Throwing Out My CDs by Ben Rimalower: CABARET
Cabaret is one of the most successful, popular and influential musicals ever written. You can call it's Kander and Ebb's masterpiece or a defining triumph for Hal Prince or Bob Fosse and in any case, you'll be right on the money. So it's no wonder I have so many damn recordings of the score. The good news is they are all available for streaming on various platforms and so I can throw out all these CDs without having to do any uploading.
First up will be the 1998 "New Broadway Cast Recording" with Alan Cumming and Natasha Richardson. Richardson was one of the great stage and screen stars of our time and her Tony-winning performance was treasured by the throngs of lucky theatergoers who got into see her, but, without the benefit her beautiful and striking presence, this album is unable to convey the full fabulousness of her performance. It helps if you try to picture her singing the songs while you listen because some of her cheekiness and sass lies in the bravado that stems partly from knowing how gorgeous she is. This is especially true in "Don't Tell Mama" and "Mein Herr" (this version of Cabaret includes songs from the Broadway and film incarnations)--one might worry that these two songs side-by-side would be redundant, but more of Natasha's deliciousness is a good thing.
The presence of the audience laughing and applauding on this live recording adds to the fun. There are strong supporting performances across the board and even the all too rare pleasure of a chance to hear Michelle Pawk sing a little (as Fraulein Kost) in "Married" and "Tomorrow Belongs to Me."
Above all else, though, this Cabaret belongs to Alan Cumming as the Emcee. It's really incredible that Cumming triumphed in a role that was so closely identified with another actor. Prior to Cumming's taking on the part, Joel Grey "owned" the Emcee in a way only a handful of Broadway performers have been able to put their stamp on something. Considering that Grey had gone on from Broadway to win an Oscar playing the Emcee in the movie and later returned to Broadway above the title in Hal Prince's 1987 revival, which also toured for two years, you can get a sense of how closely associate his particular rendition had become. It's not hyperbole to call it iconic and list the performance alongside Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly! and Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl. Yet Alan Cumming made the Emcee his part. He had played it in Sam Mendes's earlier Donmar Warehouse production before winning a Tony for this Broadway bow and even (Joel Grey style) returning to the role 16 years later to have a hit all over again. I don't expect anyone else to strike gold in this part again for a very long time. Is it sacrilege to say I prefer Alan Cumming to Joel Grey? Just living my truth...
If it's sounding like the 1998 Cabaret is my favorite recording, please understand it's far from it. For me, a Cabaret cast recording is all about the Sally Bowles and Fraulein Schneider and I much prefer both on the original Broadway and London cast recordings. The original Broadway Sally Bowles was Jill Haworth and she's great in that expat British wannabe nightclub star slumming it in Weimar Berlin mold, if less seething with seedy glamor than Natasha Richardson would later be.
The best of them, though, is Judi Dench on the original London recording. Even then, her voice had a mile-wide crack down the center and there's not much vocal tone between her hoarse cough of a chest voice and the scratchy whistle she smacks at for the high notes AND IT'S DIVINELY DECADENT, to borrow a phrase from Sally Bowles herself. Listening to Judi in "Perfectly Marvelous," I'm tempted to throw caution to the wind, go back into the closet and live in sin with her in Nazi Germany.
Judi gets suitably brilliant support from Lila Kedrova (of Zorba The Greek fame) as Fraulein Schneider and Barry Dennen (Jesus Christ Superstar's original concept album, Broadway and movie version Pontius Pilate) as a wily without being smarmy Emcee. Of course, original Broadway Emcee Joel Grey wrote the book on being wily without being smarmy (literally, his memoir, Master of Ceremonies, is not to be missed on Amazon and especially Audible!), but my favorite thing about the Original Broadway Cast Recording of Cabaret is Lotte Lenya as Fraulein Schneider.
She was also an Oscar nominee and a Bond villain and if she were alive today, she'd be the best guest judge "RuPaul's Drag Race" ever had. All of Lenya's recordings burn with that true grit, old school, no bullshit, straight for the jugular honesty that makes you stop in your tracks and listen. Her presence on the album as an actual survivor of Weimar Germany (and as someone who originally sang some of the music Kander and Ebb were emulating) lends the whole proceedings a singular pedigree and air of authenticity that no doubt helped the original production sail to success.
Whether it's musical comedy in "So What?" and "It Couldn't Please Me More," romance in "Married" or chilling heartbreak in "What Would You Do?", Lenya's performance on disc is a master class in acting and singing. It also must be mentioned that her leading man as Herr Schultz was the great character actor Jack Gilford, whose defiant joy shines eternally on this recording.
All that said, if Cabaret means one thing to me--and probably to most people in the world--it's Liza Minnelli. Liza is so associated with Kander and Ebb (and they with her) and starred in their previous Broadway musical Flora The Red Menace, so it must have been a huge disappointment to her to not get cast as Sally in the original production of Cabaret, despite recording and performing the title song in multiple major concerts around the world. But Sally was British and Liza Minnelli wasn't what Hal Prince wanted for the part. When Bob Fosse made the movie, he (and screenwriter Jay Presson Allen) reconceived the character as American and Liza made history.
The only thing more intensely concentrated than Liza Minnelli's performance on the soundtrack of Cabaret is her actual performance in the film. But the album is enough, it's plenty! Every single note out of Liza's mouth is dripping with personality and heart and vulnerability and bravado and terror and power and pizazz.
It's weird to write about Liza in Cabaret for a theater website because her renditions of these songs are among the most iconic, the most widely FAMILIAR in pop culture, right up there, with, oh... Liza's mother Judy Garland singing "Over The Rainbow" in The Wizard of Oz.
We know these recordings, every nuance, every breath, by heart, so they're easy to take for granted. I recommend you clear your mind and give Liza in Cabaret a fresh listen. You'll realize you've been comparing everything you've listened to in the years since you first her and time will be kind. Liza's salacious "Mein Herr," her pleading "Maybe This Time " and relentless "Cabaret" are all even better than you remember.