When Rebecca Joy Fletcher was a cantorial student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, she chanced upon something in the library that would change her life forever. It was a box set of cabaret songs from Weimar-era Germany, and Fletcher knew in that moment of what she calls “extreme deja vu” that she needed to work with the material.
Now, more than a decade later, she’s produced “Cities of Light,” a one-woman musical show that deals with the rich history of the music that touched her so long ago. Fletcher will present it Feb. 9 at American Jewish University (AJU).
The show came about after Fletcher finished a critically acclaimed run of her show “Kleynkunst!” which ran off-Broadway in New York in 2007 and 2008 and focused on cabaret performers in pre-World War II Warsaw. Fletcher found herself thinking, “What about Tel Aviv?” Although “Kleynkunst!” had been narrowly focused, she knew there was a much wider world of cabaret in Europe and beyond to explore.
“I ended up getting a grant and going and doing research,” Fletcher said recently in a phone interview from her home in Chicago.
She discovered that Israel indeed had its own vibrant cabaret scene from the 1920s through the 1940s, and so “Cities of Light” began to take shape. The show tells the story of a fictional Jewish cabaret performer named Katarina Waldorf as she travels around Europe and later, Israel.
“In a sense, it’s her story, and its also the story of this art form, as it was harnessed and really taken to a whole new level by Jewish artists,” Fletcher said.
Cabaret is a style of theatrical performance, often done in bars or cafes, that features music, comedy, dance and recitation in an intimate setting, often with an audience that’s dining or drinking. “Cabaret is inherently a satiric art form,” according to Fletcher. “It’s a bit like shifting tectonic plates; you don’t know what can happen next.”
“Cities of Light” became a personal journey for Fletcher, who found the experience of researching the piece to be rather eye-opening. “It was exciting and important to me to create ‘Cities of Light’ because it addresses a world before the Holocaust ... that doesn’t exist anymore and that celebrates an art form that most of us ... know nothing about.”
“We have a bit of a tendency ... American Jews ... to think it was all ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ And it was, by and large, not,” Fletcher said. “These were very cutting-edge artists, and they had a vision of what it meant to be a secular Jew.”
Fletcher tried her best to capture the creativity of the art in “Cities of Light,” which runs around one hour and 15 minutes. It features quite a bit of music — all the songs originated or were popular in cabarets — but Fletcher is quick to point out that “theater is at the heart of the piece.” She said that though the songs were originally in other languages, about 70 percent of the show is in English. There are other differences, too.
“We take liberties musically so that the music will be fresh for audiences now,” said Fletcher, who will also be giving a lecture at AJU on Feb. 6. She described it as a supplement for folks who are interested in the back history of the show.
Fletcher, who tours around the country and abroad as an artist-in-residence and performer, is excited to perform in Los Angeles, because it’s her hometown. Her mother, Rabbi Susan Laemmle, is the former dean of religious life at USC, and her family has deep roots in the city, stretching back to Carl Laemmle, who founded Universal Pictures.
The performer is equally excited about a new project she’s working on that centers around a real experience in which a beggar in France handed her a man’s gold wedding ring on the street and told her that she’d found it and that Fletcher needed it. Fletcher describes the piece as “part spiritual journey, part wild goose chase, part circus.” For Fletcher, the new piece, which has the working title “Perfect,” is a nice departure from “Cities of Light.”
“I love cities, and I love that world ... but they’re secular,” said Fletcher, who still serves as a cantor from time to time. She’s looking forward to working on a piece that explores the spiritual side of Judaism, a fitting companion to the secular world of “Cities of Light.”
Right now, however, Fletcher is focused on doing her 97-year-old grandmother proud. She’s reportedly “psyched” to see “Cities of Light.” Fletcher hopes the rest of Los Angeles will be, as well.
“Cities of Light” will be performed at American Jewish University on Feb. 9 at 4 p.m. For tickets and information, visit this story at jewishjournal.com.
“Cities of Light” will be performed at American Jewish University on Feb. 9 at 4 p.m. For tickets and information, visit aju.edu.