Mention Cabaret and most people will remember the 1972 film starring Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles and Joel Grey as the Emcee. The film, though, is only a part of the story and those who come to Cabaret the musical expecting to see a stage version of the film will be in for a surprise.
How It Started...
The Musical Is Born...
The Curtain Rises...
Next: The Film...
Then The Revivals...
How It Started...
Cabaret is based upon John Van Druten's 1951 play I Am A Camera, itself based upon the Sally Bowles story in Christopher Isherwood's 1939 collection of six short stories, Goodbye To Berlin. The idea of taking Isherwood's work and making a musical of it crossed more than one mind. In 1963 the Broadway producer David Black commissioned songwriter Sandy Wilson to write both a book and a score for a musical version of Goodbye To Berlin. Wilson had made a name for himself with his musical The Boy Friend, a big hit on both sides of the Atlantic 10 years earlier. Julie Andrews, who had starred in the Broadway production of The Boy Friend, agreed to play the part of Sally Bowles in Wilson's new musical.
Meanwhile another Broadway producer, Hal Prince, was busy acquiring the musical rights to both I Am A Camera and Goodbye To Berlin. He had already hired Joe Masteroff as librettist when he discovered that Wilson was working on a similar project. Prince and Masteroff listened to Wilson's songs and considered collaborating with him. In the end they decided against, opting instead for the relatively recently-formed and as-yet-unsuccessful song writing partnership of John Kander and Fred Ebb. Kander and Ebb had been introduced to one another in 1962. Their first musical Golden Gate (1962-63), hadn't made it to the stage; their second, Flora, The Red Menace (1965), starring a 19-year-old Liza Minnelli, had been a flop - though Minnelli did win a Tony award. With Cabaret it was to be third time lucky. Faced by rejection, Wilson abandoned his project, leaving the way clear for Masteroff, Kander and Ebb to pursue theirs.
The Musical Is Born...
Masteroff had originally intended to write a traditional book musical following the linear narrative structure of I Am A Camera. John Van Druten's play had condensed Christopher Isherwood's impressionistic accounts of life in Berlin into a four-month period, shaping his "jumble of subplots and coincidences" into a coherent plot which Masteroff planned to turn into a three-act musical. Under the guiding influence of Hal Prince, however, the musical evolved into something quite different.
Only one of Isherwood's characters was transposed to Cabaret as he had written her. Sally Bowles - "an English girl, an actress... hot stuff, believe me!" - came complete with her Prairie Oysters and emerald green fingernails. Other characters were modified, some were abandoned and some new ones added. Isherwood's big-bosomed landlady, Fräulein Schroeder, became the trim-figured Fräulein Schneider, as she was also named in Van Druten's I Am A Camera. Her role was expanded and she was given a suitor, a Jewish fruit seller named Herr Schultz. Isherwood himself - "Herr Issyvoo" as his landlady called him - became Cliff Bradshaw, an aspiring young writer from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania who gave English lessons to supplement his income. In Goodbye To Berlin the character of Christopher Isherwood is an observer and narrator - "I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking." In I Am A Camera, which took it's name from that line, he became the male romantic lead - homosexual in the play, heterosexual in the film. In Cabaret, it was decided that Cliff's character would be heterosexual, a decision that Hal Prince was later to regret. As the show developed his role was reduced - by opening night the four songs originally intended for him had been cut to just one.
The major change that transformed Cabaret into something quite different from its source material concerned the club where Sally performed to no great acclaim - "she sang badly, without any expression". The Lady Windermere became the Kit Kat Klub. An Emcee - absent in Isherwood's story and in I Am A Camera - took centre stage, presiding over a show-within-the-show, a cabaret which held a mirror to German society, The songs performed in the cabaret provide a critical commentary on the cultural, economic, political and social life of the capital. Interspersed with the narrative scenes, they serve to shine a critical light on the events affecting the principal characters, in particular the rise of the Nazi party and the increasing intolerance displayed towards Jews and gays. The risqué entertainment - the epitome of camp - makes the pretence of distracting the club patrons from their "troubles" but it is actually more subversive, challenging the theatre audience to face up to the "troubles" that the clubgoers had turned a blind eye to. It took the concept of 'life as a cabaret' and turned it on its head, using the theatrical performance of the cabaret to gradually and, by the end, brutally, expose the troubles that the audience thought it had left behind when it entered the theatre.
