Australian Producer of CABARET Pens Happy 50th Birthday Letter to the Iconic Musical
Written by David M. Hawkins - Australian Producer of Cabaret, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and tours of Liza Minnelli, Chita Rivera, LiLlias White, Ben Vereen, Macy Gray, Melanie, Helen Reddy, Faith Prince, Donna McKechnie
On 20 November 1966 exactly 50 years ago today, CABARET opened at the Broadhurst Theatre New York. It then transferred to the Imperial Theatre and then Broadway Theatre before it closed on 6 September 1969 after 1,165 performances and 21 previews. What do you give the Broadway musical that just keeps giving to generations? A reminder on where it all came from seems a great way to celebrate one of the world's most significant pieces of theatre.
CABARET is the brainchild of director and producer Harold Prince who obtained the rights to John Van Druten's play 'I Am a Camera' and the source material Christopher Isherwood's 'Berlin Stories'. Prince thought the story would make a good musical on the Weimar period and the rise of Hitler. With the political climate of the sixties, the timing seemed ideal for him to create a musical on the topic. Interesting to note that Sandy Wilson of 'The Boyfriend' fame had written a musical version of 'I Am a Camera' but Wilson's producer forgot to re-option the rights and Harold Prince had luckily obtained them. Prince got writer Joe Masteroff to start work on the book, then brought writing team John Kander and Fred Ebb into the picture to start to write songs for the musical.
Prince was finding it difficult to locate a way into telling the story, and decided to stop work on it, frustrated that is was just like all the current book musicals of the day. It wasn't until he was travelling in Russia and saw Moscow's Taganka Theater ' - "Ten Days That Shook the World" and the exciting theatrical devices used inspired Prince to get back to work on CABARET. Lighting and staging techniques gave him the portal in to create something new and exciting for the Broadway stage.
Remembering that whilst being stationed in Stuttgart in 1951 Prince used a visit to Maxim's - a nightclub situated in an old church basement. Prince said in 1974 "...a dwarf Emcee, hair parted in the middle, and lacquered down with brilliantine, his mouth made into a bright cupids bow.... wore heavy false eyelashes and sang, danced, goosed, tickled, and pawed four lumpen Valkyres waving diaphanous butterfly wings". It was this memory that truly started the imagery in his mind for Cabaret, and was the basis for the Emcee we all know and love so well.
CABARET really was the first concept musical, and certainly the first of many for Hal Prince. John Kander, Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse perfected the form with Chicago - A Musical Vaudeville a few years later. In CABARET Prince and Masteroff created two definite worlds. The real world where all the book scenes took place, and limbo where all the cabaret songs took place - limbo often commenting directly on what is happening in the real world plot.
Originally CABARET was called 'Welcome To Berlin' until it was decided the title would not attract customers to the musical. It also was decided not to make Cliff homosexual fearing it would not be accepted, it wasn't until Prince revised the script after the movie that he put back all the references to Cliff being homosexual.
The show originally played in three acts, and it wasn't until the Boston try out after the advice of George Abbott, who apparently said to Prince, 'I don't know where the curtain falls' that the first two acts became the first act and the final act the second.
Prince always wanted Joel Grey for his Emcee. He cast Jill Hayworth as Sally Bowles, Bert Convey as Cliff, Jack Gifford as Herr Schultz, Edward Winter as Ernst, Peg Murray as Kost. The major casting coup for the production was casting Lotte Lenya as Fraulein Schneider, the role had been written with her in mind.
Lotte Lenya was a Weimar performer and was legendary for her portrayals of characters in Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's operas. Lenya and Weill notoriously married, divorced and married again. Both fled Germany and made successful careers in the USA. Lenya was the voice of Germany for many years, so one could imagine how important it was for Harold Prince and the writers to get her to play the role.
From Lotte Lenya on Cabaret
"I knew I am a Camera and Christopher Isherwood very well from Berlin. So Hal Prince called my agent and said "We have a part for Miss Lenya. Could we get in touch with her?" Kander and Ebb played me a few songs from CABARET, but not the ones they wrote for me. I liked them very much. Prince said, "Well. can we make a contract for a year?" I said, "Mr Prince, I don't want to sign that because, you see, if I like the show, then I stay forever. If I want to get out of the contract. I can get out of it, you know that. So just believe me. I love it and I will do it" I loved doing every minute of CABARET. Sometimes I'd get so annoyed with that young girl that played Sally Bowles. After three or four weeks she kept complaining, "I'm so bored." And I told her "Then get the hell out of the theatre. You have no right to be here."
Liza Minnelli was up for the role of Sally Bowles and was a favourite of Kander and Ebb's, however Joe Masteroff and Harold Prince thought Minnelli was too good a singer to play in a dive like the Kit Kat Klub, and they also thought she was very American and couldn't play a British Chelsea Girl. The thought to change Sally to an American as Fosse did in the movie did not occur to them at the time.
By the time the show got to Broadway from Boston it had many changes, and more were to follow. After the first performance on Broadway many left the theatre during 'If They Could See Her Through My Eyes', and at the conclusion of the performance a large group of patrons stayed in their seats and proceeded to debate the song. After this Prince decided to change the lyric from 'She wouldn't look Jewish at all' to 'She wouldn't look Meeskite at all".
Another interesting note from the development when choreographer Ron Field was at Kander and Ebb's and they were discussing the number of songs Prince had rejected, showing Ron a large pile of CABARET songs that didn't see the light of day. Ron went to the pile and picked one up and read the lyric 'What good is sitting alone in your room', he loved the lyric and asked about the song, Ebb immediately started working on Ron to talk to Prince as it was one of their best they thought. However, Prince didn't want another title song and the cabaret lyric was already used in Willkommen. Ron agreed to talk to Prince, who then agreed to hear the song again from Kander and Ebb. He liked it and replaced "I Don't Care Much" which Sally sang in the second act with "Cabaret".
Cabaret opened to terrific reviews and went on to be nominated for eleven Tony Awards of which it won eight, including 'Best Musical'. Not many musicals have captured so many generations. CABARET continues to tell the cautionary tale of what it is like when power is given to the wrong people and how this can affect our society at large.
It continues to inspire and excite audiences, currently touring the USA to packed houses with the Roundabout Theatre Company production. And a new production is opening in January in Australia starring Paul Capsis as Emcee and Chelsea Gibb as Sally Bowles, it will be the first time the complete revised Harold Prince script has been professionally presented in Australia. www.cometothecabaret.com.au.