Berlin Cheers for a Subway Ride With No End in Sight
Since 1986, a rock musical set in a grimy underground railway has captured the German city’s abrasive charm.
BERLIN — On April 30, 1986, “Linie 1” (“Line 1”), a rock musical set in Berlin’s subway, premiered at a 367-seat theater in what was then West Berlin. In a rave review of the show, the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel praised the show, about a small-town girl who arrives in Berlin in search of her rocker boyfriend, as both “cosmopolitan and exportable.”
“The German musical has emancipated itself from its American role models in a clever, mature and very Berlin way,” the paper’s critic, Hellmut Kotschenreuther, wrote.
“Linie 1,” which was written by Volker Ludwig, has remained a Berlin fixture ever since, and it regularly sells out at the GRIPS Theater, the independent playhouse where it has run for the last four decades and where, this month, the show celebrated its 2,000th performance.
It’s not hard to see why “Linie 1” has been so well loved and durable. Natalie, the show’s naïve protagonist, resembles Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz.” But her Yellow Brick Road is the grimy U1 subway, or UBahn, line, which she rides back and forth between the districts of Charlottenburg and Kreuzberg.
While searching for the Berlin musician who passed through her West German town and got her pregnant, Natalie meets drunks, prostitutes, drug addicts and other colorful characters in the big, bad city. There’s very little plot in this revue-like evening for 11 spirited performers. Many of them resemble quick-change artists as they fly in and out of Mascha Schubert’s fabulously retro costumes — neon tracksuits, jean jackets, leggings, nylon ski jackets — to inhabit the show’s 80 roles.
The performance that I attended a little over a month ago (No. 1,994) was delayed by a half-hour because Dietrich Lehmann, who has been a cast member since the 1986 premiere, arrived late: He had forgotten he was performing that evening. While Lehmann got into costume, the audience grabbed beers and snacks at the bar. No one showed the slightest irritation at the delay.
When the show finally got underway, the crowd was fired up, applauding their favorite sketches and characters, or singing along. (One singalong number simply lists the stops of the U1.) It was a level of audience involvement I haven’t experienced outside of “The Rocky Horror Show.”
Birger Heymann’s score, performed by five musicians (billed as the “No Ticket” band) is infectious and very ’80s, with prominent saxophone, synthesizer and drums. But some of the most upbeat numbers deal with urban alienation, missed connections, insecurity and loneliness. Even at their most rocking and tuneful, the songs are often laced with vulgarity and shot through with anger.
One of the showstoppers is “Wilmersdorfer Witwen,” a beer-hall march sung by furclad widows (four men in drag) spending their pensions from their long-dead Nazi husbands at West Berlin’s signature department store, KaDeWe. They see themselves as the defenders of an older Berlin and long for the good old days before the city was invaded by Turks, communists and squatters.
“With God and the press on our side / Our city will soon be wiped clean / Just like 50 years ago,” they sing in a grotesquely caustic cabaret number. (Dietrich, the actor who arrived late, played one of the Nazi widows, as well as a racist man and a homeless drunk.)
According to the theater, over 600,000 people have seen “Linie 1” at the GRIPS. The show has toured in Dublin, Jerusalem and Mumbai (as well as a 1988 stop at the Pepsico Summerfare arts festival in Purchase, N.Y.), and local productions have popped up around the globe, often in translation: throughout Europe and in Canada, Brazil and South Korea, often in versions adapted for local audiences. According to the GRIPS, “Linie 1” has been seen by more than three million people worldwide.
By some cosmic coincidence, a few days after the Berlin production of “Linie 1” surpassed the 2,000 performance mark, the city’s public transportation service, the B.V.G., premiered a musical of its very own. “Tarifzone Liebe” (“Fare Zone Love”), a glitzy, hourlong show played two performances at the Admiralspalast, a theater nearly five times as big as the GRIPS. (It was also livestreamed on YouTube.)
In what has got to rank as one of the nuttiest P.R. stunts in recent memory, the B.V.G. commissioned “Tarifzone Liebe” to win the affection of locals, who love to complain about Berlin’s transit network. Interest in the show was sky-high, and tickets sold out fast. This approach to turning I.P. into art, or at least entertainment, is similar to the one Mattel took with Greta Gerwig’s blockbuster “Barbie”: create something witty
Kooky dreamers and misfits sing about some heavy topics.
and self-deprecating about your product to increase brand visibility.
The musical was developed by the commercial music producer Not A Machine (and its composers Fabian Reifarth and Kolja Bustorf ) and the result is a very slick, Broadway-style product that befits the promotional nature of the show but is bewilderingly at odds with the B.V.G.’s track record of dysfunction.
The polished production was a far cry from the endearing scrappiness of “Linie 1.” And whereas “Linie 1” does not shy away from serious themes, or from exploring Berlin’s dark side, “Tarifzone Liebe” was a spectacle-driven revue whose catchy yet generic songs were punctuated by short scenes featuring puns and word play that would make the creators of Broadway’s super-corny musical “Shucked” blush. It was also extremely sappy; at one point in “Tarifzone Liebe,” two characters croon about “a one-way ticket to love and happiness.”
As fun and good-natured as it was, the show proved little, except that Berlin’s transportation authority has a great sense of humor about itself. “Tarifzone Liebe,” which features a subway, streetcar and bus as characters, ended up being a love letter to the B.V.G., rather than the city it serves.
What’s remarkable about “Linie 1,” nearly 40 years after its premiere, is how much of the show’s depiction of Berlin still rings true. The city is no longer divided, punk is dead and there are few Nazi widows left, and yet the Berlin of “Linie 1” is still shockingly familiar. Although it is a time capsule in many ways, the musical still captures Berlin’s abrasive charm, and its kooky cast of dreamers and misfits remains recognizable.
As with the city itself, you are won over by the show’s rough-around-the-edges quality, its lack of sentimentality and its anythinggoes ethos. Musical theater isn’t a genre associated with incisive urban and social commentary, but “Linie 1” feels like one of the very few musicals that channels the soul of a city.
New York Times