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“Have I Got News For You” Set to Song: An Interview with Melinda Hughes

These days, cabaret may be closely associated with burlesque, but back in the days of glamorous and decadent Weimar Berlin, it was a key form of social satire. Melinda Hughes’ latest cabaret show “MARGO: Half Woman, Half Beast” returns to cabaret’s socio-political routes, as it explores the life of one of 1920s/30s Berlin’s most famous cabaret stars, Margo Lion, and draws parallels between Weimar and contemporary society. We caught up with Hughes ahead of her performances in Edinburgh to discuss the glitter and doom of the interwar period, and why cabaret shouldn’t be lewd and nude like it often is today.

Culture Calling: What first gave you the idea for your show MARGO: Half Woman, Half Beast?
Melinda Hughes: Mischa Spoliansky, is a composer I absolutely adore. I know his grandson and actually he knew my father. I’ve always been singing his songs and felt that they deserved a more dramatic setting, and to be put in the historical context that they stem from. I was also intrigued by Margo Lion – who really did exist – she seemed a very interesting woman. The whole thing kind of wrote itself.

Image Credit: David Monteith-Hodge
CC: Can you tell me a bit more about Margo Lion’s story? She was a cabaret star in 1920s Berlin?
MH: We went to Berlin, we went through archives where we found her obituary and some interviews, and obviously there’s footage of her performing. But we didn’t find out very about her birth and her background. She was French and she came from Constantinople, which led me to believe she came from quite middle class parents, maybe her father was a diplomat or something. She came to Berlin in 1921 to join the Russian Ballet School, but she was quite tall and gawky, I don’t think ballet was really for her. She met this guy called Gussy who she hung out with who was a singer, and they would tear around all the nightclubs and she got swept away by the cabaret scene. There were two very famous cabaret clubs in Berlin, there was the Wilde Bühne (the wild stage) and Schall und Rauch, which was run by Max Reindhart and Mischa Spoliansky and his lyricist Marcellus Schiffer organised all the music there. Margo got spotted dancing and singing, and that’s where she met Marcellus Schiffer and they fell in love. All the information I do have about her is from Schiffer’s diary, which reveals they had quite a tempestuous relationship. They were both bisexual, they were both taking drugs, he had depression, she was very ambitious but also quite lazy. There seemed to be quite a lot of gaslighting going on in their relationship, which I cover in the show.
CC: It sounds like a recipe for disaster! Did they ever split up?
MH: They broke up and got back together, Schiffer writes about that in his diary. Margo was in one of his shows called Es liegt in der Luft with Marlene Dietrich who she had an affair with. In the show they sing a song called Wenn Die Best Freundin about girlfriends going shopping, which had very strong lesbian undertones. “Shopping” was clearly a front for a sexual relationship. It caused complete scandal in Berlin, it was on the headlines of every paper. That show shot Marlene to fame.

Image Credit: Margo Lion and Marlene Dietrich, © Stadtmuseum Berlin | Foto: Joseph Schmidt
CC: It’s an extremely glamorous time but also has a dark side. Many historians refer to the “glitter and doom” of the period.
MH: Yes. Margo was a bit of a mentor to Marlene, and Mischa gave her singing lessons, so there was a very dynamic group of artists going from success to success in 29/30, and they all hung out together in this decadent party scene. But roll on a few years, Marcellus’ depression kicked in a bit more, which was related to the rise of Fascism, because he was Jewish. There are conflicting reports about this, because I was told he died in August 1932, but Mischa Spoliansky’s diary says he was still alive in January 1933 when their last show was stormed by brown shirts. For dramatic purposes of my show, I follow Mischa’s diary. Hopefully I won’t get harangued by historians.
CC: Have you been interested in the Weimar Republic for a long time?
MH: I am an opera singer, but I’ve always loved Kurt Weill (Weimar composer). Musically it bridges the gap between serious and fun music. You’ve got opera, you’ve got operetta, and then you’ve got the Weimar which is a little bit more of an accessible form of music that connects with the public of the day. The songs are about politics or inflation, women’s liberation or homosexual rights – it’s proper satire. It’s basically Have I Got News For You but set to song.

