'Beyond the Horizon' healing wounds of a divided Germany with pop rock

 'Beyond the Horizon' healing wounds of a divided Germany with pop rock
Josephin Busch and Serka Kayan as a star-struck couple in the Berlin Wall musical "Beyond the Horizon." (Stage Theater)

As performers of a popular musical crowded the stage for the curtain call, the audience came to its feet. Bundled-up children cheered. Grandparents beamed. Financial-world types let loose whoops.

Theatrical enthusiasm is a familiar sight in Germany, where over the years, imports such as "Sister Act" and "Cats" have enjoyed fruitful runs. But this wasn't exactly Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Audiences on this Saturday night were cheering for "Beyond the Horizon," which remembers some un-Broadway-like topics, such as the collective pain of the Berlin Wall and the harsh reign of the East German secret police, known as the Stasi.

In Germany's 25th year of reunification, "Beyond the Horizon" has turned into a potent pop-cultural symbol and an unusual example of how a country can use theater both to look back and move forward. The show has become a smash hit, a unique — and uniquely German — piece of historical fiction. In January, it celebrated its fourth anniversary. After a slow start, the cavernous Stage Theater — in the city's landmark Potsdamer Platz — now regularly sells out, and the production has begun to broaden its appeal.

Last year, English supertitles were added, and a marketing campaign proclaims, auf Englisch, "If you haven't seen it, you haven't seen Berlin."

A Cold War riff on "West Side Story," "Horizon" begins in 1985, when East Berlin teenager Jessy (Josephin Busch), who is leading a dull existence behind the Wall, meets real-life West German rocker Udo Lindenberg (played by Serkan Kaya) at one of the only concerts a West German was ever allowed to play in the East. Their subsequent forbidden romance gets Jessy and her family into serious trouble with the Stasi and creates unexpected juxtapositions besides. "Beyond the Horizon" may be the only teen romcom to feature secret-police torture scenes.

With its mix of brutality and comedy, "Horizon" has offered a surprisingly political twist on the schmaltzy musical while also becoming a kind of window into a country's psyche. Singing and dancing can seem like an odd way to recall raw wounds. But "Beyond the Horizon" seeks to offer a counterpoint to the more somber museums and monuments that have popped up in Germany in recent years, and its success illustrates that there may be no single or correct way to process historical pain.

"I think comedy and music are some of the best ways to make trauma digestible," said Ulrich Waller, the show's director and co-creator. "You lose your fear when you see people in this way."

Still, some of those ways can be jarring. In one elaborate number, titled "Guitars Not Guns," bohemian musicians square off with Stasi officers. The former swing their six-strings while the secret police, sporting trench coats and scowls, spin their rifles.

In another scene, Stasi officers beat a pregnant woman — just moments after some of the same agents engage in a bit of "Hogan's Heroes" slapstick, bumblingly trying to manufacture an East German rock star.

And as gritty archival footage of the Wall plays on a giant screen at the back of the stage, a character who has been jailed in an East German prison stands 10 rows up the aisle. Attached to a harness, he is lifted several stories into the air. Then, in a representation of his will to rise above oppression, he floats over the audience while belting out a song, perhaps the only time the story of the Cold War has been told in the visual language of Elphaba from "Wicked."

"It's difficult in Berlin because we don't have a lot of home-grown entertainment like this. It's usually more like the Brecht Theatre," said Busch, the actress. "But it's important to show a normal girl with normal dreams in this normal musical way. Politics is hard, and life is hard, but you can always understand that better with songs."

Waller and Lindenberg (who also makes a cameo at show's end, affecting his trademark Elvis swagger as he swings the microphone cord like a lasso) conceived of "Horizon" after trying to come up with a musical based on the rocker's work.

About ten years ago, they'd realized there was a hunger for the 1980s, particularly from a generation that saw the Germany of its younger lives receding — and perhaps also a need to educate a younger generation that barely knew of its country's divided history.

So the pair came up with the forbidden-romance conceit, which they believed would allow them to put bitter truths in a candy coating. The music would be a mix of original songs and well-known (in Germany) Lindenberg numbers such as "Ein Mädchen aus Ostberlin" (A Girl From East Berlin"), and they commissioned playwright Thomas Brussig to write it. Their goal was to appeal simultaneously to those passingly familiar with East Germany and others all too knowledgeable about it.

Even the halls of the theater would get in on the action — they showcase historical photos and documents while, on just the other side, the audience bops along to the show's pop rock ("Horizon" is more political than another musical set in the era, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," which uses a divided Berlin as a backdrop and dramatic device more than as primary subject matter).

The show has brought up come sensitive memories for the performers. Many of the actors playing Stasi members are from the East themselves; when one told Waller that the portrayal of the secret police was too gentle and that beatings were a regular part of interrogations, Waller added it to the show.

Another Eastern-born cast member, Dirk Schoedon, said the musical evoked some specifically challenging instances, such as of the time he was captured by the Stasi. "I remember sitting there for hours and I even didn't know where I was or what they wanted as they kept hurting me," he said. He now plays a Stasi officer.

Waller says he has experienced a wide range of audience response to the show as well."People in the East nod in recognition — they'd hear songs and think of their dreams from then," he said. "And people who grew up in the West come out [of the show] — and I get letters and messages on Facebook all the time — and say, 'I never knew it was like this.'"

Germany has been undergoing a reckoning of sorts. In the 1990s, the country was hurriedly — too hurriedly, to some critics — trying to leave its painful division behind. Large sections of the Wall were razed, and robust public discussion of the Communist-led German Democratic Republic was nonexistent. That began to change in the mid-2000s, as a belief took hold that reunification shouldn't mean forgetting a divided nation's history.

Recollection isn't always easy, though, what with Germans born after the fall of the Wall now making up 24% of the country's population. Neither is reconciliation. There remain large cultural differences between East and West and resentment on both sides. Westerners, for instance, balk at a mandatory income tax to support the economically lagging East.

The show has dredged much of that up.

"I can see tears in the audience's eyes as they relate to the stories," said Kaya, a veteran musical performer who also starred in German productions of "Spamalot" and "We Will Rock You." "But we also get a lot of backlash. People go outside and meet us and they can tell us it was like this or it wasn't like that. Some are upset we're making light of East and West. Some are furious we're showing the Stasi in a humorous way."

"Beyond the Horizon" has become such a touchstone that during the mobbed 25th-anniversary celebrations for the fall of the Wall in November, speeches and performances at the Brandenburg Gate culminated in a flashy 45-minute set from "Horizon."

The performance ended with Lindenberg departing the stage by floating off in a phone booth-like structure controlled by a giant crane. It was a rather strange sight — one doesn't see a 68-year-old rock star exit through the clouds over seminal historical events often — but also a symbolic one. As the music wound down, Lindenberg's leather-jacketed visage could be seen hovering hundreds of feet above both cheering crowds and the Reichstag, whisked away over history.