January 26, 2016
Wall Street Journal does fascinating piece on Ute Lemper's childhood in Germany
Ute Lemper in her Manhattan apartment
Ute Lemper in her Manhattan apartment
Chris Sorensen for the Wall Street Journal

Publichsed by the Wall Street Journal January 26, 2016

Based on her talk with Marc Myers:

Singer-actress Ute Lemper, 52, star of the Broadway revival of “Chicago,” is best known for her interpretations of Kurt Weill’s work. Her new album, with Paulo Coelho, is “9 Secrets” (Steinway & Sons). 

In the 1960s, when I grew up in Münster, Germany, the city was still recovering from World War II and coping with the Cold War.

Everyone was expected to conform to a rigid standard of normalcy, but I resisted. I had feelings, dreams and passions, making it hard to fit in. I escaped through music.

My family lived in a nine-family apartment building on the outskirts of Münster. It was a drab, low-income complex built in the 1950s, and we lived in a small apartment on the second floor. I shared a room with my older brother, Martin.

My parents didn’t own a car until 1975. The city had a bicycle culture, and my father, Josef, biked to his banking job and my mother, Elfriede, rode her bike to the market.

The entire old city of Münster had been leveled in the last months of the war. Five years later, it was rebuilt to match its original gothic beauty, but there were plenty of anonymous modern buildings that went up as well.

The 1960s and ’70s were frightening years. The Cold War had started and the East German border was sealed with metal fences and minefields and guarded by Soviet and East German troops. My mother had aunts and cousins trapped on the other side.

Each year, my mother would send care packages of food and sweets to her family. In 1975, when I was 12, we drove to see them. Our first stop was Helmstedt, where the 110-mile highway to Berlin began. The highway didn’t have exits and the scenery along the way was lifeless.

In West Berlin, we crossed over to East Berlin, where we were reminded that we had to be out before 8 p.m. On the other side, I was shocked. There was no color, no ads and no supermarkets. The buildings were still damaged from the war with no restoration or care. Toilets were outside apartments and shared with neighbors. Everyone stood in long lines in front of the egg shop, the milk shop or the butcher shop.

Still, there was plenty of fun and laughter that day, followed by a tearful goodbye. As we left East Berlin that evening, we had to get out of our car while guards unscrewed all seats and trunk panels searching for people or items we might be smuggling out. My father was quite angry.

From an early age, music consumed me. Though my father was a banker, he had the soul of a musician. He could play the piano, guitar, violin and other instruments. He also listened to classical records. His taste was cutting-edge—Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg, Busoni and Satie. My mother, who had a soprano opera voice, liked more conventional classical music. She enjoyed singing operetta as my dad accompanied her on piano. My brother and I rolled our eyes and listened to Pink Floyd.

I started taking ballet classes when I was 6, and modern dance and tap followed. When I was 13, I sang with jazz groups, moving on to rock bands when I was 16. I was listening to pop music and R&B, including Earth, Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder and Joni Mitchell, but the greats were Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.

The music didn’t have any of our rigid German identity, and I didn’t understand half the words. But I was completely inspired.

I left Münster at 18 to study drama in Vienna. Those were tough years. I didn’t have much money, and my flat was without heat. I’d sleep in my coat wearing gloves and a hat.

My first big break came in 1982, when I won a part in the first international production of “Cats.”

I first came to New York in 1987. I was invited to sing Kurt Weill at Merkin Concert Hall. New York took my breath away, and I came back annually to perform.

Today, I live in a 10-story apartment building on New York’s Upper West Side. I moved there in 1998 when I was on Broadway in “Chicago.” I turned two apartments into a four-bedroom duplex, so there would be plenty of space for my four children—two with my husband, Todd Turkisher.

Years ago, I bought a one-bedroom on the top floor that allows me to work undisturbed on my composing. It’s a haven, with a roof terrace with hundreds of plants. It’s my little Tuscany.

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