Threepenny Opera Bertolt Brecht’s Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) directed by Robert Wilson at the Berliner Ensemble. Photo credit: Lesley Leslie Spinks.
Volume 6

Musical Theatre in Berlin, Winter 2015

Berlin’s varied theatre and performance scene is clearly one of the most vibrant and eclectic in the world. But, it has changed in many ways since the large-scale privatization of many formerly state funded theatres began in 2001. Several theatre organizations have adopted the British and American model of the longer running single show as opposed to the more traditional repertory system. Producers in Germany have discovered that lavish, spectacular musicals are capable of attracting large, enthusiastic (and sometimes younger) audiences as well as feeding the increasing international tourist audiences to the Berlin theatre scene.


During the winter of 2015, several exciting musical productions played the capital city: Chicago played at Theater des Westens, one of the better-known Berlin musical venues while Hinterm Horizont played at the Theater Am Potsdamer Platz. Both were presented by Stage Entertainment, a major European producing organization keen on scheduling time-tested musicals and other entertainments in major European theatres. Stage Entertainment runs huge advertising campaigns and aims for the highest quality in productions that yield the highest possible profits. At the same time, the Komische Oper, a fully state-supported German theatre, was presenting My Fair Lady and West Side Story as part of its repertory. The Berliner Ensemble featured The Threepenny Opera, Faust I and II,and Peter Pan (not reviewed here) in its repertory. Altogether, musical theatre productions such as these made a big impact on the Berlin theatre scene in the winter of 2015.

Perhaps there is no better musical theatre production than Chicago for Berlin. Given the fact that Chicago, Illinois has typically been considered as something of a “sister city” to Berlin, the subject matter of Chicago is clearly identifiable to Berlin audiences. However, the musical’s style is even more relevant; Chicago boasts a style immediately comparable to the theatre of Brecht that speaks profoundly to German audiences. The basic staging of the production, a nod to the original Bob Fosse choreography, was virtually identical to the long-running Broadway revival. Yet, the Berlin production of Chicago was enhanced by the superior capabilities of the Theater des Westens and a tremendous European cast. Again, with fewer restrictions on cast and orchestra size as well as the enhanced production capabilities of the venue itself, the European production of Chicago clearly displayed all the characteristics of a work realized from both a solid financial as well as artistic basis.

Chicago by

Kander and Ebb’s Chicago at Theater des Westens. Photo courtesy of Theater des Westens.

The international cast was incredibly strong, especially Carien Keizer as Roxie Hart. Considering the many recent productions of the musical, Keizer emerged as one the most memorable Roxies in recent history in the opinion of this reviewer. This was due to her solid vocal delivery, alluring visual appearance, and strong ability to engage in direct contact with the audience. In fact, the casting for this production featured no character actors Even “Mama” Morton was cast against the typical “type” of the role.. British actor Nigel Casey, a long-standing actor with the producing company Stage Entertainment in Germany, played Billy Flynn. Chicago was staged with minimal scenery on a bare stage with the upstage orchestra of the musical present. The staging was Brechtian in style, and the heightened sexuality and darkness of the production suited the Berlin audience at the Theater des Westens.

Hinterm Horizont

The year 2015 marked twenty-six years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and while many of the details surrounding the events prior to 9 November 1989, remain unclear to both Americans as well as younger Europeans, one fact remains clear: there were a number of factors related to the relationship between the East German government and the youth of East Germany that lead to the breakdown of the Socialist system. Hinterm Horizont tells of the rise of West German rock star Udo Lindenberg (played in the musical by German actor Florian Silbereisen) and his ultimate clash with the East German government and Ministry of State Security (SED) concerning his influence over East German youth and (presumed) love affair with an East German woman, played by Josephin Busch. Lindenberg’s prolific career has been featured in this popular German musical that will close in August 2016 after a hugely successful five-year run at the Stage Theater am Potsdamer Platz. Thomas Brussig wrote the libretto of the musical with direction by Ulrich Waller and choreography by Kim Duddy. The musical score was arranged by Andreas Herbig and based on original songs by Lindenberg.

