Before the flashing neon of Las Vegas became synonymous with the stars, the place to find the big names of American stage and screen was across the water. In the late 1950s, before the culmination of the Cuban Revolution, Havana has become the home of cabaret and clubs, hosting performances from future Rat-Packers such as Frank Sinatra and Tony Martin.
In September, this often forgotten era of cabaret is celebrated here at Southbank Centre as opera and tango singer Ann Liebeck performs a show inspired by the only recorded Havana appearance of actress turned cabaret star, Marlene Dietrich. Ahead of the show, presented by Latin Rediscovery, we caught up with Liebeck to find out more about it, and the music that influenced Cuban cabaret.
Southbank Centre: So how did this show, in particular the pairing of Marlene Dietrich with cabaret of a Cuban flavour, come about?
Ann Liebeck: Back in 2017 I was asked by the Habana Clasica festival to prepare a programme of popular songs. During my research I found out that Marlene Dietrich, and Edith Piaf, had appeared at Havana’s Club Sans Soucis in the late 1950s.
The influence of Latin music in Hollywood music scores was at its height when Dietrich performed in Havana. At that time the cabaret scene in the Cuban capital rivalled that of 1920s Berlin, where Dietrich and her close collaborator Friedrich Hollaender first fostered their international reputations.
This Havana appearance had come near the very beginning of Dietrich’s international cabaret career – before Palm Springs and Las Vegas became associated with the Rat Pack entertainers and huge stars of the day. The audience in Havana were delighted with reference to Dietrich in our music programme, giving our performance a standing ovation.
You mention Dietrich alongside the music scene of 1920s Berlin; most people will know her as an actress first, and a singer and performer only later in a career.
It is often forgotten that Dietrich had begun her musical career training in Berlin - a city famous for its high musical standards - as a violinist. By the 1930s Dietrich was at the centre of the contemporary music scene, one in which operetta composers such as Franz Lehár and Emmerich Kálmán mixed with the younger generation, performers like Kurt Weill and Hollaender.
Each of these stars, and many others of the time, were connected to the film industry and the avant-garde movement, which in turn was being strongly influenced by the bawdy cabaret scene of Berlin, but also Paris, Vienna and Budapest.
There’s perhaps a tendency to think of pre-war music as being very much of a single country origin, but it would seem that sounds were already crossing borders in ways we’d recognise today?
This pan-European appreciation of popular music was certainly helped by the commercial production of gramophone records, meaning that dances were now possible for those without access to a live band.
The favourite dance of the time was the Tango. And we pay homage to this by including a tango in our show, which was penned by Erwin Schulhoff, a classical composer who sadly became a victim of the Nazis in the Second World War. It is had to believe that such lively passionate music as the tango was still being written and performed even in Nazi death camps.
So was it just Tango and cabaret that were thriving across countries at the time, or were there other strands too?
No, music in the post-war years was remarkably global in its influences. Latin dances such as the Foxtrot, Tango and Chacha continued to dominate film scores, whilst the popularity of Edith Piaf – introduced to the American public by her close friend Dietrich – and the vogue for gypsy music lasted well into the 1950s.
Many German composers were combining tangos with the rhythm of Hungarian csárdás, and the Hungarian-American operetta film diva Ilona Massey had her own show on US television which was based on gypsy music and the latin rhythms and themes found in the music of her movies.
With such a vast array of sounds and styles prevalent at the time, how were you able to determine which music to include in this show?
We present music that reflects all of these influences, all of which were feeding into the Cuban cabaret scene of the time. The romantic waltzes of operettas pick up on Latin-flavoured storylines, such as Ball im Savoy by Paul Abraham. There’s also the tangos and habaneras of both Hollaender and the Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona, who was as famous for cabaret as he was as a virtuoso concert pianist.
Lecuona also produced film scores, and had been nominated for an Academy Award in 1942 for his hit, Siempre en mi Corazon (Always in my Heart) [from the film of the same name]. Throughout the awful days of the Second World War, the film industry (both in Hollywood and Nazi Germany) continued to put out marvellous operetta musicals and features with cabaret songs. Films like The Merry Widow, Casablanca, and, a little after the War, Witness for the Prosecution starring Dietrich herself.
For those of us who have only known Cuba since the country’s revolution it’s difficult to see it as a place that was once synonymous with the bright lights and bawdiness of cabaret.
Dietrich was not the only performer to appear in Havana at the height of its cabaret capital fame. Piaf and Massey also both performed in the Cuban city.
But Havana, and Cuba as a whole, still had a sinful reputation in the 1950s, having become the destination of choice for the first wave of American tourism to the Caribbean; a place where the supposedly squeaky-clean young white Americans could indulge their fantasies in brothels and the more raunchy Havan clubs. Places like the Tropicana which specialised in Afro-Cuban extravaganzas and featured black and mulatto artists such as Beny Moré and Nat King Cole.
In an effort to whitewash this perception of the country the owners of the city’s most exclusive club, the Sans Soucis, brought in Hollywood stars to perform; with Piaf, Massey and Dietrich all taking to the club’s stage in the second half of the 1950s. But within a couple of years the Cuban Revolution would sweep away the Mafia-controlled casinos and expelled the Cuban elite and North Americans from all business interests on the island, bringing the scene to an abrupt end.