“The Nazis loathed jazz and yet they knew how to harness its power' - Peter Arnott on Propaganda Swing

Posted on 25 July 2014

Anyone familiar with the world of Kander and Ebb’s musical Cabaret will know that the 1930s Berlin jazz scene was one of the most vibrant and exciting in the world. But what happened to those talented musicians, artists and performers as the Nazi grip tightened?

In his latest play, Peter Arnott throws a spotlight on that very question. Inspired by the the gripping true story of ‘Charly and his Orchestra’, Propaganda Swing offers a fascinating account of how some of the greatest German jazz musicians of the day entered into a Faustian pact with the Fascists in order to continue playing their beloved music at the price of seeing it corrupted for evil.

But how did Peter first come across the story of Charly and His Orchestra and what inspired him to bring this often overlooked episode in history to the stage?

‘I first came across the music of Charly Schwedler whilst writing a book review for a local newspaper. At the back of this book was a CD of German propaganda jazz’.

‘I couldn’t believe it. There were popular songs like Makin’ Whoopee, but with anti-Semitic lyrics,” he explains.

“I remember thinking this was one of the most incredible stories I had ever heard.”

“It’s based on real people. These were all working musicians. Charly was a Nazi SS officer and he loved jazz, but the rest were quite ordinary musicians. My favourite character is band leader Otto Stenzl, who was something of a stand-up comedian.

“We kind of forget most of the people caught up in the war are just like you and me. It’s a universal story. We all make compromises. The musicians have their own lives and ambitions and then get offered to do what they love. It looks like a fantastic deal. Here’s the music the Nazis are forbidding to be played and they are paid on government salaries to play it – all they have to do is change the words.

“Charly and his Orchestra’s Lili Marleen, sung by Lale Anderson, was the single biggest hit of the war. The Nazis banned it as they thought it was a sentimental ballad but the German soldiers loved it, the Brits loved it and even the North African troops loved it.

“When the Brits found a whole pile of recordings by Charly and His Orchestra it went on to became a huge hit and the band recorded it in 14 languages. After the war the real Lala Anderson became a big star in Germany. So, in a strange way, the music did win.

You can access the full interview with Peter Arnott via the Birmingham Post website.

Directed by Belgrade Theatre Artistic Director Hamish Glen, Propaganda Swing is a captivating combination of WWII intrigue and drama set against a backdrop of glitz, glamour and Big Band swagger.

Propaganda Swing premieres at the Belgrade Theatre from Sat 13 – Sat 27 September. Tickets for Propaganda Swing are priced from £9 – £21.25. To book, call our friendly Box Office team on 024 7655 3055 or book online for even cheaper tickets.