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Scene in Berlin

Berlin's favorite musical turns 25 and has never looked better

The musical "Linie 1" has been featuring in Berlin's theater listings for a quarter of a century, so DW's Jane Paulick decided it was time to find out why exactly it's so popular.

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Never having seen "Linie 1," Berlin's longest-running play, is a bit like living in London and never going to see the Crown Jewels: You know you probably should, but you figure they're not going anywhere, so what's the rush. Besides, it's the sort of thing only tourists do.

But this weekend sees the Grips Theater on Hansaplatz celebrate the 25th anniversary of this uniquely successful musical set in one of Berlin's main subway lines, and curiosity finally got the better of me.

Not too cool for school

The theater is best-known for socio-critical kids' plays, but "Linie 1" is what keeps it going, with only a handful of performances a month that sell out well in advance.

A scene from the film version of Linie 1

The musical has also been adapted into a film

The passion it inspires in audiences is palpable the minute I enter the lobby. As soon as the doors open, there's a mad scramble for seats - no reserved places in a right-on theater like this one - and I'm carried forward by the stampede so fast that I barely have time to buy a program.

I grab one from a young, sandy-haired usher with a quiff who reappears on stage a few minutes later to tell everyone that they're about to see the 1,456th performance of "Linie 1." Not for the only time tonight, the crowd erupts into the sort of whoops and cheers that would probably make punters at the achingly cool Volksbuehne theater in the Mitte district swoon with embarrassment.

It starts to dawn on me that most people here have been before.

Timeless zeitgeist

I obviously have some catching-up to do, and hurriedly read the program notes, which reveal that tonight's performance features some of the original cast from the premiere back on April 30, 1986.

It's amazing how not only the actors but the play, too, has stood the test of time, despite ignoring historical milestones such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the substantial extension of the subway line.

But, if anything, its popularity continues to grow: Over the years, this winsome tale of a young girl from the sticks who comes to West Berlin to find Johnnie, the young swain who has got her pregnant, has been exported to theaters all over the world from New York, Calcutta and Jerusalem to Sana'a, Maputo and Seoul.

These days, it's reportedly still the most-performed and most-visited play in German-speaking theater, hailed as the most successful German musical of all time after Bertolt Brecht's "Threepenny Opera" and as popular on home turf as it is abroad.

Local but global

It turns out that my neighbors, at least, aren't tourists but Doris and Hartmut from Reinickendorf, a suburb of Berlin actually reached by Linie 6 rather than Linie 1. Now over 60, Doris tells me she used to take the U1, as it's also known, to work every day and that the play perfectly captures the experience. This is the third time she's seeing it and while we munch on pretzels during intermission, she assures me it's lost none of its magic.

"It's as fresh now as it was then," she enthuses. "It's so optimistic and feel-good, and I love the way the actors and musicians look like they're having such a whale of a time."

A scene from the Arabic version of Linie 1

An Arabic version has been a smash hit in Yemen

They certainly do, and their high spirits are infectious. I defy anyone not to be charmed by "Linie 1" and its versatile cast, who all play multiple roles. The subway line passes through the scruffy, multicultural Kreuzberg neighborhood before it reaches the genteel environs of Wittenbergplatz and Kurfürstendamm in Charlottenburg, so the characters range from punks and prostitutes to tour guides and the famous "Wilmersdorf widows" who spend their afternoons eating cake in the Kadewe department store.

Many of them are greeted like old friends by the audience, who clap along ecstatically and even, I notice, unselfconsciously mouth along to the words.

Universal appeal

In an interview a few years ago, the theater's long-time director and author of "Linie 1," Volker Ludwig, attributed the play's success to its universal appeal.

"It's not just about Berlin," he said. "It's a declaration of love to a city's underbelly. It shows characters and destinies that you could find anywhere in the world."

As the theater empties after a rousing finale, I finally spot some out-of-towners. A slightly dazed looking man rounding up a group of noisy teenagers turns out to be a teacher from Holland on a school trip to Berlin. I ask him what his students thought of the show.

"I don't think they understood much," he shrugs. "But they told me they loved every second."

Jane Paulick lived in Berlin for quite some time before going to see "Linie 1."

Editor: Kate Bowen

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