TO THE THEATRE with Holly Caster
(Come to the) Cabaret
It’s hard to write a review of the Broadway musical Cabaret without using too many adjectives. Brilliant, frightening, cautionary, heart-breaking are just a few that instantly come to mind. It’s simply a great musical. Even people who denounce “I hate musicals” admit that they love Cabaret.
Perhaps it’s the story that’s impossible to resist: in 1929, an American writer named Cliff, visiting Berlin for inspiration, is pulled in and captivated by the sex, decadence, freedom, and excitement of the Kit Kat Klub and its inhabitants. Cliff is, depending on the version you see, straight, gay, or bisexual, and whichever it is, he falls for the headline performer Sally Bowles. Bowles has been played by Julie Harris, Judi Dench, Jill Haworth, Natasha Richardson, Gina Gershon, Deborah Gibson, Jane Leeves, Molly Ringwald, Brooke Shields, and currently Michelle Williams. The character attracts both musically and nonmusically-inclined actresses because it’s perfectly okay if Sally isn’t a great singer. Most of Sally’s songs are sung at the club, where most of the audience seems drunk, stoned, or busy under the table, and not there for the singing.
Cliff is befriended by an amiable German named Ernst who helps him find a room and hires him first as his English teacher, then sometime smuggler. Likable Ernst shows up later wearing a swastika. Part of the genius of Cabaret is that you, too, are pulled in, to these lives on the edge. Cliff loves Berlin but is horrified by what is happening. Others either don’t realize what’s coming or are in favor of it. Cliff’s landlady, newly engaged to a Jewish fruit seller, could lose her license, and a lot more, if she enters into this marriage. She sings the thought-provoking “What Would You Do?,” and you sit in your comfortable seat at the theatre thinking, oh god, what would I have done?
Perhaps it’s the songs. About half are Kit Kat Klub numbers performed by skinny, bruised, scantily clothed people groping each other: “Willkommen,” “Don’t Tell Mama,” “Mein Heir,” “Money (Makes the World Go Around),” and “Two Ladies.” Other songs include the hits “Maybe This Time” and Sally’s final, gut-wrenching song, “Cabaret.” One song, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” starts as a tribute to beautiful Germany and its meadows, stags, and forests and devolves into a Nazi pride song. It’s at the end of the first act, it’s very catchy, and damned if its not the song you’ll find yourself humming at intermission, and forcing yourself to stop!
John Kander and Fred Ebb, who also wrote “Chicago” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” wrote these songs and knew what they were doing. They bring you in, involve you, seduce you. (They also wrote the equally catchy, ear-worm worthy, and far less historically charged “New York, New York.”)
The musical “Cabaret” is based on the 1951 play and 1955 film, “I Am a Camera,” which was based on Christopher Isherwood’s 1930’s book “The Berlin Stories.” Originally on Broadway from 1966 through 1969, “Cabaret” won 8 Tony awards including Best Musical. In 1972, the film won 8 Oscars, including Best Actress Liza Minnelli, Supporting Actor Joel Gray, and Director Bob Fosse. (It lost Best Picture to “The Godfather.”) The 1998 revival again swept the Tonys, winning Best Revival of a Musical, Best Actor, Actress, and Supporting Actor. It’s a winner in any medium, any year. Now it’s on Broadway, back at Studio 54, again starring Alan Cumming as the Emcee. I’ve seen other excellent Emcees, but none as amazing as Cumming. See him if you can.
Richard Watts, New York Post, said of the original production, “‘Cabaret’ can upset you while it gives theatrical satisfaction. It is disturbing, provocative, meaningful, believable and highly entertaining.” He couldn’t avoid adjectives either. The combination of human foibles, last chances at love, excess, a killer score, all set against the backdrop of Germany before World War II make this show unmissable.
My final word on “Cabaret?” Well, after having seen the film, and the Broadway revival twice during its 1998-2004 run, I still was so moved this time that I literally couldn’t even applaud. I was devastated. That’s my final word. K
Holly Caster has lived in Nyack with her playwright husband, two kids, and two cats for over 10 years. She is by trade a writer and by nature a fan of theater, movies, books, history, & art.