By Mike Hallinan
Hello, dear readers! As we enter this scary month of September, there still remain plenty of dark musicals for us to put in the spook-light. As we have documented, many musicals threaten the fine line of reality and pure fiction. However, it is this writer’s belief that the ones we place closest to reality are the ones through which we find the darkest moments. Such is the case with this week’s spook-light. This show, which has had three Broadway productions and an acclaimed feature film, gives us a glimpse into a dark corner in part of the world at a time when its darkest days were approaching. This show is none other than Cabaret.
The concept for Cabaret first began in a book written by Charles Isherwood, Goodbye to Berlin. In his book, Isherwood chronicled a semi-autobiographical story of a time when he traveled to Germany in the 1930s as Hitler rose to power. Amongst the assorted entries in his book was a story of a friend, who Isherwood gave the name Sally Bowles, a night club singer that was sexually promiscuous and had a relationship which ended in her terminating a pregnancy. Isherwood initially sought to make a film on Bowles, but through a friend met John van Druten, who persuaded Isherwood to allow him to adapt his novella into a play. That play, I Am a Camera, which would star Julie Harris as Bowles. I Am a Camera would open on Broadway in 1951 and play a total of 214 performances, along with a film version. Many people would pursue giving van Druten’s play the musical treatment. Among such people would be director and producer Harold Prince.
Prince, in his exploration of turning into I Am a Camera into a stage musical, was less drawn in by the characters of Bowles and Charles, which he would rename Cliff and make him an American, but by the character of Berlin at a time of social, political, and economic turmoil. It was this vision that Prince, finally securing the rights, would enlist librettist Joe Masteroff to create an environment through which the world outside would at first not reflect the inner world, though deteriorating over time. Thus the Kit Kat Club and it’s charismatic Emcee was born. Originally, Masteroff would produce a version of the show which would have three acts. However, what Masteroff lacked would be the sound to create such a world. Enter John Kander & Fred Ebb. Having previously collaborated on Flora, the Red Menace with Prince, Kander and Ebb delved into research to create pieces they would refer to in their book Colored Lights as “Berlin songs.” Getting a grasp of the style of vaudeville music common in German music halls, Kander & Ebb would give Masteroff the taste of Berlin needed for the show.
Cabaret would have an out of town tryout in Boston. With leads Jill Haworth as Sally Bowles and Joel Grey as the Emcee, the show would open there to a bit of a mixed response with Jerome Robbins suggesting a removal of songs not performed at the Kit Kat Klub. That suggestion would be ignored, but there was an early issue with one song featured in a Kit Kat Klub: “If You Could See Her.” This song, performed by the Emcee along with a dancing gorilla would end with the line “…she wouldn’t look Jewish at all,” which would spark threats and boycotting by various Jewish leaders of the show. The line would be changed to “…she wouldn’t look meeskite at all” (a change noted in the Original Broadway Cast Recording) though Grey would later be known to “forget” the change, particularly in front of a rather disengaging crowd.
After its Boston run, Cabaret would move to Broadway, opening with its leads along with the great Lotte Lenya as Fraulein Schneider at the Broadhurst Theater on November 20, 1966. The show would receive a rather lukewarm response from critics, notably Frank Rich of the New York Times who would call the show “a stunning show with one wild wrong note,” that wrong note would be Haworth, who didn’t get much love from the critics. Regardless, Cabaret would be nominated for 11 Tony Awards, winning 8 including Best Featured Actor in a Musical (Grey) and Best Musical. It would go on to move to two theaters, the Imperial followed by the Broadway, before closing on September 6, 1969.
A film adaptation would go on to be directed by Bob Fosse, starring Liza Minnelli as Sally, a role that she had to refuse when it was offered to her for its initial Broadway run, and Grey as the Emcee. The film would premiere on February 13, 1972. Changes were made from the stage production, notably with the elimination of Herr Schultz, and Fraulein Schneider’s role reduced, putting the bigger lens on the relationship between Minnelli’s Bowles and Brian Roberts (formerly Cliff Bradshaw), as played by Michael York. Also implemented in the movie were the songs “Maybe This Time,” “Money, Money” and “Mein Herr.” The film would be nominated for 10 Oscars, with Minnelli & Grey taking home the awards for Best Actress in a Leading Role and Best Actor in a Supporting Role, respectively.
Cabaret would witness a short revival, starring Grey reprising his role, which would open at the Imperial Theatre October 22, 1987, closing June 4, 1988 at the Minskoff Theatre after only 261 performances. It would be this revival that audiences would see a new song written for the Emcee, “I Don’t Care Much.” However, the most acclaimed production of Cabaret still was yet to come.
Director Sam Mendes would stage a slightly different version of cabaret at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 1993. This production, which would feature a newcomer by the name of Alan Cumming, would implement “I Don’t Care Much” as well as “Maybe This Time.” It would feature Cliff openly bisexual whereas previous productions would depict him as sexually ambiguous. The biggest surprise would come as it would be revealed the Emcee to be a homosexual and Jewish concentration camp prisoner. This re-imagining would garner r the attention of Broadway.
Rob Marshall would come on board when the Mendes-Donmar would eventually transfer to Broadway. For this production, the Roundabout Theatre Company would transform Henry Miller’s Theatre into the real life Kit Kat Klub with tables and the cast mingling with the audience before the show. Cumming would transfer over with the production with Natasha Richardson taking on the role of Sally Bowles. This production, opening on March 19, 1998 would be received similarly by critics with Ben Brantley calling this production “seedier, raunchier… also, less effective.” The show would go on, however, to win four Tony Awards, including Best Revival as well as acting honors for Richardson & Cumming. The show would transfer over to Studio 54, where it would close on January 4, 2004, after a bevy of star casting including Neil Patrick Harris, John Stamos, Adam Pascal as the Emcee as well as Kate Shindle, Molly Ringwald, Deborah Gibson, and Brooke Shields as Sally. It has just been announced that this production will be remounted by Roundabout, Marshall, & Mendes in 2014 with Cumming reprising his role as the Emcee as well as Michelle Williams as all Bowles.
Cabaret perhaps may rank as one of the greatest dark musicals ever. It has made stars as well as seen stars eager to make their Broadway debut in such a classic. However, next week’s spook-light really provides the meaning of what it is to truly be a classic. Care to learn more from the mind of Mike with exclusive sneak peeks into upcoming columns? Follow me on Twitter at @mfhallinan! Don’t forget to check back Wednesday for an all new Backbone of Broadway! Until next Friday, this is Mike scaring off!