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Scene in Berlin

Berlin is alive with the sound of music

If there is one thing besides its history for which Berlin is famed, it has to be music. Less so the electronic beats that put it on the techno map, as the gravelly voices and tinkling piano of musical theater.

Scene in Berlin

Berlin might not have a dedicated Broadway or West End, but it is home to an astonishing number of theater and music venues. I read recently that, between them, they manage to host well over a thousand performances every day, a proud number of which are dedicated to the task of keeping alive the traditions of musical theater that made the capital roar during the hedonistic age of the Weimar Republic.

And I'm not just talking about imported box office hits like "Mama Mia" and "Dirty Dancing," which take over the big venues for their time in town, but about the cabaret, revue and good old-fashioned German musicals which play in bars, mirrored tents, old factory floors and - come summer - even al fresco.

Indeed, much of the capital is a stage, and as I discovered recently at an open-mic evening for composers and lyricists, there is an unending queue of people from all over the country who wish to write for and sing upon it.

Perfect setting

Schreib:maschine (literally: typewriter), as the event is called, is held in the Ballhaus Rixdorf, an old dance hall near Hermannplatz, and to enter its doors is to enter a whole old world. With little marble-top tables set out across the floor, viewing galleries and art nouveau trimmings it instantly evokes the kind of bygone atmosphere which is somehow intrinsic to music theater.

A woman singing on a man's shoulders

Both amateurs and professionals are dedicated to Berlin's tradition

The place was packed, but I managed to find a seat just as the first act got underway. And for the next two and a half hours I was transfixed as a steady stream of writers climbed on stage to present the fruits of their labor, or have singers - some well known, others newcomers - do it for them.

Their sometimes dulcet, sometimes smoky tones and larger than life personas carried the audience into fantastical worlds in which a football widow lustfully does away with her neglectful husband, men playfully philosophize about women, southern Germans lament the lack of hills and large quantity of dog dirt in Berlin, and Snow White meets her prince.

Musical community

What struck me, besides the impressive quality of the work, was the rapturous applause. Everyone wanted everyone else to do well, which is not necessarily the norm at such present-your-creative-wares type evenings.

The clapping and cheering was not only a celebration of each individual act, but of music theater in general. And it underlined a just belief that there is enough lyrical talent hidden away in the bedrooms of Berlin to live up to the legend of Kurt Weill and see German musicals ultimately give big name shows from abroad a run for their money.

When schreib:maschine co-founder Kevin Schröder first dreamed up his open-mic nights, he hoped to coerce writers out of their pajamas and reveal their works-in-progress, create networking opportunities, and to show anybody who happens to walk through the dance hall doors that there is more to the genre than a cursory glance at the billboards might suggest.

Adding to a tradition

Dancing girls from a scene from Cabaret

Cabaret back in Berlin - where it began

And the fact that even on a Monday night, when most Berliners prefer to stay home, the event can pull a crowd big enough to pack a huge dance hall, is testimony both to its success and to an appetite for what is on the menu. It's been doing so well, that the organizers have even released a CD of some of the acts.

"The whole scene is longing for something new," Schröder told me, "Something original by German writers, but also English and American writers who live here."

He says there are signs of other similar projects starting up in Berlin, which due to the sheer numbers of creatively minded people living here, the relatively low rents and the city's musical history, is the logical place for them to be.

"There used to be a lot of musical theater here in the early 20th century," Schröder said. "We feel connected to that tradition in Berlin."

A tradition that had spawned the likes of Cabaret, The Blue Angel and the Three Penny Opera long before the Lion King was so much as a twinkle in Disney's eye. And a tradition, which every two months, the schreib:maschine does a sparkling job of upholding.

I'll be going back for more in March. Who knows, perhaps I'll even have a song ready by then.

The next schreib:maschine will be held at Ballhaus Rixdorf on March 21.

Author: Tamsin Walker

Editor: Kate Bowen

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