Masteroff's book for the musical omitted two of the major plot elements from his source material - Sally's and Christopher Isherwood's brief friendship with a bored but wealthy American called Clive, and the romance added by Van Druten between Fritz Wendel, a friend of Sally's, and Natalia Landauer, a young Jewish heiress who was taking English lessons from Christopher Isherwood. Clive does not appear in the musical, nor do Fritz and Natalia, though the dilemma they dramatised of loving someone Jewish in an anti-Semitic society, is dramatised instead in the relationship between Herr Schultz and Fräulein Schneider.
The Curtain Rises...
Cabaret opened on Broadway on 20th November 1966 after a pre-Broadway try-out in Boston and 21 preview performances in New York. The show starred Joel Grey as the Emcee and Jill Haworth as Sally Bowles, with Bert Convy as Cliff Bradshaw, Lotte Lenya as Fräulein Schneider and Jack Gilford as Herr Schultz. It ran for 1,165 performances, moving from the Broadhurst Theater to the Imperial and then to the Broadway. At the 1967 Tony Awards Cabaret won in eight of the categories, scooping the awards for Best Musical, Best Original Score (John Kander and Fred Ebb), Best Featured Actor (Joel Grey), Best Featured Actress (Peg Murray), Best Direction of a Musical (Hal Prince), Best Choreography (Ron Field), Best Scenic Design (Boris Aronson), Best Costume Design (Patricia Zipprodt).
The original London production opened just over a year later on 28th February 1968. Barry Dennen was cast as the Emcee with Judi Dench as Sally and Kevin Colson as Cliff; Lila Kedrova was Fräulein Schneider and Peter Sallis Herr Schultz. The London production ran for 336 performances at the Palace Theatre.
Next: The Film...
The original Broadway and West End stage musicals were significantly different from the film that followed them in 1972. The talentless Sally Bowles, who in the musical had been "the toast of Mayfair" and was as English as tea and scones, became a "most talented young lady" from the USA. Cliff Bradshaw, who in the musical had a "charming American style", changed both his name and his nationality to become Brian Roberts, a PhD student from Cambridge University. Brian is bisexual - and though not a 'Kinsey 6' he was certainly at the gayer end of the Kinsey spectrum. "Alright," he tells Sally Bowles, "if you insist, I do not sleep with girls." The sub-plot featuring Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz was dropped from the film, with Fräulein Schneider barely appearing and Herr Schultz not appearing at all. The couple's songs - It Couldn't Please Me More and Married - were featured but relegated to the role of background music.
Although many of its scenes were set in the Kit Kat Klub, the film reverted to the narrative structure of Van Druten's play, spending less of its time in the club and more time outside exploring the plot lines taken from I Am A Camera. The three characters from I Am A Camera, who had been dropped from Cabaret the musical, were restored to the film - Fritz Wendel and Natalia Landauer, and Clive, whose character reappeared in the guise of the wealthy playboy, Baron Maximilian Von Heune.
Even where plots of the film and the musical crossed paths, there were differences in some of the detail. In the film Sally is already resident at Fräulein Schneider's when Brian arrives; in the musical it is Sally who moves in after Cliff. In the film Sally introduces Brian to Ernst Ludwig, a money-runner for the Nazi party; in the musical the two meet each other in one of the opening scenes.
Under the direction of Bob Fosse, the film became something of a 'star turn' for Liza Minnelli. Three new songs were added, all of which put her in spotlight - Mein Herr and Maybe This Time, both sung by Sally Bowles, and The Money Song (Money Money), which Sally performed with the Emcee.
The Emcee had a reduced role in the film but retained most of his solo spots from the musical - Willkommen, Two Ladies and If You Could See Her. Significantly, the last line of If You Could See Her - originally "She wouldn't look Jewish at all" - was restored to the film. Hal Prince, with no subsequent regrets, had insisted that Fred Ebb re-write the line for the Broadway opening, following complaints from some audience members during the preview performances. With the exception of those odd occasions when the original line "just slipped out", Joel Grey had performed the song on Broadway with the substitute line "She isn't a meeskite at all".
Then The Revivals...
Cabaret has been revived many times, reappearing on Broadway in 1987 and 1998, with another revival planned for 2014. It returned to the London stage in 1986, 1993, 2006 and 2012. With each revival the show has evolved - as John Kander put it: "Whenever you have a revival, you always find things that you want to change" (Colored Lights, page 72). Songs from the film have been incorporated into the revivals and the roles of the Emcee and Cliff Bradshaw have changed to reflect society's more liberal attitudes towards sex and sexuality.
Strand Theatre, London,
17th July 1986 - 4th May 1987.
The first revival in 1986 dropped the Telephone Song from Act 1 and added Maybe This Time from the film to Act 2. The Money Song (Money, Money) was also imported from the film.
