History has taught us what a revolution sounds like. The slice of a falling guillotine. The pulse of rapid gunfire. The echo of a rallying cry.
But when it comes to culture, you can only recognize the sounds of a revolution after it’s happened. When it comes to musical theatre, you might even be able to hum the tune.
We know now that when a chorus of Londoners invited audiences to attend the tale of Sweeney Todd, Broadway was never the same. The theatrical landscape was similarly rocked when a mob of artists from New York’s East Village refused to pay their rent. These shows weren’t the first to redefine what musical theatre is and what it’s capable of, and, if we’re lucky, they won’t be the last.
One of the first shows of this ilk that undoubtedly prepared audiences for the rampant violence and depravity in Sweeney Todd and the lovably broken heroes of Rent came to Broadway in 1966. It starts with a crescendo drum roll, a cymbal crash, and a tri-lingual greeting: “Wilkommen. Bienvenue. Welcome.” It is Cabaret.
This particular theatrical revolution began in another medium. Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 novel Goodbye to Berlin was a semi-autobiographical series of vignettes about the time he spent in Germany working on a novel. The book was full of memorable characters including the heedless English singer Sally Bowles, but it was the city itself that arguably had the most prominent arc as the Nazi Party rose to power there.
The novel gained acclaim for its stark portrayal of a society on the brink of a revolution of its own. Before Cabaret, Isherwood’s story was adapted for the stage in the form of John Van Druten’s 1951 play I Am a Camera. Again a hit, it was high time to take the story of Sally Bowles and company to the next level.
Enter director/producer Harold Prince who then was known for bringing smashes like West Side Story, and She Loves Me to Broadway. He enlisted librettist Joe Masteroff to work on the book alongside songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb. Together, those four men created the divinely dark world of the Kit Kat Klub where a haunting and hedonistic Emcee (originally portrayed by eventual Tony and Oscar winner Joel Grey) greeted audiences every night.
Those original audiences were not prepared for the morally and sartorially lacking characters who dealt with and discussed abortion and Anti-Semitism in perhaps the frankest manner yet on stage. Many people walked out. But most who stayed were captivated by the doomed love story between Sally and the renamed Isherwood stand-in Cliff Bradshaw. The score is comprised primarily of raunchy numbers performed in the titular cabaret by the emcee and the band. Those songs, ranging from the cheeky “Two Ladies” to the romantic “Married,” cleverly comment on the growing social unrest and the relationships of Sally, Cliff, their landlady Fraulein Schneider, and her Jewish beau Herr Schultz.
Towards the end of the show, Sally sings that “life is a cabaret.” It’s a sneakily foreboding sentiment that holds a mirror up to the audience (much like Prince’s original set design literally did) forcing them to wake up and reflect on their choices as individuals and as citizens. That lyric enchants as much as it dispirits, much like the show itself.
Following that original nearly 1,200-performance run, Cabaret made the leap to the big screen with some story tweaks and a couple of new songs including “Maybe This Time.” Under the thrillingly tactile and raw Oscar-winning direction of Bob Fosse, the film Cabaret made a superstar out of Liza Minnelli.
Yet another bold reimagining of the show took the West End by storm in 1993 before being transferred to Broadway five years later, where it would run for another five years after that. This production raised the profiles of its director Sam Mendes, director/choreographer Rob Marshall, and Emcee Alan Cumming to similarly stratospheric heights. This version artfully updated the show with just the right mixture of overt sexuality, grit, glamour, tragedy, and elements from all previous iterations of the property.
Roundabout Theatre Company redefined the phrase “back by popular demand” when it revived this Cabaret revival with Cumming reprising his Tony-winning performance alongside the likes of Michelle Williams and Emma Stone as Sally.
More than 50 years after its premiere, Cabaret is poised to start another revolution, this time much closer to home. A new production of the show, directed and choreographed by Point Park University’s Head of Musical Theatre Zeva Barzell, will be the inaugural production of the school’s gorgeous new Playhouse downtown.
Barzell, like many others, was first exposed to the show via the Fosse film, but sadly, also like many others, as a descendant of victims of the Holocaust, Cabaret’s historical context hits much closer to home. She hopes that this show will “affect those who see it” because she fears that this “deeply divided” country is at risk of allowing that dark history to repeat itself.
She goes on to describe Cabaret as “thought-provoking and entertaining”. “What more can you ask for from a musical?” she wonders.
What more, indeed.
For more information about Point Park University’s upcoming production of Cabaret, click here.
Brian Pope is a playwright and pop culture obsessive who has been writing for Pittsburgh in the Round since February of 2016. His plays have been produced by his own theatre company, Non-State Actors, as well as Yinz Like Plays?!, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, and Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company. He’s also served as dramaturg for City Theatre’s 2018 Young Playwrights Festival and as both stage manager and actor for Alarum Theatre. When he’s not making or reviewing theatre, he’s actively pursuing his other passions, listening to showtunes and watching television.