I grew up in an industrial town called Duisburg in the Midwestern part of Germany. Basically, every grown-up I remember from my early childhood was either working in the steel industry or in coal mining, except for my father, who was an accountant. And he was a former big band musician, which I would say had a lasting influence on my passion for Swing-Jazz. The only records though we kept playing over the years were Mozart’s A Little Night Music and a very bad recording of The Glenn Miller Orchestra.
I remember we made music in our home at lot. I started piano and voice lessons at the age of six. My sincere ambition to take ballet classes were shattered before I could even touch a barre once. Let’s call it the Billy Elliot syndrome. I never had any problems in school in terms of grades. I didn’t feel any scientific urge though, and let’s say I just tried to get through.
I spent hours alone in our attic. You might call it my first Off-Off-Broadway space. I was totally determined to copy the original Flashdance choreography, which hurt on the carpet and frustrated me because my moves just didn’t look like the ones in the movie. No matter how hard I tried. I thought, “Let’s give Flashdance a break,“ and I chose my next project: A Chorus Line. Needless to say I didn’t really succeed in that one either. This didn’t stop me from watching the movie countless times and seeing myself dancing with my golden top hat.
What I learned in that early years of my ‘career’ was that facing the experience of pain and remaining dedicated to an idea and trying everything to make it happen – is the very first and maybe most important thing to learn as a young person aiming for a career in the performing arts.
While our dull attic turned more and more into that glittery glamor fantasy hideaway – I imagined Broadway must look like. The Duisburg I was living in had practically nothing to offer in terms of musical theatre or show business. And besides supporting my musical endeavors on the piano – my parents had no interest in theatre at all.
The first musical I saw was actually a run-down, third-class international touring production of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. I was maybe 15 years old, and my parents bought the tickets because I simply wouldn’t stop asking for it. I really didn’t have anything to compare it with but I was blown away from the very first second. I suppose it must have been a pretty bad performance because I remember people leaving, but I was just sitting there paralyzed. You might as well say that I had found my purpose that very moment.
I had no clue how to make it up there, but believe it or not I spent the next couple of days in our attic practicing “Maria.” I closed my eyes seeing myself standing in front of a thousand people who were in total awe of me as I was when I was watching my personal hero Tony sing that song the other night. But all of a sudden, I realized something important, “I had a voice. I’m a singer. Damn it! I’m a really good singer!”
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats opened at the Operettenhaus in Hamburg in April 1986 and became a big hit. The show closed in January 2001, after a successful 15-year run. Cats marked the beginning of a new era. For the first time musical theatre aficionados from across the country had the chance to experience a Broadway-style show in a theatre that was exclusively turned into a total Cats experience. That was the time when musical theatre tourism in Germany started to flourish.
I went to see Cats in 1987, and again it significantly changed my life and my perception of professional musical theatre. I was sitting in this beautiful auditorium of the Operettenhaus asking myself how I could ever belong to these people onstage. I was reading every resume in the program multiple times to find a link where I could possibly learn to become a musical theatre performer. My passion had transformed into an unavoidable need. It was quite disillusioning to realize though that most of the Cats cast members had completed their studies in England or the United States. What a bummer. I was back to zero. There was no way I could ever convince my parents to let me leave school and start a life overseas. It wasn’t just about the money. No one in my world back then would have ever considered singing and acting a serious profession.
I finally touched a barre when I was sixteen. My parents didn’t know it was ballet classes. I was ballroom dancing at that time and I told them I was asked to go into more intensive training, which I did. I liked standing at a barre.. I was talented but I would have never made it into a professional dance company.
I would have never danced in A Chorus Line. After forcing my father to sell my piano in a adolescent outburst, I realized that there is only one profession that would make me happy on a long-term basis.
I started singing classes at the age of 17 after suffering through a major pubescent vocal change. My teacher was a Japanese opera singer so she trained my classical voice, which didn’t lead exactly to the desired results – but at least it gave me the feeling of working on my dream. And I got to sing some beautiful The Magic Flute arias which my parents actually enjoyed a lot. I remember that amazing Papageno feather costume my mother sewed for our public performance. I looked like a scarecrow, but my mother finally had more or less accepted the fact that I’m a hopelessly exotic creature.
I spent a week of my next summer holidays in Hamburg doing a Musical Theatre Workshop at the Studio Ullmann, and it was heaven. An entire week of doing nothing else but dancing, singing and acting. I was finally free of all conventions and for the first time feeling warm, welcomed and appreciated for who I really was. What a relief after so many years of isolation and unfulfilled wishes. And all of that in a beautiful city I was lucky to call my artistic home for nearly two decades.
I auditioned for the renowned musical theatre class at the conservatory in Vienna in the summer of 1990, and got accepted. I had finally found my place.
Read Part One of Daniel’s articles.