The four men dressed in black bombazine widow’s garb had just taken the stage when the first moans of joy went through the audience at Berlin’s Grips theater, an intimate 360-seat venue in the western part of the city. When the drag quartet clasped their arms to lift their heels, the mixed-age crowd is clapping in time to the oompah beat.
The song Wilmersdorf Widows is for the musical by Volker Ludwig Line 1 (Line One) what does All That Jazz mean Chicagoor Time Warp a The rocky horror movie: the captivating spectacle that brings the house down.
Al Grips, a theater with a strong political ethos, did so for the 1,975th time last week since its premiere in 1986, extending its record as the longest continuously running German musical bar a 20-month hiatus due to the pandemic.
The play’s seemingly endless popularity in Germany can be explained by the fact that it is both a musical and an anti-musical in one, bridging the chasm between child-friendly entertainment and serious theater in the way German drama rarely does.
His strange mix of catchy tunes and political commentary may also explain his unfamiliarity with the English-speaking world. For one thing, it’s hard to imagine an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical first making its audience root for the friendly grannies, only to then brutally reveal them as the bitter widows of Nazi officers.
“Berlin is drowning among the Turks and the scum of asylum seekers,” they sing. “There’s only one answer: beat them like a drum / A new strong man is what we need / To clean up our streets properly / Like fifty years ago, tee-ree tee-ra tee-ro.”
“After that verse, the applause usually stops,” said Tim Egloff, the director of the new staging of the musical, which premiered this spring and has already sold out until the end of the season. “The mood in the auditorium is different, the viewers’ gaze has been sharpened.”
In the cinema, modern musicals have become the ultimate form of cinematic escapism, transporting moviegoers by Mamma Mia Greek islands, La La LandIs it Hollywood or the snow capped glaciers of Of Frozen Arendelle. Ludwig’s vision for Line 1 he had to dramatize the everyday.
“We tried to investigate issues in our audience’s lives and put them on stage,” she said. “We wanted more realism than you’d get from regular musicals.”
The entire three-hour show takes place on West Berlin’s U1 subway line, which in the years before the fall of the Berlin Wall ran from glitzy Wittenbergplatz to seedy Schlesisches Tor.
On a morning train, a young girl arrives in the metropolis from provincial West Germany to look for her 80s rock star boyfriend whose child she is carrying. Instead, she encounters a panoply of lowlifes: drifters, pimps, drug dealers, school dropouts, voyeurs, punks, skinheads and hippies, played by a cast of 11 actors.
The cold shoulder of the divided city eventually becomes a warm embrace. When the fleeing heroine is reunited with her lover, her charm and luster have lost their appeal. “I have to see you again,” she tells her at the end of their rousing reunion. “Me too, at least for alimony, huh?” she replies, now speaking in the vernacular Berlin dialect.
Less a story-driven game than a comedy sketch series, of line 1 the romance is repeatedly undermined by the characters, who climb into the carriage to talk or sing about more existential woes. Contemplations of suicide, fears of unemployment and a bourgeoisie still seething with Nazi-era resentments are in the foreground.
A visit to Grips today still reveals some of the expected continuity between scenes on stage and Berlin life off stage, not least as spectators pouring out of the theater doors directly into Hansaplatz U-Bahn station and a mix of standard musical characters.
Egloff, whose re-enactment is the first in the comedy’s nearly 40-year history, altered some of the characters and songs but not the 1980s setting. Female lead Natalie (Helena Sigal) is less passive than in the 1988 film version, her drug dealer Bambi (Eike Onyambu) city guide less macho.
The overt racism and Third Reich nostalgia of the Wilmersdorf widows are marked by a sudden cut-off in sound and a change in lighting, perhaps out of fear that younger viewers may no longer recognize the caricature now that most retirees Nazis in real life are dead.
“Young actors are more aware of the material they bring to the stage,” Egloff said. “There’s a greater expectation to take a stand.”
Related: “A remarkable feat”: Phantom of the Opera ends its 35-year run on Broadway
But the show’s live soundtrack is thick with retro saxes and vintage synthesizers, its shoulder pads sharper and zebra-striped socks tighter than ever. The political zeitgeist that Line 1 evokes is still that of a Cold War pressure cooker in which counterculture lifestyles collide with the ghosts of German history, rather than the modern city from which hipsters, venture capitalists and refugees enter and exit.
During intermission, a group of teenagers in the back row debated whether the musical shouldn’t be set on one of the lines that now connect the old east and west: “U1 is sick, but U8 is on another level ”.
Luckily, Ludwig’s characters and Birger Heymann’s songs still shine. There’s “It’s wonderful to be alive,” an atypically optimistic hymn to the blossoming lime trees of Görlitzer Park, again performed to a Fred Astaire shuffle by the same actor who played the part in 1986, 83-year-old Dietrich Herrmann. “You sit in front of me,” a foul-mouthed refrain in which commuters hum fantasies about their fellow travelers, whizzes through Bahar Meriç’s minimalist choreography.
Nuria Mundry’s rendition of Maria’s Song, an unofficial Berlin anthem that has been covered in recent years by local punk band Beatsteaks and rapper Sido, attracted the attention of both septuagenarians and post-millennials in the auditorium.
Because for all his political ambition, Line 1 is a musical that has always understood the importance of pleasing its audience. “Young people in the theater are always a challenge, especially if you want to do a political drama,” said Ludwig. “They are usually quite loud during the show. And if they get bored, they just get up and walk away.