Cabaret superstar Sven Ratzke has performed all around the world, including Lincoln Center, Concertgebouw Amsterdam, Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble in Berlin, the Sydney Opera House, and Arts Center Melbourne. Starring in the Dutch/German production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, he was hailed by the show’s creator, John Cameron Mitchell, as “the best Hedwig I’ve ever seen!” His hit show Starman, featuring the music of David Bowie, won Best Festival Show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and was nominated for the Australian Helpmann Award.
Ratzke is currently in New York City for the US premiere of his new show, Where Are We Now. In an intimate setting of piano and voice, he transports audiences to another universe, filtering Bowie’s music and meaning through his own unique creative vision.
The Rumpus: I thought I might begin with your background. Where did you grow up?
Sven Ratzke: My mom is German and my dad is Dutch. I was born in Germany, and my grandparents are from Berlin. My last name is very common in Berlin, but it’s a very strange name for Americans, and also for the Dutch. I went to school in the Netherlands and I still live in Berlin and also in Amsterdam, dividing my time between them. I have to explain maybe that this is an odd combination. The Germans and the Dutch are very, very different. The Dutch are quite loud, and it may seem that they’re a little bit rude, but that’s just the way they are, and they call themselves tolerant. [Laughs] And the Germans are more distinguished and, you know, take everything a little more seriously and all that stuff. So I think that sets the tone of the person that I am on stage. I have both of these sort of characterizations of these countries inside of me.
Rumpus: That’s very interesting. What were some of your earliest musical influences?
Ratzke: Wow, that’s hard to say because I grew up in the sort of hippie environment and there was always a lot of music around me. Of course there was Bob Marley, and folk music, and that sort of stuff. And before I became a teenager, when I was around nine or ten years old, I had a very high voice and there were a lot of parties in this hippie environment and I was singing a lot of operatic stuff—but more as a joke, because I was always interested in theater more than anything else. In a way I still do that, because I tell stories through songs. All the material that I deliver on stage, most of the time I look for real storytellers. Bowie, for example, is one of the few people that really tells stories and creates characters in pop music.
Rumpus: We’ll come to Bowie soon, but as you’re talking with me, I’m curious about your first introduction to cabaret.
Ratzke: Well, I never knew that cabaret was really a genre when I was younger. Again, I was more interested in theater and telling stories. I was doing plays, I directed and wrote them in my teens and a little bit later on, but then I suddenly discovered songs from the 1920s, composed by Friedrich Hollander, who wrote a lot of material for Marlene Dietrich, and I was totally blown away. They were about this little Jewish girl who was very poor, and had all these day in and day out adventures which she describes through her songs.
Rumpus: How did that influence you creatively?
Ratzke: At first, it was the revelation that you could really portray a character while you were singing the songs. Later on, I learned that this is part of Berlin cabaret, and that started it all for me. I was also very intrigued by [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder. He was a film director, of course, but he also wrote songs. And from there I went into the world of Bertholt Brecht and Kurt Weill. When I first came to New York and to other countries, to London and Berlin, and all that stuff, I realized that this is a genre. It’s an intimate genre, often in an intimate room, and it’s a person that tells stories or sings stories. And now I’m way more like, Oh, yeah, okay, this is cabaret!
Rumpus: Please tell me about your first cabaret show.
Ratzke: The title of the show was “Songs of Whores and Little Girls”—I mean that’s a rough translation of “Lieder von Huren und poor Mädchen.” The German title sounds nicer. [Laughs] There were all of these songs from Friedrich Hollander, which I told you about, about this little Jewish girl in 1920s Berlin who had all sorts of sadness, but sang about it all with a smile. And yeah, and on the other hand, I also had all of these songs by Fassbinder and Brecht that were about prostitution and about that side of life. So that was 1999, my first show. I’m twenty years in the business now—can you imagine?
Rumpus: How did you see yourself back then?
Ratzke: Back then I was very androgynous. I looked a little bit like I was a painting from Egon Schiele. I was very skinny, had long hair, and I had no shoes on my feet because I really had no money for beautiful fancy shoes. I wore black clothes, and I was just standing there and doing the songs, and that became a success.
Rumpus: Where did you go from there?
Ratzke: I moved on to starting to tell stories between the songs based on improvisation and then moved on from material from the 1920s to material from the 60s and the 70s. I did also a lot of theater things. For example, I was Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch in Europe. I was chosen by John Cameron Mitchell, who became a friend of mine. And I think it all came together with Bowie because he was also influenced by Berlin in the 1920s and Bertolt Brecht and all of these storytellers. And Hedwig, of course, is also quite a bit inspired by Bowie.
