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‘Cabaret’: the darkness behind the razzle-dazzle

By Brett Campbell
July 6, 2017
Featured, Music, Theater

Last week’s production in Portland conclusively demonstrates just what a work of dark genius Cabaret is.

No, not the popular Broadway road show that Broadway in Portland brought to Keller Auditorium last week. Sure, this third major incarnation of the venerable show, Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall’s Tony Award-winning production, boasts some catchy tunes, powerful source material, a still-fascinating concept — using the cabaret setting to both contrast with and comment on the rise of Nazism in inter-World War Germany. And given the alarming rise in neo-Nazi rhetoric and power (including one of the US President’s closest advisors and a significant part of his power base) and resurgent homophobia (anti-gay laws from Russia to Uganda to Arizona to murders in Orlando), it has renewed relevance.

But beset by shoddy casting, acting, and singing and a flawed book, if the current road show was the only version of the immortal Kander & Ebb musical you’d ever seen, you’d wonder why the show has lasted half a century.

Even the orchestra is beautiful in the current road show of ‘Cabaret.’

No, as renowned as the original musical and this long-running Mendes-Marshall revival (which upon its 1993 debut scored a huge financial success, snapped up its own slew of Tonys, and sparked several re-revivals including this one) were, it’s the second major version, the 1972 film version of Cabaret, directed by Bob Fosse, that will stand as one of the great artistic creations of the 20th century, one still relevant today. And the differences between what happened onstage last week at the Keller and what appeared onscreen 45 years ago reveal the kinds of tough artistic choices that transform a work of art from good to genius.

Murdering Darlings

There’s no definitive version of Cabaret. As with Hair and many other musicals, it evolved through many incarnations, even before it hit Broadway in 1966: fictions by Christopher Isherwood (collected in 1939 as Berlin Stories) based on his real-life experiences in Weimar Germany, adapted into a 1951 play and 1955 film (I Am a Camera), and finally a hit musical when producer Hal Prince connected it to the songwriting team of Fred Ebb and John Kander. Many of the 40-plus songs they wrote for it were dropped before the show reached Broadway, others later. Later productions occasionally added new Kander & Ebb numbers or restored old ones.

But even though the hit Broadway show ran three years and won eight Tony awards including best musical, when it came time to make the 1972 film, “two-thirds of John Kander and Frebb’s Tony Award-winning score was tossed out, along with two main characters and one major plot line,” wrote Stephen Tropiano in Cabaret: Music on Film. Out went “Perfectly Marvelous,” (a perfectly Julie Andrews-style delight which itself originally replaced the fun but inferior “Roommates”), “I Don’t Care Much,” “It Couldn’t Please Me More,” and others (some re-appeared as instrumentals in the film) whose dramatic functions were already duplicated by existing numbers, didn’t fit the film’s new concept, or slowed the main story. They also ordered up a few superior replacements.

Kander & Ebb delivered. The new “Money Money” is a much stronger explanation/ indictment of the greed that underlies Weimar Germany’s — and the characters’ — predicament than the bouncily ironic “Sitting Pretty.” “Mein Herr” characterizes the flighty Sally Bowles much more sharply than “Don’t Tell Mama,” and provided choreographer Fosse the opportunity to use a single prop — a chair — in the most creative ways imaginable.

The biggest addition, however, wasn’t a new song at all. Written a decade before the film, “Maybe This Time” was actually an older K&E song from a musical that never got produced (the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart and many other masters were always resuscitating fabulous gems from earlier flops), which the songwriters gave to another pop singer to record. And despite the fact that she was neither Brit nor blonde, as the script called for, they had the ideal singer for it, and for the role of Sally Bowles, in place even before Fosse arrived.

Although Kander & Ebb had her in mind when they wrote their original Cabaret score, Liza Minnelli had unsuccessfully auditioned for the Broadway Bowles role. As a teenager, she’d even recorded “Maybe This Time” on her first album eight years earlier, and had been singing it live ever since. By the time it came to cast the film, she was an Oscar nominee and Tony winner (in an earlier Kander & Ebb musical), and an easy choice. She urged Fosse to include it in the film, and the new/old power ballad perfectly captured Sally/Liza’s desperate neediness. It helped Fosse turn Sally Bowles into a character simultaneously attractive (to us white knights or child-adults) and repellent (thanks to her heedless hopefulness and narcissistic self-delusion). Either way, you can’t take your eyes off her. Here and in so many other ways, by granting her a psychological depth and motivation the musical lacks, Fosse eventually makes us see, even root for, the Sally in all of us. Her refusal to grow up mirrors the parallel refusal of so many others to take the rising Nazi threat seriously. The song also became the vehicle for Minnelli’s spectacular performance — one of the most electrifying musical moments ever committed to film.

