From the Berlin Stories to Cabaret
Cabaret has made an indelible impact on musical theatre and inspired some of the greatest theatrical artists of the last century to imprint the work with their unique style. The undeniable power of this musical lies in the universal question it poses: why do we again and again allow destructive powers to take control of society?
Christopher Isherwood, author of Cabaret's source material, The Berlin Stories
The vibrant characters of Cabaret, including nightclub singer Sally Bowles, writer Clifford Bradshaw, and the presiding Emcee of the Kit Kat Klub, help to draw audiences into the world. None of these characters would exist without the work of one young English writer. Christopher Isherwood wrote about the people he met and everything he encountered while living at the apex of the most infamous turning point in the history of the modern world. His stories, after a number of incarnations, would bring us to Cabaret.
Christopher Isherwood was kicked out of Cambridge University in 1925 for writing joke answers on his second year exams. He was an unhappy student and jumped at the chance to leave his formal education behind. Free of academic responsibilities, he moved to Berlin, entrenching himself in nightclubs. This is where he met Jean Ross, the original inspiration for the character Sally Bowles, and many others he would co-opt and develop. As a reflection of his time there, he wrote a collection of short stories, The Berlin Stories, chronicling Berlin in the 1930s as a cosmopolitan world of decadence and detachment in the same moment that Germany was being taken over by Adolph Hitler's regime. This was a true labor of love for Isherwood. When he was writing the book, Isherwood was chastised by the owner of the boarding house where he was residing: "after all, old boy, I mean to say, will it atter a hundred years from now if you wrote that yarn or not?" The Berlin Stories remains Isherwood's most popular work.
John Van Druten was inspired to adapt Isherwood's book into a play. The title of that play would become I am a Camera, which was taken from an early line in one of Isherwood's short stories, "Goodbye to Berlin": "I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking." Van Druten focused his play on the story of Sally Bowles, the enigmatic club singer who enchants and befriends a young English writer. For the first production of I am a Camera, Van Druten found his leading lady in Julie Harris, already a well-known star of film and stage. Isherwood was taken aback at how perfectly she embodied the character. "Miss Harris was more essentially Sally Bowles than the Sally of my book, and much more like Sally than the real girl who long ago gave me the idea for my character," he said. Julie Harris received rave reviews for her performance and critics were impressed by the play's daring views, in 1955 I am a Camera was turned into a movie, starring Harris. In 1965, Harold Prince, a (soon- to-be famous) director and producer, knew he wanted to adapt I am a Camera into a musical, but he wasn't sure of the exact approach to take. He was acutely aware that it shouldn't fall into the category of many popular American musicals of the time.
Broadway was populated with romantic musical comedies such as Hello, Dolly! and She Loves Me, where sinister forces are overcome and the good guy always gets his girl. "It was only after we'd come by a reason for telling the story parallel to contemporary problems in our country, that the project interested me," Prince said. Putting the struggles of the civil rights movement of the 1960s in the context of Nazi persecution of minorities would give him that powerful reason. Prince realized that Cabaret had to inhabit two worlds: one telling the story of Sally Bowles, the writer she befriends, and the denizens of Berlin, and another in which the Emcee performs musical acts that comment on the state of the rapidly shifting world around them. Each reality is represented by a different musical style. The numbers that tell Sally's story hew closer to the style of traditional musical theatre, while the songs in the Emcee's world are heightened, offering stylized commentary that is wildly entertaining, with an unexpectedly dark subtext. Prince's original Broadway production of Cabaret in 1966 was a hit, with audiences embracing the dark musical. Richard Watts Jr. said in his New York Post review, "It is the glory of Cabaret that it can upset you while it gives theatrical satisfaction."
Jill Hayworth as Sally Bowles in the original 1966 Cabaret.
After the success of the Broadway production, director/choreographer Bob Fosse adapted Cabaret for a 1972 film. Joel Grey would reprise his Tony Award-winning performance as the Emcee, but Sally Bowles was re-imagined for actress Liza Minnelli. In the film version, Sally is American (rather than British) and a much flashier vocalist. Kander and Ebb even wrote two new songs for Minnelli to showcase her famous voice. Many of the other supporting characters and plots were pared down or eliminated in order to focus on Sally, Cliff, and the world of the cabaret. Fosse was able to reinstate the question of Cliff's bisexuality, which is apparent in The Berlin Stories but not in the play or musical. (Prince did not think Broadway audiences were ready to accept a gay leading man, so the original production presented a clearly heterosexual love story between Cliff and Sally.) When Prince revived is production on Broadway in 1987, the book was adjusted to further explore Cliff's sexuality as another facet of his complicated relationship with Sally. Cabaret continued the tradition of attracting directors and choreographers with a strong vision in 1998 when director Sam Mendes and director/choreographer Rob Marshall broughtCabaret back to Broadway. Roundabout transformed the Henry Miller's Theatre into the Kit Kat Klub, replacing standard audience seating with nightclub-style tables, complete with drink service.
Alan Cumming and the Kit Kat girls from the 1998 production.
Mendes said, "It's really about the central mystery of the twentieth century-how Hitler could have happened. And it's important that we go on asking the question whether or not we can find some sort of answer." This Cabaret was seedier and darker than the previous incarnations. Mendes and Marshall took the sheen off and delved into a more sinister look at the indulgences of the time, adopting a messy, aggressive style for the choreography. Marshall commented, "It's like choreographing everything twice. I'd say to myself, 'No, fray it purposefully with people on the wrong foot or out of step.' " There were also additions made to the libretto from Isherwood's original Berlin Stories, and this production went further than any previous incarnation to explore the full spectrum of sexuality. This Cabaret eventually moved up to Studio 54 and ran for six years.
Michelle Williams and the Kit Kat girls from the 2014 production.
The world of Sally Bowles has proved captivating since she was first brought to life in Isherwood's stories. That timelessness has made Cabaret a landmark piece of the theatrical cannon to be continually mined by artists, because it is not merely a historical play looking back to our not-so-distant past, but it acts as a perpetual reminder of how darker forces can take hold of humanity. This idea continues to be fertile ground for artistic exploration, innovative theatricality, and a story that fascinates in every form it takes.
This article features in our Upstage playgoer guide for Cabaret.
Cabaret plays at Studio 54 through January 4, 2015. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.
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