Rumpus: I live in New York and I saw Hedwig performed on Broadway, but I know the story has its origins in Germany, where Hedwig’s story begins. In your view, is there a German Hedwig and an American Hedwig? Are there differences in the ways that audiences see this character based on where they’re seeing the show and the cultural references they bring to their understanding of the story?
Ratzke: Yeah, I think for an American who just wants to have a night out, it’s maybe difficult sometimes to understand the historical content. I mean, everybody’s heard about the wall and all that. But, you know, when we did it, we did it in East Berlin for a very long run, in a once-famous theater, which was a really nice location for it. And I think when Hedwig started out in New York, it was done in this really old hotel, and it had more that raw side to it, too.
It’s just a very strange show. It has a very complex character, and very complex historical context as well. It’s about somebody who is locked in country where there’s a wall, and then he also has a sex change, which goes wrong, and then he is neither man nor woman, but sort of an in-between character. I think the show is way more about that these issues than the historical stuff about the wall dividing East Germany and West Germany. On the other hand, it’s a metaphor, of course for this torn creature who is not belonging to either side. Not man, not woman, not East, not West. She is lost and she’s searching, as we are all.
Rumpus: Do we see Hedwig differently today?
Ratzke: Nowadays, I think especially in America with Caitlyn Jenner and other outspoken people on the covers of magazines, trans women are way more in the open. But when Hedwig was written, in the late 90s, this was not so. I did the show for three years on and off. I mean, you can imagine, I had sixty-year-old housewives sitting in the audience, and I also had the queer community there, too. I had people from Korea, from France—all kinds of different people came to the show, which I really, really loved. And I found it very fascinating that so many different people, if they are open minded, or they open their hearts, can relate to some aspect of that character.
Rumpus: I know we’re going a bit out of chronological order with respect to your career, but before returning to the connection between Hedwig and Bowie, I’d like to hear more about your show Homme Fatale.
Ratzke: Before Homme Fatale, I did a show in 2015 called Starman, which was sort of a dive into the dream world of the 70s. Bowie was still alive when we started, but while we were on the world tour with that show, he passed away. It was a very sad moment, and suddenly everybody said, “Come and play here and do more shows.” But I wanted to do something else, which was inspired by Bowie, and also by Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and Joy Division, who were all great performers and songwriters. I also wanted to give the cabaret genre more of a pop appeal because it often happens that people, for example Madonna, or even Lady Gaga, take a piece of our world. I thought, how would this be if I turn it the other way, you know, if I, as a cabaret performer, have a more pop appeal? So I asked a lot of pop artists to write songs with me or for me, and I covered a couple of the songs by the artists I mentioned. And Thierry Mugler, the famous fashion designer who makes costumes for people like George Michael, Bowie, and Lady Gaga, created the costumes for my show. Homme Fatale was first made as a record, and then it became a tour, just like in pop music.
Rumpus: What was it that made you want to return to Bowie after doing this show? He’s a thread that runs through much of your work.
Ratzke: With Starman, he was still alive, and I was drawn into his universe and all of these different characters that he constantly created. Well, now my analysis is that he was sort of running away from who he really was, and he was drawn into, almost drowning in, this theater act, especially in the 70s. In the 80s he became more mainstream and more himself. He said, “I’ve left Bowie behind and become David Jones again.” I was interested in the theatrical aspects of what he created, the reinvention, and also the mystery. In this time and age, everything is out in the open, for example, on Instagram. But back then Bowie was more of a mystery to us, and a mystery to himself. Now, after doing that show, and after we’ve lost him, I’ve become more intrigued by what a master he was, in the sense of making—we have a phrase in German that means “one big piece of art.” In my opinion, he connected the past with the present, and maybe even with the future. He had a lot of great themes, and many of his songs were really personal. Every time, he started something totally new.
Rumpus: Does that make it easier or more difficult for you to perform material that he created?
Ratzke: He said many times in interviews that he wished that other people would sing his songs. When I started doing this show, and before I did it, there were a lot of people who were like, “Oh my god, you can’t do this.” I was like, “Why not?” I mean, maybe I’ll fail. I’m not saying that I’m going to be the best at doing this, but the material is really good, and if you give it your own soul, your own color, then I think people will really enjoy it. And I enjoy it, you know, I really enjoy singing these songs. They bring me a lot of joy, and also comfort.
Rumpus: Are there any in particular that stands out for you?
