THE NEW MARLENE; I Am a Lot like My Heroine Dietrich, Admits Chicago's Leggy Femme Fatale

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LIKE her heroine Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel, it's Ute Lemper's legs that stop you in your tracks.

Endless limbs with a life of their own, they're encased in sleek black leather trousers when we meet.

On stage in the new, raunchy West End hit musical Chicago the fishnet-clad pins are, if possible, even more alluring.

The physical similarities Lemper shares with Dietrich are uncanny. Her cheekbones and angular features are classic Marlene. So is the smoky, guttural voice.

She's German, too, and an expatriate. But most of all she has the same cool, sexy, provocative attitude that set Diet-rich apart from other stars.

'Yes, Marlene is my heroine,' admits Lemper, seated in her dressing room and surrounded by banks of flowers, testimony to the amazing first night success of Chicago last Tuesday.

'She created a totally new style of performance. She was feminine and a feminist because she liberated herself.

She was the first to develop this sexy androgynous style.

She was bold, ballsy, tough, a strong woman. I identify with that. She was also loaded with mystique. What she created was outstanding. I don't think of her as I perform but I do relate to her.' With the phenomenal success of Chicago, 34-year-old Lemper has also helped create something outstanding.

The [pounds sterling]3 million production, starring Lemper and Ruthie Henshall as a pair of murderous molls and featuring raunchy show-stopping tunes such as All That Jazz and Razzle Dazzle, is the biggest West End hit for years. On stage Lemper is the sultry, fishnet-clad femme fatale Velma. Off it she's alluring, funny, modern, very much an international woman of the Nineties.

But when she talks of Diet-rich her face transforms: the parallels between the two go far beyond the obvious similarities of voice and body.

Like Marlene, she is famous for her one-woman shows of sensual German torch songs: hers are based on the work of Kurt Weill, one of Dietrich's favourite composers.

Lemper tells of a conversation they had seven years before the Hollywood legend's death in 1992, aged 90.

'I was performing in Cabaret in Paris where Marlene was living. I was amazed to pick up the phone and hear her voice. I was 22 then and Marlene already had a lifetime of singing and Hollywood behind her. We talked for an hour, maybe two.

'She was very funny, a real cookie, with this tough Berlin accent. She was in a wheelchair, but her voice told me everything.

'She spoke really fast, trashing everybody. Her sense of humour was great - she was even funny about herself. She said she fell into orchestra pits a few times, broke both her hips. She had to take painkillers just to move and I think she was pretty nuts at the end. Marlene talked about the old days before the paparazzi, when the stars were stars. She said it was important to have a normal life, to create a separate stage persona so people don't have access to the real person. But that was in different times.

'She recited me a poem from Rilke and even started singing to me. I said I was studying one of her songs and she knew it by heart. It was called Marie, Marie.'

UTE hums under her breath. 'It's about a girl waiting for a soldier to come back from war,' she says dreamily, the sharp planes of her face softening.

'He never comes home. It's a very sad song and Marlene sang it in such a way it made

you cry. …