As portrayed in Hinterm Horizont, Lindenberg’s popularity in Germany rose in the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, Lindenberg was often cited as being the German “Elvis Presley” due to his radical movement style and the content of his lyrics. This was particularly impactful on the youth of East Germany, who were being manipulated by state driven forms of music, theatre and especially social dance that included the Lipsi, a form of group dancing developed by the state that was less sexually motivated than what the SED defined as “male dominated dancing with females [which they felt was] driven by Western influences of rock stars such as Elvis Presley and the Beatles.” From the years 1979 to 1986 thousands of East German youth gathered at large churches (protected from state interference) in order to listen and dance to music by Lindenberg and other popular artists. Deemed as “negative youth” by the authorities, these young people were often put under surveillance and or/imprisoned and questioned as is highlighted in Hinterm Horizont. The musical included frank insights into East German society including interrogation and imprisonment scenes—it was noted that in East Germany several hundred thousand people were interrogated as well as imprisoned each year. The musical was both a success in the area of technical production as well as the clarity of the information provided in the text. Hinterm Horizont, while something of a cinematic view of the years leading to German Reunification, provided a strong historical investigation into the daily life in East Germany, the politics of East German youth, and the strategies of the SED to counter the Western influences of Lindenberg and other radical artists, who gained the support of huge numbers of citizens from both the East and the West.

West Side Story and My Fair Lady

Since his 2006 arrival in Berlin, Australian director Barrie Kosky has made a huge impact on both the Komische Oper as well as the Berlin theatre scene in general. Now Intendant of the Komische Oper (appointed in 2012) Kosky’s work has been instrumental in elevating the company’s work among Europe’s elite opera houses, winning Opernwelt‘s prestigious Opera Company of the Year award in 2015. Winter 2015 saw two American classical musicals performed at the Komische Oper —West Side Story and My Fair Lady.

West Side Story was a towering achievement in Berlin’s musical theatre. This outstanding production featured approximately forty musicians in the orchestra (the typical Broadway orchestra is nineteen as defined by AFM, or Broadway union regulations) and the onstage cast consisted of fifty performers as opposed to the twenty-five that would be featured in a typical production of the show anywhere in the world. This was a production that moved the spectators to their limits due to sheer power of both the orchestra and the cast size. The power of Kosky’s production was astounding; the large number of actors and musicians was countered by a lack of actual scenic elements. The design was centered around the resources of the theatre itself with the exception of a single set of “globes” that were used on numerous occasions to indicate the worldly scale of the story and production.

My Fair Lady by Frederik Loewe. Photo credit: Iko Freese.

My Fair Lady directed by Andreas Homoki at Komische Oper. Photo credit: Iko Freese.

My Fair Lady was directed by Andreas Homoki with striking scenic design by Frank Philipp Schlößmann. It was a highly conceptual production in that the central image was that of the gramophone. The image of a small gramophone opened the production and was carried throughout as a single design element for each of the following scenes. The gramophone grew to greater dimensions in later scenes and became the dominant scenic element. The real problem with this production was the fact that the language barrier did not match the story. My Fair Lady deals with problems involved with the class-based accents of the English language, and the clashes that occur when people from two distinct social groups, represented by their accents, meet. The transfer to German language was not at all successful.

The Threepenny Opera

While productions at the Berliner Ensemble are not generally considered musicals, the bulk of productions by American director Robert Wilson, four of which were in the repertoire in December 2015, were works that were by all rights, musicals. The Threepenny Opera, a work written by Brecht with music by Kurt Weill, had been playing at the Theater Am Schiffbauerdamm since 2007. The company considered the production seminal since it was one of the most important early productions of the theatre and one of Brecht’s earliest successes. An entire room in the Theater Am Schiffbauerdamm is devoted to The Threepenny Opera so it is a work that is enthusiastically celebrated at the theatre due to its historical significance for the company.

Robert Wilson’s production of The Threepenny Opera was a work that heavily emphasized character and movement as each of the major characters featured a very specific style of movement. All of the major characters—Macheath, Polly Peachum, Mrs. Peachum, and Lucy and all of the girls —were exceedingly “posed” as is typical in Wilson’s works. Unfortunately, it was the “coolness” of the production that was its least satisfying component. The work was so posed and formal that it had the feeling of coldness and the characters felt like “glacial automatons,” a term applied to Wilson’s characters in previous reviews. In many ways, it felt like the life had been sucked out of this production and that it existed in some sort of vampire-like, lifeless existence.

