NY Public Library for the Performing Arts Curator Doug Reside on Kander and Ebb
BroadwayWorld.com our exclusive content series, in collaboration with The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, which delves into the library's unparalleled archives, and resources. Below, check out a piece by Doug Reside (Lewis and Dorothy Cullman Curator for the Billy Rose Theatre Division) on Cabaret:
Those who don't enjoy musicals often make the stunningly unnecessary observation that breaking spontaneously into song is not realistic. Of course, extreme realism has never been required of theater or film (as both action-hero blockbusters and Shakespearean comedies demonstrate), but breaking into song seems to discomfit those aesthetic realists more than ghosts, space aliens, or extraordinary coincidences. Perhaps the difficulty some have with the form arises from the demand that musicals make of audiences to quickly adjust their expectations as the form switches from the relatively realistic conventions of the book scenes to the more stylized songs.
Even when done well, the dissonance of an enjoyable song following a tragic situation enacted realistically is difficult for some audiences to appreciate. Many musicals solve this problem by reserving most of their songs for lighter moments. It's not a coincidence that the majority of the songs in Disney's musicals and films come towards the beginning of the piece before the climatic crisis is too near. (Where does the music go in the final 30 minutes of Frozen?) When a serious song is needed, it is often an introspective soliloquy that is structurally separated from the realism of the dialogue (e.g. "Soliloquy" from Carousel or 1776's "Is Anybody There?")
Beginning in the 1960s and continuing throughout their career, though, writers John Kander and Fred Ebb solved the problem in a slightly different way. In musicals like Chicago, Cabaret, and The Scottsboro Boys they set many of the musical numbers in a context where they might realistically be sung: a Chicago nightclub, a Berlin cabaret, a minstrel show. While the venues might be part of the world of the play (Cliff visits the Kit Kat Club, for instance in Cabaret), the audience also watches performances that do not seem to be attended by any of the characters in the book scenes. The audience, then, becomes a character in the piece. And in Kander and Ebb's work, that audience participation can be a powerful strategy to emphasize the disquieting, troubling "realities" the musicals confront.
The Kander and Ebb environments where music is heard and performed are often socially transgressive ones: by watching and enjoying the performances, audiences indulge their baser instincts and are implicated in the tragedy of the piece. The discomfort some may feel at enjoying a song sung in a tragic moment in a Rodgers and Hammerstein show is here intentionally intensified. When the audience enjoys the cakewalk, applauds the performances, or laughs at the racist stereotypes in Scottsboro Boys, they become more aware of the great anonymous evil of the passive public that is often the worst villain in the piece. And when the audience applauds or laughs after the Emcee of Cabaret sings of the gorilla he's dancing with "If you could see her through my eyes / she wouldn't look Jewish at all," they are confronted with much more than a punchline. Instead, it also serves as an uncomfortable reminder of the play's historical context, and suggests that Kander and Ebb may have been particularly interested in how group dynamics and societal conventions contributed to the Nazi's rise to power.
Of course, there is a danger, in this kind of production, that audiences will miss the point. If the poison mixed with too sweet a drink--if audience understands the minstrel show as a minstrel show--then the production has only perpetuated exactly the kind of behavior the script seeks to condemn. In such a case, the audiences either enjoy the performances without self reflection, or they condemn them as they would any other minstrel show. This is one of the reasons The Scottsboro Boys was protested by some who felt that a minstrel show, in any context, had no place on Broadway.
The original production of Cabaret attempted to make the point by positioning a giant, tilted mirror over the audience so that those in the front rows could see their reactions (and those of their neighbors) to the performances on the stage. The production currently on Broadway seats the front few rows of the audience at period-style tables near the stage, further making the point that the difference between the citizens of Weimar, Germany and those of present day America may not be so distant as we would like to believe. For those who miss the point, the Emcee, in the current production, becomes increasingly bitter over the course of the play (glaring at those who laugh after the "wouldn't look Jewish at all" line and speaking his welcoming mantra to the "Ladies, und Gentlemen" with increasing desperation and anger. The ending tableau (probably well-known now but which I do not describe out of consideration for those who have yet to see it) underscores the victimization of the performers and, implicitly, the guilt of the audience.
One of the two stories on which Cabaret is based, Charles Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin, starts, in its second paragraph, with the narrator's declaration "I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking..." This line served as the title for John Van Druten's non-musical adaptation of the work, "I Am A Camera." Cabaret, however, will not allow the audience to be "quite passive, recording, not thinking." By observing, they are active, participating in the atrocities happening on stage, if only by their chosen passivity.