It also makes her a tough act to follow, as demonstrated by the stiff,  brusque-tempo performance in the Keller, with a rooted Sally desperately clutching the mic stand, maybe in hope that it would keep her from drifting even farther from the assigned pitch than she already had. I suppose you can make a dramatic case that a singer as sensational as Minnelli wouldn’t be playing a tawdry Berlin dive, thus making the current Sally’s rushed, rooted race-through more plausible. Isherwood himself thought both Minnelli and Grey way too talented for the cabaret they were supposedly performing in. But it sure makes for forgettable theater. (Reputedly, other stage Sallys — Natasha Richardson, Judi Dench, Michelle Williams, and on and on — have managed to capture the character’s essential vulnerability.)

But while the prospect of hearing those jettisoned songs is a prime initial attraction for the stage version (which inevitably later also absorbed the film’s added songs), they also reveal Fosse’s wisdom in making the changes he did. It took real guts to murder so many darlings from a hit musical. A film isn’t a play, and what works on stage doesn’t necessarily succeed on screen, and vice versa. But even as a musical, the admittedly catchy ejected numbers burden the show with too much conventional Broadway lightness, and unbalance the plot. We have to wait way too long before the ominous specter of Nazism really begins to clutch our interest, and the characters and their demimonde alone aren’t really compelling enough to carry the load without it.

This is especially true of the inciting character, Cliff Bradshaw, who never amounts to much more than the human camera Isherwood initially imagined. Neither the current Cliff’s blunt, one-dimensional depiction, nor a couple of K&E character songs from 1966 and 1987, both later excised, can elevate him beyond his original function — to show readers this colorful cast of Berlin bohos.

The original musical did provide other characters for sympathizing with, like Fräulein Schneider (originally played by the immortal Lotte Lenya, a living connection to the world portrayed in the musical, later by Judi Dench and many other stars) and her suitor Herr Schultz.

They’re mostly gone in the film. Fosse and writer Hugh Wheeler cured the musical’s dramatic flaws by making the movie really an almost entirely different story. After cutting the less compelling plot lines and characters, they also went back to Isherwood’s original stories to (re-) insert crucial subplots and characters. Now, the crucial romance between Jewish and non Jewish characters happens to much younger and dramatically involving characters — and packs a critical, hidden plot twist. And a bisexual element (probably off-limits six years earlier) helps flesh out both Cliff (renamed Brian Roberts for the film) and Sally’s characters and motivations. A few brief added scenes (greatly abetted by closeups unavailable on stage) also give Michael York the chance to display the subtle steel of uptight-Englishman Brian’s character.

Both the original musical and the film had an ace in the hole: the trickster MC, Joel Grey, who along with Minelli scored one of its eight Oscars.

More Naughty than Nasty, More Risqué than Risky

Besides adding songs and storylines, Fosse ramped up the raunch. Few remember that the original movie version of Cabaret briefly earned an X rating for its implications of bisexuality, abortion, anti-Semitism, and other then-verboten fruits. Though writer Isherwood was gay, his stories and subsequent versions had avoided overt assertion of Cliff’s homosexuality.

Probably conscious of how our culture’s shock threshold has risen in the ensuing two generations, Mendes’s current version tries to raise the risqué quotient by injecting vulgarity — Sally’s crude spread-eagle, cootchie-flashing invitation to Cliff when she wants to move in, simulated sex acts behind a shadow screen (a tired device even 20 years ago). Compared to Fosse’s dangerous sexiness, Marshall’s faux-lascivious choreography seems merely garish, barely titillating, much less transgressive, like a superannuated prostitute who’s trying way too hard.

Maybe it’s just that times have changed — I’ve seen racier moves by the Blazer Dancers during timeouts — maybe it’s the fact that the cavernous Keller makes a singularly inhospitable setting for a production originally set in an actual cabaret, Studio 54, but this performance made its characters little more than caricatured sex dolls, with all the lustiness of a Victoria’s Secret catalog or American Apparel ad. It’s hard to feel danger, decadence, lust, or much of anything else when none of the people involved seem real.

When the best moves of the night come from the house band while playing during the entr’acte, you know something’s gone terpsichorially tipsy. Admittedly, it’s a fabulous instrumental sequence, with the band, who double as supernumerary actors, playing their characters as smartly as their instruments. Casting for both acting and instrument-playing is one of Mendes/Marshall incarnation’s most successful innovations.

You can’t blame the new team for not slavishly imitating Fosse’s film,  including “de-Liza-fying” Sally. Mendes/Marshall’s version also avoided following Grey’s elusive example too closely by making Alan Cumming’s MC darker, sexier —Daniel Craig’s Bond vs. Grey’s Roger Moore. Unfortunately, the campy current MC comes off more like PeeWee Herman, lacking Cummings’ edgy sex appeal and Grey’s impish irony.

