatre opened in 1984)
Spaces: The main hall holds 1,895; the basement houses stand-up venue the Quatsch Comedy Club
Number of productions: Two – the Grand Show and the Young Show
Audience figures: Vivid (Oct 2018-July 2019) – 422,000 (93% capacity)
Staff: More than 300
Box office (2017-18): €25.3m; Vivid has taken €13.94m in the first six months of 2019
Funders: 100% owned by the State of Berlin, which contributes €10.6m annually; It generates 85% of funds
Key contacts: Berndt Schmidt: email@example.com, Oliver Hoppmann: firstname.lastname@example.org, Ghazal Weber: email@example.com
Vivid is booking until May 30, 2020. palast.berlin/en/