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"Willkommen": The history of Cabaret

Features - Musical Theatre & Cabaret

"Willkommen": The history of Cabaret

by Jo Litson on January 9, 2017 (January 9, 2017) filed under Musical Theatre & Cabaret | Comment Now
Inside the sex and politics of the Weimar-era musical, from Isherwood's Berlin to the latest production at the Hayes.

“There was a cabaret and there was a master of ceremonies and there was a city called Berlin in a country called Germany. It was the end of the world….and I was dancing with Sally Bowles and we were both fast asleep.” The Berlin Stories, Christopher Isherwood.

Chelsea Gibb as Sally Bowles in the Hayes Theatre's new Cabaret. Photo by John McRae

Last year, the musical Cabaret turned 50. A half century since Harold Prince’s ground-breaking 1966 production opened on Broadway, Kander and Ebb’s musical is still being regularly revived, with directors sharpening and subtly refocusing their productions to reflect shifts in society. As the world darkens, the themes underlying Cabaret – inspired by the writings of Christopher Isherwood – remain frighteningly resonant.

Isherwood was born in England in 1904. Had he been a better student, Cabaret might never have existed. As it was, in 1925 he was asked to leave Cambridge University after writing joke answers at his second-year exams. He milled around doing part-time work, then in 1929 went to Berlin to visit his school friend W.H. Auden and was exhilarated by what he found there. It was, he recalled in his 1976 autobiography Christopher and His Kind “one of the decisive events of my life.”

Escaping his conservative upper-middle-class upbringing and pushy mother, Isherwood was excited by the overt sexual freedom and the ferment of daringly innovative artistic creativity in Berlin, and lived there until 1933, teaching English to keep body and soul together whilst enthusiastically exploring his homosexuality. Based on his observations of the people and the place, he published a series of stories, character sketches and diary entries in two novellas: Mr Norris Changes Trains in 1935 and Goodbye to Berlin in 1939, which were published together in 1945 as The Berlin Stories.

In these, a thinly disguised Isherwood features as a detached narrator, observing the decadence and corruption of the Weimar Republic and the insidious rise of the Nazis. “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking,” as he puts it at the beginning of Goodbye to Berlin.

Christopher Isherwood and W H Auden

Isherwood vividly captures the spirit of Berlin in the early 1930s, a grotesque, glittering metropolis still reeling from World War I, desperately trying to re-establish itself as an important modern city but teetering on the edge of disintegration. At the centre of Goodbye to Berlin is a story called Sally Bowles about a second-rate English singer with a cute black bob and emerald green nails, which draw attention to her nicotine-stained fingers. Inspired by Jean Ross, an English singer, writer and would-be actor who Isherwood met in 1931, Sally sings in a seedy nightclub called Lady Windermere's Fan and lives her life with determinedly amoral gay abandon, boasting about her innumerable sexual conquests and constantly trying to find a man to foot her bills.

Apparently, Isherwood wasn't terribly happy with Sally Bowles, which he thought trivial, and considered excluding it from the collection. But it struck a chord with readers. When John van Druten read it, he was inspired to write a play called I Am a Camera, which opened in 1951 at Broadway’s Empire Theatre. “Me no Leica,” quipped critic Walter Kerr in the New York Herald Tribune, one of the shortest reviews in theatre history. I Am a Camera (which was made into a film in 1955), in turn, inspired director Harold Prince to acquire the rights for a musical, which he and his writing team would call Cabaret.

When Isherwood arrived in Berlin, it was the tail-end of the Weimar Republic, a heady era lasting from 1918 to 1933. The 1920s were a time of unprecedented creative activity in New York, London and the major cities of Europe, particularly Paris and Berlin. But in Berlin it was also a time of great political instability, with the Nazi and Communist factions fighting to take control. Inflation reached such levels that you needed a shopping bag full of money to buy a shopping bag full of vegetables. Bread lines stretched for blocks. Unemployment and crime rates were high, poverty was wide-spread and riots and strikes were regular occurrences. Perhaps it was the danger and madness of the times that inspired artists, for Berlin’s cultural life flourished.