Just as a movie isn’t a musical, the converse is also true, after all, and there’s still plenty of appealing music and more in the current version. But the rest of this touring production is undermined by weak acting, wayward singing, wavering accents and worse. Compared to Fosse’s artistically daring moves, this version is more risqué than truly risky.

Unearned Angst

One of the most talked about Mendes/Marshall additions is the surprise ending, which like the rest of the revival unsubtly labors to amp up the volume by playing the ultimate card: the Holocaust. The MC doffs his evening garb to reveal a concentration camp uniform (adorned with both yellow six-pointed star and pink triangle) as a grainy photo of a Nazi death camp is projected behind him.

Granted, there’s a direct connection between the rise of the nascent Nazi Party in 1931 and Hitler’s Final Solution that began in earnest a decade later. But wrenching the story completely out of its time and place for the only time to smash the audience over the head with something we already understand feels at best artistically gratuitous — exploiting the worst thing that ever happened in an last-minute attempt to paste on a gravitas and depth that the story has failed achieve on its own.

Compare that sledgehammer to what Fosse did so brilliantly in one of the film’s finest sequences, the only musical number that doesn’t take place in the Kit Kat Club itself.

Of course, you can’t really do this on stage. Without a single word of dialogue, Fosse masterfully unveils (through musical characterization and intimate closeups on faces alone) the gradual curdling of beatific joy into a righteous angry aggression that illustrates a substantial stretch of historical human horror: every crusade born in alleged good intentions exploited by political manipulators into oppression and sometimes ultimately mass murder, from the actual Crusades to the death camps to Cambodia to Rwanda to Isis to Orlando and beyond. (It’s the same fury you see on the faces of some attendees of certain rallies for one of the presidential candidates in the last election, and fuels the most recent NRA ad.) He didn’t need blood and guts, gunfire, explosions or even a projection of a death camp to create one of the most chilling scenes in all cinema.

And one reason it works is that Fosse lures us in at the beginning with the angelic purity of that song and singer — paralleling the appeal of German (or any other) nationalism to a troubled people in tough times. As we see beauty transformed into something dark and deadly, we realize that in our own desire for purity and transcendence lie the dormant seeds that can, if properly nurtured and carefully taught, sprout into the worst horror — the potential Nazi in all of us. By pinning all the blame on the Bad Dudes who built the death camps, the current ending lets us off the hook in a way the film never does.

It’s one of many examples of how Fosse, despite his own Broadway background and the story’s setting, made Cabaret as a real movie, not merely a filmed version of a stage show. From the opening shot — a face in a mirror, an ideal metaphor — so many powerful sequences, like that one, could really work only with closeups, location switches, and quick intercutting difficult or impossible to pull off onstage. Through brief cuts of glimpsed violence and other ominous portents, the film subtly and steadily builds tension around and beneath the main characters’ relationship — much as many Germans of the time must have at first seen the Nazis’ rising threat only in glances that could be avoided by simply looking the other way. Maybe at the Kit Kat Club’s razzle dazzle.

Bob Fosse directing Liza Minnelli in “Cabaret.”
Photo: Lars Looschen, Music Division, Library of Congress.

That kind of artistic courage is barely imaginable today: veering away from both his own stage background and the musical’s stage success, in favor of newly added filmic touches, a newbie director with only a single film credit (and that one a flop), best known as a choreographer, dares to shear some of the catchiest tunes and sympathetic stories from one of the most honored stage musicals of the decade, replacing them with new songs, storylines and sequences. (Here let’s also credit Hal Prince, Cy Feuer and the other producers for trusting Fosse’s then-unproven film genius.) And he turned what already been a stage success into a cinematic classic.

Fosse won that year’s Oscar for Best Director (beating out among others Francis Ford Coppola, who made a little film about an Italian American family business that year), making him the only artist in history to collect a best director Oscar, Emmy (for a Minnelli TV special) and Tony (for Pippin) in the same year. As a recent biographer notes, the animating tension throughout Fosse’s life was razzle dazzle masking the darkness beneath — a perfect description of Berlin cabaret life, self-delusion and denial as the Nazis rose to power. He knew how easy it was for us to distract ourselves from descending darkness with shuck and jive.

No use permitting some prophet of doom
To wipe every smile away.
Come hear the music play.

No wonder Fosse connected with Cabaret’s story so deeply. It was personal. And unlike the stage versions, his movie makes it personal for us too. And that’s what makes it so scary, so sublime … and so necessary, especially today.

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