Looking back on Gillian Lynne's production seven years later, Mark Steyn of The Independent described it as "swastikas-a-go-go, with a scene even Springtime for Hitler might balk at." (The Independent, 30th November 1993)
Emcee: Wayne Sleep
Sally Bowles: Kelly Hunter
Cliff Bradshaw: Peter Land
Fräulein Schneider: Vivienne Martin
Herr Schultz: Oscar Quitak
Imperial Theatre and Minskoff Theatre, New York,
22nd October 1987 - 4th June 1988.
The Broadway revival the following year saw Joel Grey return to the role of Emcee, this time with top billing.
Two of the songs from Act 1 were dropped, Meeskite and Why Should I Wake Up. The former had been written for Jack Gifford, who played Herr Schultz in the original Broadway production. "He made a terrific moment of it," John Kander explained, "but it was so Giffordesque that we finally took it out of the revival. Nobody else could make it happen" (Colored Lights, page 68). Why Should I Wake Up was replaced by a new song for Cliff, Don't Go. Cliff was now bisexual like Brian in the film, though his sexuality was placed firmly at the centre of the Kinsey scale. The lyrics of Don't Go imply that Sally was the "only girl" for him, his "last chance" of having a lasting relationship with a woman. It was not used in subsequent revivals.
Two other changes were made to the score for the '87 revival: I Don't Care Much, which had been cut from the original 1966 production, was revived for Act 2 and The Money Song (Sitting Pretty) from the original production was combined with The Money Song (Money Money) from the film. Despite these changes, however, the revival was described by John Kander as "more or less a re-creation of the original production." (Colored Lights, page 72)
Emcee: Joel Grey
Sally Bowles: Alyson Reed
Cliff Bradshaw: Gregg Edelman
Fräulein Schneider: Regina Resnik
Herr Schultz: Werner Klemperer
The production received four Tony Award nominations but did not win any of them: Best Revival of a Musical, Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical (Joel Grey) and Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical (Alyson Reed and Regina Resnik).
Donmar Warehouse, London,
9th December 1993 - 26th March 1994.
The 1993 London revival marked a significant milestone, turning the "divinely decadent" Kit Kat Klub into a seedy dive and blurring the lines between the 'cabaret audience' and the 'theatre audience'. The seats at the front of the Donmar Warehouse were replaced by chairs around night club tables, so that the theatre became the Kit Kat Klub and the theatre audience became the club audience.
Although this worked well for the Kit Kat Klub scenes, staging the narrative scenes in a club setting was awkward. Whether deliberately or not, this made the scenes on the train and at Fräulein Schneider's apartments feel 'out of place'.
Another significant change in this production was the Emcee, who became more overtly sexual. Gone were the tuxedo, cane and rouged cheeks of Joel Grey's Emcee, in their place a long black leather trench coat, black silk underwear and rouged nipples, not to mention a pair of braces worn around the crotch. This was an Emcee for the Trainspotting generation. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, Irvine Welsh's novel was published the same year.
Cliff's character was played as a wide-eyed innocent abroad. Although he was reticent about admitting to his bisexuality - "It's not the sort of thing you generally go around advertising, is it?" - a kiss on the lips between Cliff and one of the Cabaret boys left the audience in no doubt.
The Donmar revival dropped the Telephone Song from Act 1 as the 1986 London revival had done; it also dropped Meeskite and Why Should I Wake Up as the 1987 Broadway revival had done. I Don't Care Much, from the '87 revival, was added to the show, as were two of the songs from the film - Mein Herr and The Money Song (Money Money).
The staging of many of the songs marked a departure from previous productions. Tomorrow Belongs To Me wasn't so much performed as listened to, with the Emcee crouching over a gramophone; Married, previously a duet between Herr Schultz and Fräulein Schneider, was part-performed by a nightclub singer, singing in German.
One of the most striking
elements of the staging came at the end of the show, when the Emcee removed his coat to reveal underneath the striped pyjama uniform of a concentration camp internee with a pink triangle and a yellow star pinned to it.
Commenting on this revival, Fred Ebb said: "I could see the production was very well done, but I thought the leading lady was miscast, and I didn't like it a hell of a lot." (Colored Lights, page 73)
Emcee: Alan Cumming
Sally Bowles: Jane Horrocks
Cliff Bradshaw: Adam Godley
Fräulein Schneider: Sara Kestelman
Herr Schultz: George Raistrick
At the 1994 Laurence Olivier Awards the revival of Cabaret was nominated for four awards: Best Musical Revival, Best Actor in a Musical (Alan Cumming) Best Supporting Performance in a Musical (Sara Kestelman) and Best Director of a Musical (Sam Mendes). Sara Kestelman was the only winner amongst them. The other awards all went to the National Theatre's revival of Sweeney Todd, with Alun Armstrong taking the award for Best Actor in a Musical and Declan Donnellan taking the award for Best Director of a Musical.