Bertolt Brecht DIE DREIGROSCHENOPER musik von Kurt Weill Regie , Bühne Lichtkonzept : ROBERT WILSON Musikalische Leitung , Korrepetition : Hans-Jörn Brandenburg ,Stefan Rager Kostüme : Jacques Reynaud Mitarbeit Regie : Ann-Christin Rommen Mitarbeit Bühne : Serge von Arx Mitarbeit Kostüme : Yashi Tabassomi Licht : Andreas Fuchs Ton : Jens-Uwe Neumann Dramaturgie : Anika Bárdos , Jutta Ferbers BERLINER ENSEMBLE premiere 27.September 2007

The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, directed by Robert Wilson. Photo courtesy of the Berliner Ensemble.

Perhaps the most notable element of the Berliner Ensemble’s The Threepenny Opera was Kurt Weill’s outstanding score, which provided the most memorable moments of this, and possibly any recent production of the musical. Musically directed by the team of Hans-Jörn Brandenburg and Stefan Gager, the orchestra of nine conservatory-trained German musicians (many doubling three or four instruments) provided a solid musical soundscape to which the Wilsonian images lived. The unique nature of Weill’s score defined the movement, singing and lighting in the production and served both the historical aspects of the production as well as the contemporary visual aesthetic of Wilson.

Faust I & II

Premiering in November 2015 was Faust I & II, also at the Berliner Ensemble. A very important aspect of this particular production of Faust I and II was the dialectic between the density and difficulty of Goethe’s text and Wilson’s desire to tell the story via visual images as opposed to textual storytelling. According to dramaturg Anika Bárdos, the density of the text makes it challenging for even native German speakers. Bárdos notes that Wilson’s goal was to present the story via a number of images that were driven and supported by the music of Herbert Grönemeyer as well as Tomek Jeziorski’s video sequences. Longtime Berliner Ensemble actor Christopher Nell portrayed the character of Mephistopheles, but multiple actors each played Faust and Gretchen. Wilson has long utilized a working method that includes splitting characters into multiple bodies. According to Bárdos, “the characters are and stay one person—even if they are split up into several bodies. Each body represents a particular part of the character—the lively one, the adventurous one, the sulky one, the sexy one, the innocent one, the good one, the bad one, and others.” The character of Faust was played by four actors—Nicolaas van Deipen, Marvin Schulze, Joshua Seelenbinder and Alexander Wanatin—in Part I and by a single actor, Fabian Stromberger in Part II. Three female performers—Antonia Bill, Christina Drechsler and Dorothée Neff —played the character of Margarete. In Wilson’s mind (according to Bárdos), the most important aspect of the production was that audience members find their own story and narrative to match the images that they see onstage. Wilson’s work at the Berliner Ensemble and at other theatres typically runs counter to typical Western theatre production in that Wilson’s staging procedures focus on first telling the story visually before spoken text is added to the process.

Faust I proceeded in a fairly straightforward manner with a prologue in Heaven (supported by the Berliner Ensemble’s incredible capabilities in the area of flying actors), followed by Faust’s encounter with ghosts and finally by Mephistopheles. In Goethe’s original, Mephistopheles appears to Faust as a poodle—in Wilson’s version the poodle was portrayed by a human in a poodle costume played in high physical style by Lukas Gabriel. The bulk of the work in Part I existed in the metaphysical world where Mephistopheles transports Faust into the various realms of his inquiry. The multiple Fausts and Margaretes were often confronted by Mephistopheles as a collective. According to Bárdos, Wilson had hoped to isolate the central idea of tension between Faust, Margarete and Mephistopheles. The inclusion of multiple figures in the scenes only increased possibilities for multiplicity of responses and choices and Wilson wanted to maximize those choices and the potential visual images made possible by multiple responses.

Faust II took on a rather new aesthetic as far as the Wilson canon is concerned. Polish scenographer Jesiorski took a more central role in the creation of Wilson’s vision that included ideas about transition and migration. Because Faust and Mephistopheles travel so much, Wilson wanted to include images of other characters, especially animals, which also engage in migration each year. These visions, which included humans walking at a slower speed as video images of giraffes, zebras, cheetahs, and other exotic animals moved at real time created “surreal and strong associations of fantasy” according to Bárdos and added to Wilson’s goal of making Faust I and II as a fantastical dreamscape.

