Sunday, May 17, 2009


Being on a musicals kick lately, I went searching on YouTube and found a taste of what must have been one of the finest theatrical productions of the '60s: the original Cabaret as directed by Hal Prince -- his first real hit as a director -- and choreographed by Ron Field. This is from the London production, which unexpectedly and successfully cast Judi Dench as Sally Bowles (she also did Frau Schneider's songs on John Yap's studio recording a decade back); she isn't really a singer, but Sally doesn't have to have a particularly good singing voice, since there's a lot of leeway as to how good or bad a cabaret performer she's supposed to be.

While this number doesn't really convey the impact of the production, it does convey a sense of the approach, which was halfway between a realistic, representational approach and the "concept" musical that would soon become the norm; the cabaret was a set, but it also existed in a separate world from the rest of the story and commented on what was happening. Several of the cabaret numbers are direct comments on songs that the characters have already sung in the book scenes: "Perfectly Marvelous," where Sally moves in with Cliff, is followed by "Two Ladies," where the MC delivers his own spin on unconventional living arrangements, and the MC's song "If You Could See Her" is a satirical response to "Meeskite," Herr Schultz's optimistic song about how looks don't matter. (This is why the changed line "She isn't a meeskite at all" works much better than "She wouldn't look Jewish at all.") Then there are Sally's cabaret numbers, "Don't Tell Mama" and the title song, which are halfway between the two worlds.

The interplay between story songs and commentary songs was completely lost in the movie because of the absurd decision to drop all the non-diegetic songs. There are other reasons I don't like the movie version, which I went into a few years back, but it's not just the movie's fault that Cabaret keeps getting rewritten, even though the original version was just about perfect as it was. It's also that Prince felt the original didn't go far enough, and kept trying to push the musical form even farther with his subsequent musicals with Stephen Sondheim (none of which are as effective as theatre, or as writing, as Cabaret). So it's often assumed that certain of the less-daring elements of Cabaret need to be changed to be more in line with the riskier, more experimental shows that followed it, except that it never works.

For example, it's true that making the hero, Cliff, a heterosexual character represented a failure of nerve. But that's the way they wrote him, and Joe Masteroff's excellent libretto is built around the idea that he's hetereosexual and infatuated with Sally. Rewriting the character causes the plot to fall apart (the movie, as much as I don't like it, at least had the sense to create a new plot and new characters). And such dramatically essential songs as Cliff's "Why Should I Wake Up," Schultz's "Meeskite" (a key theatrical moment at the end of the first act, and a song without which the MC's "If You Could See Her" has no reason to exist) and the show-stopping "Telephone" dance (considered the best number in the original show by those who saw it) are often dropped or minimized because stagers are viewing it through the prism of the movie or subsequent musicals.

Finally, the important thing about the original Cabaret is that with Field's glamorous choreography very much defining the evening, and with the showgirls presented as beautiful and appealing, the original version presented the cabaret as very similar to the world of a typical Broadway musical: not a seedy, dingy place like most subsequent versions have tried to make it, but a place where people really would be lured into forgetting their troubles. That was the whole point of the show, which attempted to give the story contemporary significance by turning it into a sort of meta-commentary on entertainment in general and musicals in particular. The MC and the cabaret girls take real issues (that we've seen played out in the regular book scenes) and trivialize them, or turn them into glitzy diversions, using music and glitz and beauty to numb us into forgetting what's really going on out there in the world. There have been other musicals that tried to make a similar point: Prince's own Follies and Bob Fosse's Chicago, but neither of those shows have as good a book as Cabaret, and neither one was as big a hit. Someone really needs to dust off the original 1966 version of Cabaret (including the wonderful Don Walker orchestrations that strike a perfect balance between tinny cabaret style and the big Broadway sound) and bring back the powerful, meaningful piece of theatre that has been compromised by all the subsequent, inferior versions.

1 comment:

Stephanie said...

It doesn't hurt to go back to Isherwood and his original story. It is never stated that Issyvoo is gay, only suggested in that it's clear there's no possibility of sex between him and Sally. So to revise Issyvoo by making the character overtly gay is a distortion, not a return to 'honesty' or the source, and is no more truthful than making the character straight. Isherwood's cabaret isn't a pretty place, but it is clearly a refuge from decadence, not a demonstration of it, a point that gets totally missed these days.