05/28/2013 05:11 pm ET Updated Jul 28, 2013

Bringing the Weimar Republic to Life

Eighty years ago this month, thousands of German university students held torchlight parades and rallies that culminated in one of the 20th century's most shocking events: Egged on by the Nazi thugs who had just seized power in Berlin, they broke into libraries and burned more than 40,000 books by authors whose works were labeled a threat to German decency--a Jewish-backed conspiracy that called for a "Sauberung," a literary cleansing by fire.

Tossed into the bonfires were books by Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Heinrich Heine, Franz Kafka, Heinrich Mann and others whose writings represented the cream of German culture. But Hitler's attacks weren't limited to authors. He declared war on all artists--playwrights, composers, painters, architects, cabaret performers and filmmakers--whose fiercely provocative work had flourished during the rise and fall of the Weimar Republic.

Bookended by the collapse of the Kaiser in 1919 and the rise of the Third Reich in 1933, Germany's doomed, 14-year experiment in parliamentary democracy was a political debacle. But the Weimar era unleashed a creative revolution--a burst of artistic genius--that continues to astonish us decades later. The world has immortalized these years, with richly evocative films like "Cabaret" and other tributes to a cultural hothouse that vanished as quickly as it appeared. Yet for some observers, the challenge is not simply remembering the past. How and why, they ask, does this turbulent period speak to us today?

Enter Mark Nadler, an award-winning cabaret performer who has transformed his personal fascination with the Weimar Republic into a must-see show, "I'm A Stranger Here Myself: Music from the Weimar and Beyond," that resumes its successful run Tuesday at the York Theatre. His two-act journey through history, directed by David Schweizer, is an alternately brooding and ebullient recreation of what it was like to be in a Berlin cabaret during the 1920s. It's also a disturbing reminder that the dangerous climate in which so much Weimar art took shape may not be so different from our own times.

"I created the show because I felt that this period speaks to us in so many ways, and it was important to remind audiences," said Nadler, who won the 2013 Nightlife Award for Outstanding Cabaret Performer for the show, which was first performed at 54 Below. "We've had an enormous creative outburst in this country in recent years, just as they did in Weimar, with new freedom to be sexually and artistically open. But there are always threats to that kind of freedom. It's under constant attack," he said.

Nadler's show, in which he plays piano and is accompanied by Franca Vercelloni on the accordion and Jessica Tyler Wright on violin, ranges widely through the repertoire, with songs by Brecht and Weill, Frederick Hollaender, as well as Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, Ira Gershwin, and others. Linking all these songs is the theme that most Weimar artists were outsiders shunned by mainstream German society. A haunting line from a Hollaender song threads its way through the evening: "I don't know who I belong to. I believe I belong to myself, all alone."

Nadler's exuberant, larger than life personality and his ability to shift seamlessly from passionate outbursts to whispered introspection gives the show its emotional edge. One moment he's channeling the quiet emotional pain of an exile from Hitler's Germany; the next he's challenging the audience to feel his own outrage. A tall, lanky man, he roams the stage hungrily, along with his two musicians.

The production, which was skillfully expanded from its cabaret version into a full-fledged theatrical piece, has struck a chord with New York audiences, said Jim Morgan, the York's highly respected Producing Artistic Director. "I take my hat off to both of them (Nadler and Schweizer), because they've staged a show about a fascinating period that has truly touched people," he said. "I'd love to see it be developed even further as a theater piece. The storyline is compelling and the music is extraordinary."

Some tunes, like Brecht and Weill's "Bilbao Song," are familiar. But others, like "Schickelgruber," by Weill and Dietz, a satire about the Fuhrer's real name, are revelations:

"Schickelgruber! Schikelgruber!
You were born a child of shame.
You have always been a bastard,
Even though you changed your name."

Weimar's raucous cabarets may be distant memories to some, but "I see them as the Saturday Night Live of their time, or maybe The Daily Show, where people had a chance to comment satirically and outrageously on their government," Nadler said. "The danger is that this freedom could be crushed - as it was when Hitler took power."

For Nadler, a proud gay artist, there is no greater example than the story of homosexuals in the Weimar Republic, who viewed Berlin as a welcoming refuge in the 1920's, only to be rounded up and targeted for extinction years later. He believes the parallels with America--which has only just begun to recognize the dignity and civil liberties of gay men and women--are striking and troublesome.

"I'm a Stranger Here Myself" features two show-stopping songs that illuminate the courage and resilience of homosexuals during the Weimar period. "The Lavender Song," by Mischa Spoliansky and Kurt Schwabach," is an unflinching ode to gay liberation that seems light years ahead of its time: "The crime is when love must hide," Nadler sings, "From now on we love with pride."

But it is in Hollaender's "Oh, Just Suppose" that Nadler most impressively joins past and present, tapping into the subversive impulse that fueled artistic freedom in the Weimar Republic. The song begins as a slyly seductive commentary on the rapidly blurring line between what is morally right and what is personally--or simply financially--necessary in human sexual behavior.

Then Nadler boldly ups the ante, striding into the audience and playfully separating a wife from her husband. His song goes on to explore the "what ifs" of gay attraction, and suddenly he's sprawled across the laps of two startled men.

The crowd erupts in laughter and Nadler says: "You know, that song was considered shocking when it was first performed in the Weimar Cabarets of the 1920s. Shocking! And I find it shocking that it was considered shocking."

"It still is," snaps an elderly woman sitting nearby, as an uneasy--and unscripted--silence greets the exchange.

"Of course," Nadler says, resuming the show, "Germany was never exactly friendly to its gay population."

Weimar lives.

"I'm a Stranger Here Myself" continues through June 9 at the York Theatre Company, 619 Lexington Ave at 54th St.