Monday, October 04, 2004

It Couldn't Please Me More

Has any hit musical been re-worked, revised and overhauled as often as Cabaret? I guess the prize goes so some of the pre-Oklahoma! musicals, like Anything Goes, which is always revived in a form that has little relationship to the original show (the original version is better, by the way). But shows from the '60s are usually revived with more or less the original text; a revisionist approach to Fiddler on the Roof involves some dialogue and staging tweaks, not a rewrite. But even though Cabaret was a big hit, ran for three years and got great reviews, it keeps getting rewritten; the most recent revival, the Sam Mendes version, completely changed the staging concept, dropped several songs and added several others, and so on.

The strange thing about this is that the original version of Cabaret is not in desperate need of revisal. Joe Masteroff's book is probably the best of any '60s musical,balancing humor and drama in the best tradition of the Serious Musical Comedy; the score is a solid mix of character songs and ironic cabaret numbers commenting on the plot scenes; there's even a spectacular dance number, "The Telephone Song," that is usually cut these days. It's a true ensemble show, with four parts of more or less equal stature -- Cliff and Sally are the nominal leads, but in terms of time onstage and musical opportunities they're about even with the nominal supporting couple, Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider -- and a juicy supporting part, the M.C. In most revivals, the parts of Sally and the M.C. are artificially inflated by adding new songs, including songs from the movie version, so that the sense of balance among the cast members and stories is completely lost, and what should be a supporting device (the ironic interludes with the M.C.) somehow becomes the focus of the show.

Other indignities afflicted on Cabaret include the cutting of "Why Should I Wake Up?" Cliff's only solo and a thematically essential song, about giving in to the temptation to shut your eyes to what's really going on around you. It's also a brilliant bit of character writing on the part of the lyricist, the late Fred Ebb; it's a love song, but one appropriate for a character who's self-consciously in denial, consisting of questions that he doesn't answer, and doesn't want answered:

Why should I wake up?
Why waste a drop of the wine?
Don't I adore you
And aren't you mine?

Part of the reason Cabaret gets rewritten so much is the desire to bring it in line with the movie version. I don't like the movie version much; I think it has a dull script, too much cutting in the musical numbers, not enough musical numbers, and Liza Minnelli -- all major liabilities. But the movie was hugely acclaimed as the risky, gritty piece of work that the Broadway show should have been, and it created the desire, still ongoing, to make Cabaret "grittier." I don't see why it should be; Cabaret is about the way show business glitz -- and that includes Broadway musicals as much as Weimar cabaret -- distracts us from a society going to hell, just as the characters find their own ways to keep themselves distracted or in denial. To make the cabaret a seedy, sleazy place is to miss that point, and to kill the self-conscious parallel with Broadway musicals (the M.C. welcomes us not to "The Cabaret," but just "to Cabaret": he's the host of a cabaret within a Broadway show called Cabaret). In the original production, the cabaret was a rather glamorous place, the girls really were beautiful, even the orchestra was beautiful. It was only gradually that the audience caught on to the way the cabaret numbers, in all their glamour, re-enforce the bad things that are going on in the plot scenes: a scene of Cliff agreeing to do something wrong for money is followed by the M.C. singing "The Money Song" (not the version from the movie), praising the joy of making all the money you can and not caring about anyone else. The cabaret is a triumph of style over substance -- much like a lot of Broadway musicals. That parallel goes out the window when you try to make the cabaret ugly and decadent.

I sometimes get the feeling, reading articles and such on Cabaret, that the original, real version is not so much evaluated as assigned a place in a pre-set storyline (critics and historians love to impose a storyline on theatre history). In this storyline, Cabaret is the show that tentatively introduced some innovations, but copped out from its sworn duty to be "advanced" by including stuff like two romantic couples, comedy scenes, charm, and by not being grubby and ugly. Along came the movie to display the "courage" that the original Cabaret should have had, and finally the new, improved, super-gritty Sam Mendes version.

The problem with this storyline, quite apart from the issue of what the hell being "advanced" has to do with quality (critics should be barred from using terms like "old-fashioned" or "forward-looking" as terms of praise or blame) is that some of the best parts of the original Cabaret are the character songs and lighthearted scenes and other old-fashioned stuff that the movie trashed.

Of course, this blinkered view of the original Cabaret comes as much from Hal Prince, the show's producer-director, as anybody. In his autobiography, Contradictions, Prince writes:
We persuaded ourselves that the musical comedy audience required a sentimental heterosexual love story with an beginning, middle and end to make the concept palatable. Not content with that, we added Lotte Lenya and and Gilford in a subordinate love my opinion we were wrong. The plotless musical might not have worked, but had it, the whole project would have been consistent with its aspirations. If we had Cabaret to do all over again, I believe we would have made the audacious choice.

Not long after Cabaret, Prince made the "audacious choice," teaming up with Stephen Sondheim for a series of musicals that were "consistent with their aspirations" and, not coincidentally, didn't enjoy anything like the success of Cabaret. But success aside, Prince's comments, like quite a few other comments in his memoirs, strikes me as a load of pretentious crap, an elevation of "aspirations" over achievement. It reveals one of Prince's annoying traits that carries over into a lot of his work after Cabaret: The tendency to think that being audacious is more important than being good. Much of Prince's work has to do with overbearingly "audacious" concepts that he sticks to whether they work or not; whether it's inflating a nasty little melodrama into a gigantic, over-expensive production on an ugly set (Sweeney Todd), or slowing down a bittersweet romantic comedy with pretentious commentative asides (A Little Night Music), Prince is the master of effects without causes; the miracle of the original Cabaret is that the effects actually serve the story.

Anyway, to my mind the "conventional" parts of Cabaret are some of the best things about it, and it doesn't matter whether they're audacious or not. Even Prince doesn't argue that the Schneider-Schultz plot isn't good; he just doesn't like it because it's conventional. What a terrible reason to dislike something.

Similarly, at an earlier point in Contradictions, Prince more or less apologizes for including a comic subplot in Fiorello! (which he produced but didn't direct), but then goes on to explain why the subplot works in the context of the show: It provides some fictional characters with whom the authors could take more liberties than the real people; the subplot allows for dance in a mostly non-dancing show; it lightens up the show in spots where it threatens to get heavy. But then he adds: "How to achieve all this without [the subplot]? I have yet to figure that out, but if we were doing Fiorello! again today, we would have to." My question is (and was, when I wrote some of this on a message board -- if you read some of this before, sorry for the recycling), why would they have to? Because it's conventional? Because it's old-fashioned? These are not good reasons. But it does sum up why the original Cabaret isn't performed much: instead of being openly audacious and dull, it chooses to be subtly audacious and theatrically effective. A theatrically effective show? Not on Sam Mendes's watch.

Oh, I should probably bring up the issue of how the original musical makes Sally/Cliff into a conventional heterosexual romance. Except I really don't see why it should be considered an issue. This is Cabaret, not Christopher Isherwood's stories, let alone his life. Changing Cliff around to bring him in line with Isherwood just confuses and weakens Masteroff's well-written, well-structured script. Leave it alone.

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