There were cafes, cabarets, theatre, museums and galleries everywhere. One of the great centres of classical music, the city boasted three opera companies, the Berlin Philharmonic and other musical ensembles frequently led by heavy weight conductors like Wilhelm Furtwängler and Otto Klemperer. Meanwhile composers like Berg, Webern and Schoenberg were scandalising conservatives with their explorations into atonality and other ground-breaking musical forms. Germans were also becoming enamoured of jazz. Duke Ellington toured in 1925 with his all-black revue Chocolate Kiddies and soon German composers like Kurt Weill and Ernst Krenek were writing jazz operas. Visual artists George Grosz and Otto Dix were also outraging the conservatives as the pioneers of a new type of expressionist art, which graphically portrayed the violence of war and the excesses of life in the Weimar Republic.

Matt Smith plays Isherwood in the BBC film Christopher and his Kind

In theatre, Bertolt Brecht was criticising German society in plays such as The Threepenny Opera with music by Kurt Weill, while producers and directors like Max Reinhardt and Erwin Piscator were revolutionising theatrical staging. Not far from Berlin in Dessau, the architects and designers of the Bauhaus design school were introducing modernism, which was to have a profound effect on 20th century architecture. German film was equally innovative. Masterpieces from that period include The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Der Golem, Nosferatu, Fritz Lang's Metropolis, Pandora's Box and The Blue Angel with its vivid evocation of the exotic, smoky world of Berlin's decadent theatrical and cabaret nightlife.

Notorious for its sexual freedom, homosexuals, lesbians and transvestites flocked to Berlin. Prostitution was rife and drugs were freely available. The most common, cocaine, was sold at hot-dog stands, at ‘coke cafes’ and at theatres and cabaret clubs, while street-walkers would lure passers-by into basement joints and dives. Willkommen to the world of Cabaret.

Cabaret as an artform began in Paris (where the word meant ‘wine cellar’) with the opening of the famous Chat Noir in 1881 – a place where painters, poets, composers and performing artists could meet and confront the bourgeois audience with their shockingly new art and ideas. German cabaret was born with the founding of Baron Ernst von Wologen's Buntes Theatre in Berlin on 18 January 1901. This was followed five days later by Max Reinhardt's Schall und Rauch (Sound and Smoke), which offered a more critical, satirical form of cabaret. “Kabarett” took off in a big way, becoming the experimental domain of cafe poets, Dadaists and expressionists.

Most cabaret artists reflected on the rapidly changing times with an air of amused curiosity or detached cynicism. Sex was a favourite theme, and nudity was commonplace. All these disparate elements – sex, music, song, dance, film, monologue, sketch and satire – were held together by an Emcee who introduced the acts, dealt with hecklers and announced people as they arrived in the club. All kinds of cabaret developed in Berlin from the big spectacular revues and variety theatre shows at one end of the spectrum to tawdry honky-tonk dives, usually in dark basements, at the other. Isherwood frequented both the boy bars with their male prostitutes and the larger glitzy variety joints. The Kit Kat Klub in Cabaret sits somewhere in between.

Weimar-era Berlin

When the Nazis took power in 1933, cabaret writers and performers were among their first victims and many spent the Nazi era in exile or in concentration camps. But their spirit was harder to quash and there were cabarets in Prisoner of War camps, even in Dachau. Though Hitler has taken power by the end of Goodbye to Berlin, Nazism isn't even mentioned in Isherwood's story Sally Bowles. But with the passing of time and the benefit of historical hindsight each subsequent treatment has become darker and more disturbing than its predecessor.

In Isherwood's story, Sally and Chris meet through a mutual friend called Fritz and become friends though not lovers. She moves into the same boarding house as Chris (Herr lssyvoo as his landlady Fraulein Schroeder calls him) and he consoles her when her lover Klaus deserts her. They meet a rich American who says he is going to take them both on a luxury trip but when they arrive at his hotel he has gone. Sally discovers she is pregnant with Klaus’s child and has an abortion. She is then robbed by a con-man who has proposed to her. Her flagging friendship with Chris is briefly rekindled before she departs for Paris.

The play I Am a Camera is essentially the same, though Van Druten introduced Sally’s mother. Acquiring the rights to both Isherwood’s writings and Van Druten’s play, Harold Prince commissioned Joe Masteroff to write the book, and John Kander and Fred Ebb to write music and lyrics for a musical. It was Masteroff who thought of using a second-rate cabaret venue as a metaphor for the milieu of the story and Prince who suggested having an Emcee to link and comment on the story, adding another chilling level of meaning. Chris became an American writer called Cliff Bradshaw who lived with Sally, and the child that she aborts could be his.

