Ask anyone who was in the city of Berlin when the Wall fell in 1989, and that’s how they would describe it. At least that’s what actor-composer-writer Joseph Simeone found when he asked people who were there.
“Literally overnight, the Eastern country ceases to have any sort of government and the Western side of the country hadn’t expanded its law to cover the Eastern part of the city,” Simeone (A Bronx Tale) explains. “It’s a totally lawless time, and you have this cast of creatives that have flooded into—what is essentially—an abandoned space, creating life and art and a community where there wasn’t before.”
November 9, 2019, marked 30 years since the destruction of the Wall; it also marked the birth of Simeone’s new musical Café Nadine.
Historical accounts of this chaotic time are few and far between. “There’s a lot of research on before the Wall fell,” says Simeone. “But there isn’t anything about the reconstruction, basically because no one had a clue what the hell was happening.
“Coincidentally, I found people in my life that had lived through it.”
Simeone wasn’t looking to write a musical set in Berlin. In fact, he was working on another show Love Affair (which will debut at Phoenix Theater Company, after a New York reading that starred Will Swenson and Laura Osnes). But in his down time, he enjoyed nights of wine and chatter with his neighbor, Sophie Lasalle, “a very eccentric French woman,” who had moved to Berlin at that time in search of philosophy and freedom. Simeone became fascinated with her stories.
One tale, in particular, took hold of him. Berlin was a city of basements and attics. Lasalle remembers a night when one such underground created a mock 1920s casino with found objects from the streets. “You would come there dressed in everyday blah clothes and when you arrived they had 1920s clothes hanging, which they stole from abandoned mansions—suits you would wear or dresses or accessories and we had to put them on,” she told Simeone. “They recreated a whole casino and we were playing with chips and that was the performance.”
This idea of an underground hotbed of creativity and personalities inspired the multi-hyphenate to dig for more personal accounts and put pen to paper in a musical with a techno score. That environment also intrigued the late director-producer Harold Prince, who took interest in Café Nadine before his death.
Having made his Broadway debut in The Phantom of the Opera, Simeone reached out to his director about Love Affair—which Prince praised—when Prince asked what else he was working on and the Berlin musical came up.
“What [Hal] loved about it was a bunch of disparate people in a bar—that was one of the phrases, ‘a bunch of disparate people,’” Simeone recalls. “That germ of an idea was exciting to him and that was where I first came up with the whole idea will be in a bar, it will be immersive. It just confirmed that all of these crossroads of life coming together in this place was something.”
The work has also caught the eye of director-choreographer Bob Avian, who directed Simeone in A Chorus Line at City Center.
Yet, the Chorus Line connection seems no coincidence. “Joe is working from the same sort of place [as A Chorus Line], taking biographies from people who were involved in the Berlin crisis,” Avian notes. “There’s something very powerful when someone who’s there firsthand can tell you how it smelled, what was the weather that day….” Simeone says.
Still, converging those stories into a single narrative presents a challenge. “He’s so smart. The thing I was trying to get him to do was focus more,” says Avian, who has informally advised Simeone on the project. “You got to zero in on four or five stories to tell your story. The rest is all subliminal.”
Simeone took that advice.
Café Nadine follows a French girl who comes to study philosophy; the owner of the bar, embroiled in a battle for the legal ownership of the Café; a transgender character exploring newfound liberation; and a group of Irish men there to connect East and West via railroads and bridges.
Yet all of these stories revolve around the central character: Café Nadine herself. “It’s a brothel, beer hangout, drug den, laundromat,” says Simeone, and the musical is a tapestry of lives touched by the café, woven with choreography by Matthew Couvillon.
In honing the musical, Simeone has spent nearly two years conducting interviews with people who lived this. “He’s using the truth as his basis as opposed to romanticizing it,” says Avian.
“In the history of walls, you have the Roman wall, the Great Wall of China, they’re all meant to keep people out,” says Simeone. “But the Berlin Wall is the only historical wall meant to keep all its people in. This became, I found, ingrained into the psyche of the people who were there; there were some people who still had this wall of the mind.”
Just as A Chorus Line began with a question, “what happens when you can’t dance anymore?” and used the real-life experiences of chorus dancers to answer it, Café Nadine aims for the same, asking the question: “We all know what happens when we build walls up, what happens when we tear them down?”