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Interview with Librettist, Joe Masteroff

Education Dramaturg Ted Sod spoke with Joe Masteroff, originalCabaret librettist, about his experience and journey with this musical.

Ted Sod: You were born in Philadelphia in 1919 and went to Temple University, correct?

Joe Masteroff: Correct.

TS: And then you studied at the American Theatre Wing?

JM: I was in the army during WWII, and when I got out, I eventually came to New York to become a playwright, which is what I always wanted to do since I was a child. The American Theatre Wing had a special course in playwriting for guys who had been in the war. They had you write at least a one-act play every week and then we would discuss it. Little by little, I was writing these things and the playwright Robert Anderson would say, "It is interesting-it's not good enough, but keep doing it." That was the beginning, and it ended really well.

TS: You had a play on Broadway in the late '50s with Julie Harris and June Havoc.

JM: Yes, and Farley Granger. My agent called me one day and said, "You won't believe this, but Julie Harris read your play The Warm Peninsula, and she wants to do it for a full year on the road before bringing it to Broadway." It ran for six weeks or so in New York. I got to do the musicalShe Loves Me with Bock and Harnick because somebody had seen The Warm Peninsula and said that I was the right person to do the libretto (or the book) for their next musical.

Interview with Librettist, Joe Masteroff

The cast of the 1993 Roundabout revival of 'She Loves Me.'

TS: And how did you come to the attention of Harold Prince for Cabaret?

JM: We had almost finished writing She Loves Me when we found out the producer didn't have the rights; he thought he did, but he didn't. So Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick suggested we askHal Prince. He was brought in as producer for She Loves Me, and he ended up as director as well. One day, Hal came to me and said, "I want to do a musical based on John Van Druten's playI am a Camera." I knew the play very well because it starred Julie Harris and she won her first Tony award for it. I said I would love to do a musical based on I am a Camera-that musical turned out to be Cabaret, and you know the rest.

Interview with Librettist, Joe Masteroff

Playbill cover for the 1951 production of 'I am a Camera."

TS: Did you start with just the play or did you do research into the period? How did you begin your process?

JM: I worked with the composer and lyricist, John Kander and Fred Ebb, and we wrote the show together bit by bit. Hal Prince was in charge because he was the producer and the director. We were aware all the time that we were on dangerous ground. I mean, we were doing a show about abortion and Nazis and subjects that were hardly the stuff of Broadway musicals. We hoped that it would get good reviews, but we never thought it would be a commercial success because it was too different. This was not a show where the librettist, composer, and lyricist did their own work independently from the director. Hal was very involved all the way through.

TS: What were the challenges in adapting Van Druten's play?

JM: I didn't think it was a satisfactory play, but there is material in there that works. The greatest problem with I am a Camera is the two lead characters. One is American and one is English, and what was going on in Berlin in the '30s didn't really involve them except in oblique ways. It was important, I think, to create a subplot. That's when we created the love affair between Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. Fraulein Schneider is a minor character in the Van Druten play.

TS: Do you have a favorite character? Who do you most relate to?

JM: Having worked with Julie Harris for a long time, I realized when I was writing my version of I am a Camera that a lot of Julie got into it. So Julie Harris in a sense is Sally Bowles in my version. But I relate to Fraulein Schneider very much. I think partially because it was Lotte Lenya's role, but also because she speaks for the German people who weren't Nazis, and I think that is very important. It is a great country, and there were a lot of people in the streets cheering for Hitler, but there were also a lot of people who didn't, and she speaks for the ones who stayed home.

TS: Did you hear Julie when you were writing Sally?

JM: Yes, very much. I couldn't help but be influenced by Julie in writing her. And Sally Bowles is a character that a lot of actresses want to play, and it's a role that has won a lot of awards for people, so I figure it must be okay.

TS: Were you surprised by the audience response to the show when it was first done?

JM: I will say that we were very pleased that in New York we had good reviews for the show. At the end of the show, there wasn't a lot of applause because all these people were having a wonderful time and then suddenly weren't having such a wonderful time. We wanted people to think. That was our intention. It has always been true of Cabaret that it doesn't get a standing ovation at the end.

TS: How many times have you seen Cabaret performed?

JM: Quite a lot. Everywhere from Israel to Berlin. Of course, in Germany it is playing all the time and it is now almost 50 years since it was written.

Interview with Librettist, Joe Masteroff

Joel Grey and the cast of the 1966 production of 'Cabaret."

TS: Did you know you were writing the first "concept" musical?

JM: I still don't know what that is. I mean, we did something that had never been done before. We talked about things that just didn't seem appropriate, but that's what fit the story we were telling. It starts as a cheerful story and then little by little by little it changes. You don't see swastikas until the very end of the first act. Then you see one swastika. I have seen productions of Cabaret in Europe where there are so many swastikas around you can't see through them. When we first did it, there was no way the leading man in the show could be gay. He was never gay in the Isherwood stories or I am a Camera, and when we did it in 1966 he wasn't gay either. Cliff and Sally had a legitimate boy and girl love affair. There was no way the audience could have handled it. Little by little Cliff became gay as the years passed on and finally, in the Roundabout production, he actually kissed a guy on stage.

TS: I think that's interesting because Isherwood and Van Druten were both gay.

JM: Absolutely. It was a complete taboo to even mention it to anybody-that just couldn't happen.

TS: But by the time Bob Fosse directed the movie, wasn't Michael York's character bisexual?

JM: He was, but that was a good while after 1966.

TS: What did you make of the movie version?

JM: People who see the movie and then see the stage show see two different things that almost have nothing in common except the Emcee and the night club scenes. The movie absolutely neglects the meaning of the show. I don't like to watch the movie Cabaret; it doesn't interest me at all. The night club scenes are wonderful. But everything else is...

TS: Hard to watch?

JM: It's not what I like. Bob Fosse didn't believe that you could do serious musicals. He didn't believe in that at all, and that is the reason that his version of Cabaret is so much lighter than mine.

TS: Did you see the Sam Mendes version at the Donmar Warehouse in the mid '90s?

JM: Some friends of mine went to London and had seen the Donmar version and said, "Go see it!" I did, and I thought it was terrific. I knew Todd Haimes very well because he had producedShe Loves Me, and I told him he ought to do this terrific show, and he agreed. Sam Mendes was very eager to do it. It took about three years until it was all cleared, but finally we got it on.

Interview with Librettist, Joe Masteroff

Alan Cumming with the Kit Kat Girls in the 1998 production of 'Cabaret.' Photo by Joan Marcus.

TS: What made you want to retire? Were you just finished with it?

JM: I will tell you exactly why. All my life, as I said, from my childhood, I knew I was going to be a writer on Broadway. Don't ask me how I knew, I just knew. One success wouldn't have done it, but once I had two successes, I said, "Okay, that's it, I've done what I wanted to do with my life, and now I am going to have a good time."

TS: I think it takes a kind of bravery to say, "I'm done, I did it."

JM: But you know some people, when they win a million dollars, need to win another million dollars. My dream came true. I didn't make a huge amount of money out of it, but I do have enough money that I don't need to be a waiter.

TS: Do you have opinions about musicals that are being written now? Is there anything you have seen recently that you like?

JM: Other than revivals? I think that Broadway is in a sorry state today.

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