Instead of a sub-plot featuring the relationship between Chris’s friend Fritz and Natalia Landauer, a wealthy Jewish department store heiress, Masteroff included a love affair between Cliff's landlady Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, an elderly Jewish fruit seller. Both stories are intercut with scenes at the Kit Kat Klub, a more debauched joint than Lady Windermere's Fan, bringing the sexual and moral decadence of the era to the fore.Nazism hovers around the action with the anthem Tomorrow Belongs to Me sung by young Nazis and a can-can dance at the Kit Kat Klub, which turns into a goose-step. At the end, Cliff, who has been tricked into acting as a courier for the Nazis, tries to persuade Sally to go to America with him, but she refuses to leave Berlin.

Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey in the film of Cabaret

Cabaret opened on Broadway in 1966 with Joel Grey as the Emcee, Jill Haworth as Sally and Lotte Lenya as Fraulein Schneider. It was very risqué for its time, and its startling, unusual form made musical theatre history. Boris Aronson's design featured a huge distorting mirror that hung over the club scenes in which the audience could see themselves, implicating them in the action.

Cabaret was a big hit, running for 1166 performances on Broadway and winning eight Tony Awards. Two years later, a production opened in London’s West End where Judi Dench stole the show as Sally. Then in 1972 came Bob Fosse’s film, starring Liza Minnelli in what would become her signature role as Sally, Michael York as the writer, now a bi-sexual Englishman called Brian, and Grey reprising his role as the Emcee. The story of Natalia and Fritz replaced Fraulein Schneider and Frau Schultz and several new songs were written by Kander & Ebb, which are often now used in stage versions, including Mein Herr, Maybe This Time and Money. The film won eight Academy Awards.

In 1987, Prince produced the first Broadway revival at the Imperial Theatre. Grey’s Emcee had even more of a central role, and Cliff’s bisexuality was made more obvious. Sam Mendes’ 1993 production for the Donmar Warehouse in London was seedier, raunchier and more sinister than either Broadway production. Mendes reconfigured the space to look like a grimy nightclub where the prostitutes had track marks in their arms to indicate drug use. With Jane Horrocks (Bubbles in Absolutely Fabulous) as Sally, the production featured a startling new take on the Emcee who was played by Alan Cumming – a role he made distinctly his own.

Joel Grey had played him as an asexual character in tuxedo with rouged cheeks. Cumming’s Emcee was high sexualised with rouged nipples and suggestively placed suspenders. In the final scene, he removed his outer clothes to reveal a striped suit of the sort worn in concentration camps, with a yellow star denoting Jews and a pink triangle denoting homosexuals. In other changes, Mendes had Cliff kiss one of the cabaret boys in a more overt reference to his bisexuality.

Alan Cumming in Sam Mendes' Cabaret

Masteroff saw the production and recommended to Todd Haines, the Artistic Director of New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company, who asked Mendes if he would be interested in staging it in New York. Mendes said he was, but only if it could be done in a small, cabaret-style venue, with Cumming as the Emcee. The production finally opened in 1998 at a working nightclub in the former Henry Miller’s Theatre, then transferred to Studio 54 a few months later. Co-directed by Mendes and Rob Marshall, it featured Natasha Richardson as Sally in a performance which The New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley felt came “closer to the prototype of Isherwood’s stories than any other I’ve seen.” The show won four Tony Awards including Best Revival of a Musical and best performance awards for Cumming and Richardson, and ran for five and a half years, with Neil Patrick Harris among other performers steeping into the Emcee’s suspenders.

In 2014, Haines persuaded Cumming to reprise his turn at the Emcee when the production was remounted at Studio 54. Michelle Williams made her Broadway debut with a performance, which Brantley said made Sally seem “broken and defeated from the get-go”. Emma Stone then took over the role bringing what Brantley described as “a shot of heart-revving adrenaline” to the production as “an exciting and winningly pathetic Sally”. To celebrate the show’s 50th anniversary in 2016, Roundabout toured the 2014 Broadway revival with Randy Harrison (from the Showtime series Queer as Folk) as the Emcee and Andrea Goss as Sally, in a performance that was closer to Minnelli’s talented artiste than Richardson’s off-key chanteuse.

