The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe occupies a five-acre site in the center of Berlin. Until 1990 the area was in the No-Man’s-Land between the inner and outer sections of the Berlin Wall. Designed by the American architect Peter Eisenman, the Monument’s nearly 3,000 rectangular concrete slabs are each the length and width of a very large coffin but are of varying heights. The outer blocks emerge from the ground at your ankles or knees. Cramped, shoulder-width paths lead between blocks and descend towards the center of the matrix while the slabs rise above ground-level. When you stand in the middle of the five acres of the memorial, the blocks tower above, nearly twice your height. Each is set at a slight angle, this out-of-plumbness contributing to a broad undulating effect across the memorial as a whole.
This solemn field spreads itself literally at the center of Germany—its historical consciousness, its politics, its culture, its crimes. The Nazi Chancellery was here and Hitler’s bunker nearby, though the exact location is not marked and therefore not available as a site of pilgrimage for Fascists.
The sprawling American embassy is across the street from the memorial, and just beyond it the Brandenburg Gate. With its cool beige stone, glass and steel, the embassy’s neo-Art-Deco-ism seems an ironic nod to the Good Old Days of the Cold War, when America’s power was ascendant. I think of the building as a diplomatic diner serving up Marshall Plan burgers, NATO fries washed down with the chocolate shake of Mutually Assured Destruction.
A few blocks away in what, before German Reunification, was East Berlin stands the Comic Opera. For decades it has been the most adventurous of the city’s three opera houses. The building has a cool, cubic façade of light stone with a central gallery of steel and glass behind which is the lobby. But the frolicking rococo-redux interior of the theater itself survives from the last decades of the nineteenth century, its ceiling ringed by muscly gods and cupids with gilded arrows. This is the architectural residue of the Metropol-Theater, one of Weimar-era Berlin’s most celebrated variety show venues. As long-time readers of this column will know, the house’s tradition of showing skin on stage and in the stucco has continued into the present with such grown-up bad boys of the European theater as Peter Konwitschny and Calixto Bieto, whose predilection for nudity, automatic weapons and the simulation of diverse acts of sex and violence have been described in this column over the years.
Taking up the mantle of provocation, but bravely and resourcefully wearing it with his own flair, Australian opera and theater director Barrie Kosky’s ten-year tenure as Artistic Director of the Comic Opera came to a close this past Sunday. Marked by an unbounded imaginative exuberance and love of spectacle, Kosky’s theater-making has also been praised, even rapturously, by your Musical Patriot.
For his last production at the artistic helm of the Comic Opera, Kosky conjured up a gift for the cadre of singers who’ve contributed to the great success of his productions and of the house more generally. He also wanted to thank the city of Berlin for following him down sometimes contentious paths. The glittering result was Barrie Kosky’s All-Singing, All-Dancing Yiddish Revue. The show premiered a month ago and had its last two sold-out performances this past Sunday.
Only Kosky could imagine and pull-off such an affirming and necessary complement to the somber concrete graves a few blocks away. As the director suggests in an interview printed in the program book, the Jews of Europe are now associated with loss and death. Berlin school kids learn about the Shoah and little else.
But the Jews are not gone nor are their vital contributions to European and world culture. One tremendous source of their contributions was the Catskills of New York in the 1950s and 60s. Denied entry to country clubs and hotels and resorts closer to New York City, many Jews spent their summers in the Borscht Belt, a proving ground for the leading entertainers of the age.
Kosky and his colleague Adam Benzwi, the terrifically talented and tasteful (even when the music and texts aren’t) musical director who conducted the performance from the piano, sifted through thousands of numbers that survive from the period and arrayed nearly two dozen of them in a revue that would play to the strengths of their cast and also come together in two-hours devoted to the pleasures of the theater: songs of longing and joy, silliness and regret; dances (choreographed by Otto Pichler) both suave and spoofy, and ranging in styles from riotous to refined; off-color jokes and colorful costumes. This revue is a celebration not a memorial.