Image Credit: David Monteith-Hodge

CC: You say that you aim to draw parallels between Weimar Germany and contemporary society in the show? What do you think are the similarities between the two periods?
MH: I think what we’re going through politically now is very similar to the Weimar period. People are thinking a lot about how history is repeating itself and looking back to what was going on then. Song is often our only form of protest. Satirical cabaret has made a real comeback, there’s a lot more people doing it than there were 10 years ago. You can go and have a laugh, because the songs are funny AND clever, and even if you disagree with it, it might still strike a chord. I’ve had plenty of Trump supporters at my shows who have spoken to me afterwards and said “I actually think Trump is quite a good guy”, and I freeze and an icy chill goes down my back. But then they say that they really enjoyed the show!
CC: So you make allusions to Trump in your show?
MH: Not in MARGO, but in my normal cabaret show that I do in London. I do a brilliant Melania Trump impersonation, and I do something called Melania’s Diaries. I also have a couple of songs as Melania, and those are opportunities to make fun of office administration. She’s quite a fun woman to impersonate. What I’m doing is exactly the same as what would have happened in cabaret shows 100 years ago.

CC: You wrote MARGO yourself! Did you take much inspiration from many original sources from the period, books, films, artists?
MH: I read Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin a couple of times. I’d read it years ago but I went back to it. I also very much believe that Margo was the inspiration for Sally Bowels, she’s very much that type of character. But she’s a lot more savvy than Sally because she’s political.

Image Credit: David Monteith-Hodge

CC: A lot of people have fallen in love with Sally Bowels through the musical Cabaret, and subsequently idealised the glamourous Weimar party scene you previously mentioned…
MH: They partied because of the First World War. There was so much death and misery they just wanted to go hell for leather. I imagine it was the same in London during the Blitz. They’d also lost so many men so women were empowered, because they could work and have bank accounts. There were also relaxations towards homosexuality, so gay people flocked to Berlin to be free. It was party time. You had hookers galore, drugs galore… I think we capture that in the show.
CC: What are your costumes like? Do they reflect the fashion of this decadent period?

MH: I wear two costumes and they were extremely expensive even though they were half price! I’m wearing a beautiful floor length cream satin nightgown by Olivia von Halle, who is a very chic upmarket nightwear designer. I can’t even tell you how much it cost because I’m ashamed. It’s beautiful. And then in the second half I’m wearing a 1930s performance gown which is beaded and black. I have a very quick costume change, but we’ve timed it and we make it work. And if it doesn’t and I come on naked no one will be any the wiser because they’ll just think it’s burlesque and part of the show. But that’s not my thing, I’ll leave that to the Edinburgh crowd.

Image Credit: David Monteith-Hodge

CC: What’s the Edinburgh cabaret crowd like?
MH: I have a slight issue with the lewdness of some of the cabaret in the Spiegeltent. I really do believe cabaret should have some sort of message. I’m not really at ease with people calling themselves cabaret and just standing there spraying beer on people. That happens a lot at Edinburgh. So I was very careful not to put my show in the Cabaret category, I’m in the Theatre and Music group. I did a show a couple of years ago called Cocktails with the Diva, which was proper political satire, with very well crafted songs. But I got all these reviews which basically said “she doesn’t get her tits out so it’s not cabaret”. I was so appalled. They’re used to a certain ilk of it there which is people singing songs about wanking and people riding the audience. That’s not what I do. It’s the job of someone who does cabaret to make you think.

MARGO: Half Woman, Half Beast runs from 2-5, 7-12 and 14-18 August at the Assembly Rooms, 54 George Street, Edinburgh, EH2 2LR. You can read our review of it’s London performance here.