What’s a night of German music and song got to do with theatre? Well rather a lot, if it came from that extraordinary burst of Central European creativity epitomised by Berlin and the Weimar Republic – before the Nazis closed it all down, that is.
The 1920s and 1930s gave us not only Kurt Weill but a dazzling gallery of other composers and lyricists such as Mischa Spoliansky, Friedrich Hollander (both wrote for Marlene Dietrich) and Erwin Schulhoff. Mostly Jewish and all condemned as ‘decadent’, their careers were abruptly cut off by the rise of Nazism.
However, thanks to a purchase in his youth by Barry Humphries of a suitcase of obscure German scores, we today have a unique window into that world. With infectious curiosity and charm, Humphries walks and talks us through his discoveries, slickly played by the 17-piece Australian Chamber Orchestra and smokily interpreted In English and German by Melbourne cabaret chanteuse Meow Meow.
Every jazz-tinged number is a stand-out. Highlights include Meow Meow’s rollicking Alles Schwindel by Spoliansky, followed by a sublime version of Weill’s Pirate Jenny. For Paul Abraham’s bouncy Mousie, she is joined on voice and tango by Humphries, while Hollander’s multilingual The Ruins of Berlin gives closes the show with an epic tingle.
Instrumental treasures include Wilhelm Grosz’s Jazzband which somehow manages to be folk, jazz and classical simultaneously and Ernst Toch’s Geographical Fugue, a syncopated tone poem performed by members of the orchestra, who down instruments and sing it a cappella.
The Usher Hall acoustics can make strings, piano and vocals reedy and drown them out, but it cannot hinder the impact of this trove from forgotten revues and musicals that have left such a legacy on us. Thanks to Humphries’ research, working out the provenance of each piece is as deliciously rewarding as the performance.