In London, Rufus Norris directed a new production at the Lyric Theatre in 2006, and a revival at the Savoy Theatre in 2012, which critics felt was slicker and safer than the previous incarnation six years earlier. However, they agreed that the final 20 minutes was chilling, as the camp glamour of the Kit Kat Klub was gradually stripped away to reveal the bare brick wall of the theatre against which the Kit Kat performers, Sally and the Emcee were lined up naked. The show ended with them huddled together as the sound of hissing gas filled the theatre. The production toured nationally in 2013.

Rufus Norris' London production, 2013

The first Australian production was staged in 1971 in Perth by the National Theatre of Western Australia. Directed by Edgar Metcalfe, it starred Nancye Hayes as Sally Bowles and Jon Ewing as the Emcee. “We did it for Equity minimum because they couldn’t afford anything else and it was a role I was desperate to play,” recalls Hayes. “They gave us a tiny percentage of the box office, which turned out quite well for us as it sold out. It was the talk of the place.” When the show went to Sydney’s Doncaster Theatre Restaurant, Hayes didn’t feel it was the right venue so Bunny Gibson played Sally with Ewing again as the Emcee and Dennis Grosvenor as Cliff. This version also went to Adelaide.

In 1991, during his time as Artistic Director of the State Theatre Company of South Australia, Simon Phillips directed a co-production with Australian Dance Theatre in Adelaide, choreographed by ADT’s Leigh Warren. Helen Buday played Sally, Dennis Olsen played the Emcee and Toni Lamond was Fraulein Schneider. The set design by Shaun Gurton featured a cyclorama of glass bricks as a nod to the Bauhaus movement and truck units that locked together to form the shape of a swastika. “We had the idea that the Emcee controls the world and that he controls what’s going on like a spider in his web,” Gurton told Murray Bramwell in an interview at the time – thus the swastika was a   reference both to that idea and the shift to Nazism. There was also an on-stage band, “as if the music and the band control the show,” said Gurton.

In 1997, Richard Wherrett directed a production at the Footbridge Theatre for John Frost and Phillip Emanuel with Angela Toohey as Sally, Paul Goddard as the Emcee and Geraldine Turner as Fraulein Schneider. The Mendes production was staged in Australia in 2002. Opening in Sydney, Toby Allen (Human Nature) played the Emcee, with Tina Arena as Sally. Lisa McCune took over the role in Melbourne. Rachael Beck subsequently played her on tour, with Todd McKenney eventually taking over as the Emcee.

Writing in The Los Angeles Times in July 2016, Margaret Gray argued that it is possible to track America’s attitude to homosexuality “through the progressive outing of the Cabaret male lead, from reluctant straight man back in 1966 to unambiguous – if closeted – gay man today.”

Paul Capsis plays the Emcee in the Hayes Theatre's new Cabaret. Photo by John McRae

“Prince’s first production, which named the male lead Cliff Bradshaw, left him in the closet. In Bob Fosse’s 1972 film, the lead’s name is Brian, and he’s a bi-curious Englishman. By Prince’s first Broadway revival in 1987, Cliff had gone back to being American but he was bisexual. And ever since 1998, when Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall co-directed the influential revival that eventually led to this current [Roundabout] tour, he’s been a gay man gathering the courage to express himself in a brief window of freedom before fascism sets in,” wrote Gray.

Writing The Berlin Stories in the 1930s, Isherwood couldn’t out himself, of course, so he disguised the fact that he was gay in the doomed romance between the narrator and Sally. Seeing the warning signs as the Nazis came to power, Isherwood left Berlin in 1933. In the final diary entry in Goodbye to Berlin, he describes his last day there. “The sun shines, and Hitler is master of this city. The sun shines, and dozens of my friends... are in prison, possibly dead.”

And how true Isherwood’s final sentence still rings: “No. Even now I can't altogether believe that any of this has really happened ...”


This article is running in the theatre programme for the new production of Cabaret running at the Hayes Theatre Co from January 9 – March 5, produced by David M. Hawkins in association with the Hayes Theatre Co, which then plays at the Athenaeum Theatre in Melbourne, April 27 – May 20

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