In an extended note of explanation, Anika Bárdos wrote me the following:

I understand your urge to make sense of it, even though—really!—you don’t have to… in general, I can say, and I think Bob would agree, that it really doesn’t matter if you don’t get the story of the play. Faust (especially the second part) is extremely complex, even Goethe admitted that it is impossible to understand it. But if our stage production manages to set free a world of images and associations in your mind, then it as a huge success.

As was stated in the introduction to this article, Berlin’s theatre scene remains among the most varied and exciting in the world..The incredible technical capabilities of the German theatres coupled with the influx of major international directors and designers furthers a culture of highly experimental and influential cultural activity based on the goal of presenting high quality art as opposed to purely commercial work designed to make a profit at the box office. However, the German dialectic of profit vs. art is a strong factor and the presence of both German and American musicals in the theatre repertoire of both state theatres as well as those that employ the “extended run system” as demonstrated by Chicago and Hinterem Horitont, makes the musical theatre scene in Berlin an increasingly relevant topic. Given the number of strong musical theatre training programs in Germany, England, The Netherlands, Austria, as well as the traditional musical theatre programs in the USA and Canada, it appears that the European musical theatre scene is gaining prominence as well as introducing a strong number of trained European musical theatre performers into the casting pool on the European continent.

Steve Earnest is a Professor of Theatre at Coastal Carolina University, having received a PhD in Theatre from the University of Colorado, Boulder and an M.F.A. in Musical Theatre from the University of Miami, Florida. Dr. Earnest has published articles, reviews and interviews in Theatre Journal, Western European Stages, Backstage WestEcumenica, The Journal of Beckett Studies, Theatre SymposiumNew Theatre Quarterly and Theatre Studies, among others.  In 1999 he published a book entitled The State Acting Academy of East Berlin and is currently working on projects dealing with the theatre system of Iceland.

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European Stages, vol. 6, no. 1 (Spring 2016)

Editorial Board:

Marvin Carlson, Senior Editor, Founder

Krystyna Illakowicz, Co-Editor

Dominika Laster, Co-Editor

Kalina Stefanova, Co-Editor

Editorial Staff:

Elyse Singer, Managing Editor

Clio Unger, Editorial Assistant

Advisory Board:

Joshua Abrams
Christopher Balme
Maria Delgado
Allen Kuharsky
Bryce Lease
Jennifer Parker-Starbuck
Magda Romańska
Laurence Senelick
Daniele Vianello
Phyllis Zatlin

Table of Contents:

  1. Hamlet in a Curious Nutshell by Maria Helena Serôdio
  2. Alvis Hermanis Productions in Latvia and German-Speaking Countries by Edīte Tisheizere
  3. The Unknown, the Unexpected, and the Uncanny: A New Lorca, Three New Catalan Productions, and a Few Extras by Maria M. Delgado
  4. 2015 Dance Week Festival and Contemporary Croatian Dance by Mirna Zagar
  5. Archives, Classics, and Auras: The 2016 Oslo International Festival by Andrew Friedman
  6. The Stakes for City Theatres: Linus Tunström’s Farewell to the Uppsala Stadsteater by Bryce Lease
  7. Life is Beautiful? or Optimistically About Bulgarian Theatre? by Kalina Stefanova
  8. The Multiple Dimensions of the Bulgarian ACT Independent Theatre Festival 2015 by Angelina Georieva
  9. Theatre in Berlin, Winter 2015 by Steve Earnest
  10. Musical Theatre in Berlin, Winter 2015 by Steve Earnest
  11. Gob Squad’s My Square Lady at the Komische Oper by Clio Unger
  12. New Productions in Berlin by Yvonne Shafer
  13. Manifest for Dialogue: Antisocial by Ion M. Tomuș
  14. A Fall in France by Heather Jeanne Denyer
  15. The Iliad as an Oratory: A Warning to a Civilization by Ivan Medenica    
  16. Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill at the Royal Court Theatre by Rosemary Malague
  17. Bakkhai at the Almeida Theatre reviewed by Neil Forsyth



Martin E. Segal Theatre Center:

Frank Hentschker, Executive Director

Marvin Carlson, Director of Publications

Rebecca Sheahan, Managing Director

©2016 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

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