Henry Miller Theatre and Studio 54, New York,
19th March 1998 - 4th January 2004.
The 1998 New York revival was based on Sam Mendes's production at the Donmar Warehouse. "It was essentially the same concept", said John Kander "but it was made immensely better by Rob Marshall when it came to New York." (Colored Lights, page 73)
The Henry Miller Theater was transformed into the Kit Kat Klub just as the Donmar Warehouse had been. The New York Times critic Ben Brantley likened it to a S&M bar. This production, he wrote, was "seedier, raunchier and more sinister" than it had been in either the original Broadway production or in the film, but he criticised the revival for taking "the hard-sell ugliness" too far: "When Mr. Cumming... tells his audience to leave its troubles outside and that 'in here life is beautiful,' he is all too obviously lying." He did, however, praise the portrayal of the Emcee: "Alan Cumming commits grand theatrical larceny by commandeering a character that promised to be eternally the property of Joel Grey." (The New York Times, 20th March 1998)
Although it was based on the Donmar production, the New York revival added some new elements of its own. When he sang Two Ladies, for example, the Emcee performed the song with one lady and a drag queen, accompanied by sex scenes in silhouette. The New York production also added Maybe This Time from the film, which the Donmar production had left out.
Emcee: Alan Cumming
Sally Bowles: Natasha Richardson
Cliff Bradshaw: John Benjamin Hickey
Fräulein Schneider: Mary Louise Wilson
Although he had missed out on an Olivier Award in London, Alan Cumming was rewarded in New York, winning the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical.
Natasha Richardson, whose performance had also been praised in Ben Brantley's review, won the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical. "The tragedy of Ms. Richardson's Sally, which comes closer to the prototype of Isherwood's stories than any other I've seen, is that for all her determination to be a star, she knows she's not very talented... Born-to-lose characters can be tedious, but Ms. Richardson turns this one into an electrifying triumph." (The New York Times, 20th March 1998)
At the 1998 Tony Awards Cabaret was nominated in ten categories. In addition to the awards won by Alan Cumming and Natasha Richardson, Cabaret won Best Revival of a Musical and Ron Rifkin won Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical.
Lyric Theatre, London,
10th October 2006 - 21st June 2008.
In 2006 Cabaret was re-imagined by director Rufus Norris with provocative choreography by Javier de Frutos and an ingenious set design by Katrina Lindsay.
At the beginning of the show the stage set literally spelt things out for the audience. As theatregoers entered the auditorium to take their seats, they were greeted by the word "Will-kom-men" writ large in three rows on an enormous purple screen which concealed the stage. At the sound of the opening drum roll and cymbal, the 'O' slid open like the shutter of a camera, the Emcee peered out, and bid the audience welcome.
The sliding set behind the Willkommen screen allowed the action to move seamlessly between the Kit Kat Klub and Fräulein Schneider's apartments. The symbolic scenes and the narrative scenes were not so much juxtaposed as they were interwoven. In this production these separate 'worlds' didn't just overlap, they coalesced.
The production was strong on symbolism. A balloon-filled suit worn by the Emcee as he sang The Money Song symbolised the inflation that led Fräulein Schneider to compromise on the rent. The dilemma she faced about marrying a Jew was symbolised in the scene in which The Emcee performed If You Could See Her. A female monkey danced in silhouette behind him. As he got to the punch line "She wouldn't look Jewish at all", the screen dropped, revealing a Jewish woman who had not been a monkey at all. But just as the Emcee pleaded for "eine bisschen Verstandnis" - "Why can't the world leben und leben lassen? Live and let live" - so Fräulein Schneider understood the "objection" and called off her wedding with Herr Schultz.
In the final scene the word KABARET was spelt out in giant letters, arranged right to left across the stage. As the Emcee prepared to bid us farewell Ernst Ludwig walked on in Nazi uniform and knocked over the letters one by one, each falling to the floor with a resounding thud. There was a last flicker of defiance as the Emcee held on to the middle letter A but he then pushed it over himself, turning to join a group of naked figures, huddled together as the snow began to fall. By spelling KABARET right to left it was as if the audience was sitting behind the letters and had joined the naked figures on stage, destined to follow them to the gas chambers. The effect was chilling.
