Retelling stories from the past will help us understand today
Opera singer turned cabaret star, Melinda Hughes on why she is bringing a show celebrating the life and work of Margo Lion, a legend of Weimar Berlin, to the Fringe
I’ve had a funny career. I was tipped as one of the new “hot” young opera singers until in 2005 a prolapsed disc in my neck triggered terrible pain for three years. Fearful of being flung about the stage and the long-haul flights my career demanded, I had to take a break from the operatic stage. Meanwhile I had pursued other avenues including satirical cabaret alongside my concert work. I had always loved jazz and I also possessed a particular humour, inherited from my father who was a film director. Indeed, whenever I performed I bemoaned the fact I could never find that perfect fun song with which to end a recital. Then quite by chance I discovered that my favourite accompanist Jeremy Limb was also a comedian and a composer. I had struck gold and in 2007 we formed Kiss & Tell Cabaret writing catchy, up-to-the-minute satirical songs. We were booked out at corporate events, festivals and parties. The only other people doing this at the time were Kit & the Widow and Fascinating Aida, but now satirical cabaret is having a wonderful renaissance.
Songs from the Weimar period gave me much inspiration; satire was the last bastion of political criticism during the rise of Fascism while every other form of protest had been shut down. I became increasingly drawn to this short period of history between 1920 and 1933. One couldn’t separate the music from the context and then there was the Jewish link. I am Jewish but not so much in a religious sense, rather a cultural affiliation and the more I learnt about the period, the more it drew me in. I was entranced by the wealth of music: the esoteric content of Kurt Weil, Friedrich Hollaender’s punchy satirical numbers and the beautiful melodies by Mischa Spoliansky. The songs also suited my voice, as they are set fairly high, bridging classical and jazz.
In 2011 I recorded a CD of Spoliansky songs. Mischa’s grandson Chris Kelly and his colleague Steve Edis helped me source the sheet music and I added our own newly written songs to the CD. It was so well received it led to concerts, radio interviews and a show on BBC Radio 4 with Barry Humphries which was a lot of fun.
Jeremy and I were going from strength to strength with our satirical shows. We write about six songs a year covering any topic you could think of; plastic surgery, opera divas, Brexit, aristocrats, toy boys, the election. I also do a wicked Melania Trump impersonation. We’ve performed regularly at Zedel, The Pheasantry, Pizzaexpress Holborn in London as well as The Metropolitan Room in New York, festivals in Barbados and Bermuda and even a festival in Beirut. The greatest buzz is making people laugh. Whenever we perform a new song for the first time and people are laughing, it’s a real triumph and I can see Jeremy’s face beaming from behind the piano.
In 2016 we performed a show called Weimar and Back at the London Festival of Cabaret, but I felt the wonderful music deserved a more dramatic context, that’s when I came up with the idea of Margo, Half Woman Half Beast.
Margo Lion was French and came from Constantinople in 1923 initially to join the Russian Ballet School in Berlin, but instead was intoxicated by the Berlin cabaret scene. She fell in love with Marcellus Schiffer, the leading lyricist of the day and their relationship was riddled with jealousy and affairs (with both men and women) as well as drugs; so much so the show practically wrote itself. Margo was Marlene Dietrich’s mentor, friend and lover. It was their duet Wenn Die Beste Freudin (with its lesbian undertones from the 1928 show Es Liegt in Der Luft,) which shot Marlene to fame.
I had read the diary of Mischa Spoliansky given to me by his grandson Chris as well as Marcellus Schiffer’s diary Heute Nacht Oder Nie. Many of the scenes depicted in Margo actually took place; Marcellus’ bouts of depression and the storming of the premiere of Hundert Meter Glück by Hitler’s Brownshirts, who had booked the whole gallery with the intention of sabotaging the show. This is one of the most dramatic moments in the show. Until this moment it has been a hedonistic romp through Weimar: fun, sex, laughter, naughtiness and fabulous songs, but suddenly her world comes crashing in. This night was a defining moment for Jewish musicians in Berlin. Marcellus killed himself very soon afterwards. Like many other Jewish people, he saw no way out.
Despite all my research in Berlin and Paris, I didn’t know much about Margo herself. She hardly gave interviews. She seemed private and aloof, but she worked consistently on stage and film after having fled to Paris at the start of the war. When I talked to Barry Humphries about her, he recalled she was “quite masculine and rather strange.” You can certainly see that in the film footage available to us. She certainly wasn’t a refined singer but more a great ‘deliverer’ of text, so I’m finding that balance between beautiful singing and a spoken Berlin Cabaret style.
I wanted to enhance Margo’s story with some newly written songs. Indeed, as this project grows, we will write some more. Where a Stolpersteine Stands is one such song Jeremy Limb and I wrote in 2016 after I had been asked by my stepmother to look up her family’s “stumbling blocks” in Berlin. These are brass plaques laid by the artist Gunter Demnig to commemorate those who fell victim to the Nazi regime. You can find them all over the streets of Berlin. In addition, we wrote two more songs; I Can’t Love, a more naturalistic song in a Michel Legrand style reflecting their destructive relationship and Here in Berlin, a pastiche Berlin cabaret song, which encapsulates the hedonism of the time. There’s so much to capture in an hour; the politics, their stormy relationship and above all the complex personality of Margo. She’s headstrong, unstable, ambitious, devious, loving and vulnerable. It’s been a fun journey creating and developing her character within this charged historical context. It’s been wonderful working with Sarah Sigal my director from JW3 who is so instinctive and intelligent. We are completely on the same page, which is lucky as we were literally thrown together on this project.
The show ends with Margo returning to Berlin in 1978 to sing at the Berlin Arts Festival accompanied by Mischa Spoliansky. You can see the performance online. She had lost none of her verve and tenacity. She was an extraordinary woman with an amazing history that should be retold because we are living through similar times; from mass immigration to the alarming rise of populism, her story strongly resonates in the now.
Margo is headstrong, unstable, ambitious, devious, loving and vulnerable. It’s been a fun journey creating and developing her character within this charged historical context
● Margo: Half Woman, Half Beast is at the Assembly Rooms, 2-18 August, 5:55pm daily (not 6 or 13), www. assembleyroomsedinburgh.co.uk