The lithe and powerful voice and body, scantily clad, of Ruth Brauer-Kvam as Mitzi Rubenstein (with the Otto Pickle Dancers) welcomes the audience (Hallo Berlin!) with a graciously energetic number, “Abi gezunt” (As long as you’re healthy), a huge hit in the late 1930s. The text by the original performer herself, Molly Picon, reminds us not only that we’ve come through a pandemic (even as infection rates soar in these summer month), but also that the best things in life are (or should be) free, even if this revue isn’t:
Di luft iz fray, far yedn glaykh,
Di zun zi sheynt far yedn
eynem orem oder raykh.
The air is free for everyone equally,
The sun shines for everyone,
poor or rich.
From here it’s a perfectly modulated pair of hours and some on either side of the intermission. The variety is far too rich in styling, affect and presentation to be précised here. But among the succession of winners (twenty-one numbers in all) are Hershey Baumann and Manny Renz (scantily camouflaged stage names of Helmut Baumann and Peter Renz), two aged entertainers on a park bench in Tel Aviv indulging a reverie of their youthful loves with “Bay mir bistu sheyn” (To Me You’re Beautiful). As the nostalgic strains of the song hang in air the men shed their bathrobes to reveal smart dinner jackets, the blonde loves of their past lives and present dreams appear on stage and the two pairs dance in defiance of the accumulation of the years. Soon after that a quartet of Jewish Elvises rock-out, and nearer the close of the review a Berlin Jewish cowboy sings of sex and rodeos in Yiddish and tells jokes in the Berlin dialect of German, which, with its soft Gs and alternate grammar shows itself to be a close relative to Yiddish. Depths of sadness are plumbed by a mother imagining the wedding that will never take place for of her long-dead daughter. Colossal hits are recast: the Yiddish translation of “My Way” (Mayn veg) is delivered in the cool Latin rhythms of a Catskill lounge by a male singer (Christoph Marti) dressed as an air hostess. Just before the finale, the Barry Sisters are punningly presented as the Barrie Kosky Sisters (“Four Jews and a Goy” as the silky suave voice of the unseen announcer tells us in English) to deliver a raucous medley of songs sung by that famous Yiddish girl group of yore. The first of these is “Tropns fun regn oyf mayn kop” (Raindrops keep falling on my head), the music by Burt Bacharach, who doubtless spent time in the Catskills as a kid and after. Many of the musical arrangements are taken from the original Catskill or silver screen versions. Others are set anew with pitch-perfect authenticity, nuance and charm by Benzwi.
The dirty jokes and dazzling musical performances are not for everybody. The dour opera-season subscribers sitting next to me didn’t laugh at all throughout the entire show and bolted before the bows. I was surprised that they came back for the second half. Their reappearance after the interval seemed an enactment of the joke Woody Allen, who as a kid vacationed with his parents in the Catskills, tells at the beginning of Annie Hall about two old ladies at a Borscht Belt restaurant complaining that not only is the food terrible, but the portions small.
In contrast to the sullen couple next to me feeding remorselessly at the theatrical buffet, Kosky recognizes not only the deliciousness of kitsch, but also its political charge, one that among other things shatters the default association of Jews and death. Indeed, his embrace of superficiality—color, skin, sound, sight—achieves a lingering profundity. This show has such life and charm and humor and art that its two hours fly by even while the individual numbers hold the attention and seem to slow time down. One wishes it would all go on longer, wants one more high-fat helping, but knows that Kosky is right that it just couldn’t be so and still deliver its unbroken pleasures.
I’m no producer (by the way, Mel Brooks spent his youthful summers as a busboy in the Catskills, as Ulrich Lenz’s excellent essay on the culture of entertainment there informs us in the program book), but this show would conquer Broadway, and then the world. Yet Kosky’s way is not to cash in. He won’t regift his present to the Comic and enrich himself. Instead, he’ll let theater be what it must: evanescent on stage, thrilling in the moment, then living on in memory.