Emcee: James Dreyfus
Sally Bowles: Anna Maxwell Martin
Cliff Bradshaw: Michael Hayden
Fräulein Schneider: Sheila Hancock
Herr Schultz: Geoffrey Hutchings
The 2006 production of Cabaret received a nomination for Best Musical Revival at the 2007 Laurence Olivier Awards but lost out to Sunday In The Park With George. Sheila Hancock, however, won the award for Best Performance in a Supporting Role in a Musical and Javier de Frutos won the award for Best Theatre Choreographer.
Savoy Theatre - 3rd October 2012 - 19th January 2013.
The 2012 revival
was a re-vamped version of the 2006 revival. Director Rufus Norris and choreographer Javier de Frutos made some significant changes, finding what the critic Paul Taylor described as a "fresh and arresting way of expressing the same conception" (Paul Taylor, Independent, 12th October 2012). The Evening Standard critic Henry Hitchings observed that the production was "less concertedly political and less depraved" that its predecessor, "slicker and safer", as Charles Spencer put it (Daily Telegraph, 11th October 2012).
The mood of the first Act was generally lighter, though its denouement was much darker. In the 2006 production Act 1 had ended with naked dancers innocently cavorting around the stage as a pure-voiced youth sang Tomorrow Belongs To Me. In the 2012 version the song was performed by the Emcee. who became a demonic puppeteer conducting the dancers below, all of whom were now dressed in traditional German folk costumes.
By giving greater prominence to the Emcee the 2012 revival addressed an issue that some of the critics had raised in their reviews of previous productions.
In his review of the 1987 revival, Frank Rich had complained about the star billing given to Joel Grey. "To have a Cabaret reliant on its Emcee is almost like reviving Oklahoma! as a star vehicle for the actor playing Jud" (The New York Times, 23rd October 1987). By 1993 the objection was not so much that Alan Cumming got star billing as the Emcee, but rather that the Emcee still wasn't given enough time on stage. "When he is around all eyes are on him. The trouble is that he is not around all that often" (Malcolm Rutherford, Financial Times, 11th December 1993). The Emcee of the 2012 revival was undoubtably the star of the show. "Young proves a compelling ringleader, his voice expressive, his presence snaring the necessary combination of charm and grotesquerie" (Time Out, 11th October 2012).
In his review of the 1998 revival Ben Brantley wrote: "The experience of Cabaret has to be one of illicit seduction: both for the work's hero, the American writer Clifford Bradshaw... and, more important, for the audience, who must be made to feel complicitous with the work's dark spirit of revelry" (The New York Times, 20th March 1998). The 2012 revival seduced the audience by making the Emcee a more beguiling, less threatening character and by dressing him in costumes that were no longer borrowed from the 'Rocky Horror' wardrobe. James Dreyfus had presented the Emcee as "a leering drag artist of the Grand Guignol-going-on-Ann Summers school" (Kate Bassett, Independent on Sunday, 15th October 2006); Will Young's Emcee wore sexy leather hot pants and, at the outset at least, had a mischievous, boyish charm about him which it was hard not to like.
The choreography was also seductive but there was less nudity and touch more razzle dazzle than in the 2006 production. As Charles Spencer put it: "Javier de Frutos's choreography seems less confrontational and sexually unbuttoned than it did the first time around." (Daily Telegraph, 11th October 2012).
The changes made to the 2012 revival made it accessible to a wider audience, and although it was arguably more balanced as a result, some of the critics felt that the production had lost some of its edge. However, as Lyn Gardner observed: "The final 20 minutes of Rufus Norris's revamped revival of Cabaret are shockingly good" (The Guardian, 11th October 2012). Tim Walker of the Sunday Telegraph concluded: "There have been quite a few Cabarets over the years - in addition, of course, to the film - but this is the most compelling I have ever seen." (Sunday Telegraph, 14th October 2012)
Emcee: Will Young
Sally Bowles: Michelle Ryan
Cliff Bradshaw: Matt Rawle
Fräulein Schneider: Siân Phillips
Herr Schultz: Linal Haft
The 2012 revival was nominated for three Laurence Olivier Awards: Best Musical Revival, Best Actor in a Musical (Will Young) and Best Performance in a Supporting Role in a Musical (Siân Phillips). Will Young was also nominated for, and won, The Dewynters London Newcomer of the Year award at the Whatsonstage.com Awards.
Studio 54, 24th April - 31st August 2014
Emcee: Alan Cumming
Sally Bowles: Michelle Williams
Cliff Bradshaw: Bill Heck
Fräulein Schneider: Linda Emond
Herr Schultz: Danny Burstei
Gaiety Theatre, Dublin