Andrea Goss as Sally Bowles, Randy Harrison as the Emcee and the 2016 National Touring cast of Cabaret.
Photos by Joan Marcus.
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Cabaret's Striking Metamorphosis

By Sheryl Flatow

Cabaret video

The 1998 Broadway production of Cabaret, and the subsequent national tour that reached the Center in 2000, was not so much a revival as a stunning reconsideration of the classic musical by Joe Masteroff (book), John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics). Directed by Sam Mendes, and co-directed and choreographed by Rob Marshall, the brilliant production was raw and gritty, led by an in-your-face, pansexual emcee who was simultaneously revolting, charismatic and mesmerizing, and reveled in the debauchery of the Kit Kat Klub.

Not that Cabaret was ever a polite musical. Based on Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories and the play it inspired, I Am a Camera by John Van Druten, the show is about the descent of Weimar Germany into Nazism, with the nightclub serving as a metaphor for the world outside its doors. Cabaret also tells two love stories, both of which are ill-fated by this strange and horrifying new order. The first is between Sally Bowles, a pleasure-seeking British singer of limited skill, and Clifford Bradshaw, an American writer. The other romance is between Fräulein Schneider, a German who runs a boardinghouse, and Herr Schultz, a German-Jewish shopkeeper.

The original Hal Prince production, which won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1967, was groundbreaking and quite daring for its time, but it still had many of the trappings of a traditional Broadway musical. Mendes took a much more hard-edged and provocative approach, beginning in London's 250-seat Donmar Warehouse in 1993. He then collaborated with Marshall on a completely revamped American production, using the London version as a starting point. The reimagined production, presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company, played 2,377 performances on Broadway and won the Tony® Award for Best Revival of a Musical. A decade after it closed, Roundabout brought the production back to Broadway in 2014, and critics and audiences were once again enthralled. It returns to Segerstrom Hall from August 9 – 21.

Mendes spoke with Charlie Rose when Cabaret returned to Broadway two years ago, explaining why the show has been such a big part of his life for more than 20 years. "Certain pieces of music theater are classics, worthy of holding up against the great classic plays of the 20th century," he said. "Cabaret is one of the great explorations of Nazis and the rise of Nazis in the form of a perfect metaphor, which is the nightclub, for the gradual entrapment of the German people within that regime."

To underscore that point, the entire production is set within the confines of the cabaret, including those scenes that take place elsewhere, as if the walls are closing in. As Mendes told The New York Times before the Broadway production opened in 1998, "In the early 1930s, you were in a club having a great time. By the mid-'30s, the door was being locked from the outside, and by 1939, you couldn't get out. It's a physical metaphor: You're not an observer; you're part of it; you're there."

The dissolute atmosphere is set with the very first song, "Willkommen," and grows throughout the show. In the original production, "Willkommen" wrapped the decadence in a time-honored, crowd-pleasing opening number. But in the revival, the lascivious emcee is dressed not in evening clothes, as Joel Grey's androgynous character was, but in a black leather jacket which he quickly doffs to reveal a bare chest covered only with a suspender-like contraption and a haphazardly placed bowtie that reinforce the hedonism of the cabaret. The Kit Kat Klub girls wear little more than underwear and look worn and emaciated, as if presaging things to come. The emcee introduces each of the Kit Kat Klub girls to the audience with lewd jokes and gestures, and Marshall's choreography is sexually explicit. The number is an attention grabber, and audiences adore it—never stopping to consider the dissipation they're encouraging. The trap is set.

Everything about the production has been reconsidered. It was one of the first shows, if not the first, in which actors double as the orchestra. Cliff, Sally's lover, is now bisexual and possibly even gay, which is true to the source material. It was an idea that Prince felt audiences would not accept in the '60s.

The title song, too, has undergone a metamorphosis. In the past, it was Sally's ode to the good times still to come; she's recklessly blind to what's happening all around her. But in this production, the approach to the song has changed, as if she is attempting to will herself a successful future while realizing she is doomed.

And then there's the shocking ending, which will not be divulged here. Suffice it to say that if you've yet to see this particular version of Cabaret, and know the piece only from the very different film or another production, you're in for a surprise. And if you saw the production years ago, it retains its power.

Mendes believes it is essential to introduce younger audiences to Cabaret. "We have a generation further removed from the Holocaust," he told Rose, "and the show asks the most important question of the 20th century: How could it have happened? And it does it in a way that is absolutely, breathtakingly theatrical."

Sheryl Flatow is a frequent contributor to Center publications.


Dates: August 9 – 21, 2016
Tickets: $29 and up
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