Ratzke: Especially the last album, Blackstar, and the song “Where Are We Now?“ That question is really beautiful because we are running from time as well. This is a question where you have to hold, stand still, and ask yourself, “Where am I right now? What happened? What is in the past? Was has influenced me?” And then, “What is maybe going to happen? Where do I want to go?” These are very elementary questions that we sometimes forget because everything is rushing. Everything is happening all of the time.
Rumpus: Definitely. I mean, these are the existential questions that frame that last album. But they are also there, present in his earlier work. As you mentioned, there are many iterations of Bowie. As we’ve been talking it seems to me that you’re most interested perhaps in Bowie of the 70s, following Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane. By the time he’s the Thin White Duke, you know, he’s exhausted. He’s deep in his addiction. He’s possibly suicidal. But then he achieves a kind of catharsis in Berlin, which is chronicled in the Berlin trilogy. He’s able to come out as this other kind of, maybe truer, Bowie. When you first approached him for permission to work with his music, for Starman, how did he react?
Ratzke: This was in 2013, when I was doing Hedwig, and I approached his management because I knew that he was on top of the rights to his songs. The first response was, “We don’t know who you are, so you should send us some stuff, some material.” I did, and after a longer period of time, they told me that he was still looking, that he looks at material himself and decides if somebody can do it. And then he said, “Yeah, go ahead.” That was a huge blessing for me back then, that he liked what I was doing and trusted that I would do a good job with his work. Later on when I did Starman at Joe’s Pub, a lot of people, like musicians who worked with him, came to the show and said they were very moved, and that he would have loved it. That gives a lot of comfort. I mean, to be honest, maybe it sounds arrogant, but I invested so much time in investigating his songs and listening to everything and reading everything, I do have a feeling that we would have understood each other well.
Rumpus: I think it’s an important distinction you’re making. You’re channeling Bowie rather than simply performing his music or presenting yourself as a facsimile. This is why it’s not a tribute per se, but rather something quite different, more like a collaboration.
Ratzke: Totally. I think that’s the most important thing that you have to do as an artist, because otherwise it’s not truthful, you know. You have to find material that you relate to, but color it differently, put your own experiences into it.
Rumpus: So then, no spoilers, but please tell me about what audiences can expect from your new show, Where Are We Now, which has just had its US premiere at La MaMa?
Ratzke: There’s not really one time window, but it goes from Ziggy to the last album. What I do is take you on a trip through my stories. This is a personal show for me, because I tell real stories about Bowie: What he could have made when he was in Berlin with Iggy. He’s up on the rooftop of this big department store, and they’re up there smoking cigarettes with all these other characters. I take you to all of these places: to Berlin, to New York, to London. This show, musically, is very different from what has been done before because it’s only me and this amazing pianist who arranged the songs with me. You’re drawn into the music, I think, way deeper than when it is performed with a full band. Suddenly the jazz and classical aspects that are there already in music become clearer, as do the words and their meaning. You know, I hear a lot of audience members say to me, “My God, I never understood this song until now, and I hear it in a different way.”
Rumpus: Can you share some of those stories with me?
Ratzke: I have two beautiful texts written by Philippe Claudel, who is a very famous French author. In one of the stories, I take you to 1977 when Bowie was writing “Heroes.” In another, called “The Last Station” we meet Bowie, and he says, “I will be always here because you know, I live inside of you.” I think that image is so beautiful because it is true. For someone like Bowie, he may part physically from this Earth, but you know, we are still talking about him. We are still feeling his music, listening to his music, being influenced by him. And I think that is the biggest accomplishment that an artist can have.
Rumpus: That sounds incredible. I can’t wait to see it. You’re also preparing for another upcoming show: Playing Dr. Frank-N-Furter in a 2020/2021 European production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It seems to me that you are attracted to people and characters who are able to invent themselves.
Ratzke: That’s very well said. I’m not interested in commercial stuff and I’ve been offered a lot of things that I’m not really interested in. I’m really interested when somebody approaches me, which happened with Hedwig and now again with Rocky Horror, and says we want to do this with you and with your ideas. I’m always a part of the artistic team, and in these roles, and also as the emcee in Cabaret, which I’ve also done in an earlier part of my career, you can put a lot of your own personality into the work. I don’t know the English words, but I mean to say that the roles that interest me cannot be one-sided. You know, they must have this mystery thing, and surprise, which I think is theater. If I go to the theater, I don’t want to know exactly what happens. I want to have a little bit of a riddle to contemplate, something that makes me think.
The US premiere of Where Are We Now, conceived and performed by Sven Ratzke, with Christian Pabst on grand piano and directed by Dirk Groeneveld, will run December 11-21 in NYC. More information and tickets available here.
Photographs of Sven Ratzke by Hanneke Wetzer.