One of the joys of a long life in theatre is that you get to visit old friends whom you first met decades ago. Cabaret is a true case in point, for back in the middle of the last century (1966) I had my first contact with this Kander and Ebb breakthrough musical, the one that solidly launched what would be their major career as composer and lyricist.
With Joe Masteroff on book, with Hal Prince as producer/director, with Ron Field contributing the musical staging that won him his first Tony Award, with Joel Grey winning another for his take on the role of Master of Ceremonies, Cabaret was a great success, chalking up 1165 performances in its initial Broadway run. It was also my first great success as a theatrical agent, for I represented Messrs. Kander, Ebb and Field and I’ve always felt a keen connection to it for purely personal reasons.
The first leading lady was Jill Haworth, then a young film actress who didn’t come up to the expectations of some of the major critics, but who proved to be a great favorite with the audiences who thought she was just fine. Road companies followed, a long London run featured Judi Dench in a brilliantly reviewed performance; then the film gave Liza Minnelli the role of her career. I have seen the show in all its incarnations on the main stems of the world, which includes its two revivals on Broadway.
Now we have it again, in a revival of the last revival, this current production under the direction of Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall, starring Alan Cumming as the M.C. in a repeat of his stunning performance in the last revival, which opened in 1998 and closed 2377 performances later – in 2004! This time out, the Roundabout has brought back Cumming to re-create his role, and as Sally Bowles, they have substituted film star Michelle Williams for the late Natasha Richardson, who made her own mark on the role before her untimely death in 2009.
The show is a perennial, for it offers a smashing score, an intelligent book that deals with material of historical import. Behind the little lives being lived in the last days of the Weimar Republic of Germany, circa 1929, the incipient growth the National Socialist party and its ultimate Nazi regime, serve as background to the visit of one Christopher Bradshaw, young writer, to the free wheeling and highly corrupt Berlin of that day.
Sally Bowles is a character living from hand to mouth, eking out a small living by singing in a seedy cabaret, the Kit Kat Club, working under the protection of its manager, who is her lover. She is not a first rate performer, but she’s charismatic and eccentric, and she knows how to handle the audience of fun seekers who form her tawdry fan followers.
Bradshaw rents a room in a boarding house run by Fraulein Schneider, who has a hard time making ends meet as she tries to keep the house minimally respectable. When Sally finds herself homeless, after ending her relationship with her lover, she moves in with Bradshaw, convincing him it will only be a temporary arrangement.
Most of these characters can be found in the musical’s source material, “The Berlin Stories”, a series of short stories by Christopher Isherwood, and in I Am A Camera, the play John Van Druten adapted from it. The musical’s writers have expanded the stories, and centered their musical around the all-observant Master of Ceremonies, who is their own creation, and he serves well to represent the political climate of the times. His Cabaret songs, which form his act, are Kander and Ebb at their best, filled with the bar room flavor that Kander used often throughout the illustrious career that followed, coupled with pungent colloquial lyrics that Ebb used with great facility and a wicked sense of humor.
Many wonderful actors have played the major roles in Cabaret. Originally, Joel Grey, Jill Haworth and Bert Convy played the M.C., Sally and Bradshaw, with Lotte Lenye and Jack Gilford playing Fraulein Schneider and her suitor Herr Schultz, who is one of the tenants in her boarding house.
When Bob Fosse directed the film, he had screen writer Jay Presson Allen eliminate the Schneider-Schultz story and concentrate on the Cabaret itself, so all the songs in the film are presentation songs, with all book music deleted. Joel Grey brought his Tony Winning M.C. to the screen, and Liza Minnelli inhabited Sally as though they were one and the same. Michael York played a different version of Bradshaw in the screen version, where Ms. Allen’s script made him the bisexual man Isherwood and Van Druten had always implied he was, but whom Masteroff made straight, presumably because the New York theatre in 1966 was not yet able to embrace a gay leading man in a Broadway musical.
Judi Dench was the first Sally in London, and she brought it off beautifully though no one could call her a singer. As Sally was a second rate talent herself, Dench managed to make it clear that she made do with whatever talent she had, augmenting it with pathos and chutzpah. Just as Julie Harris had done in the non-musical play I Am A Camera, Sally emerged as an iconic character. In the New York revival of 1998 Natasha Richardson, another actress more identified with drama than with musicals, brought her own particular magic to the role, and was a great success.
All of which brings me to the current Sally, Michelle Williams. Hers is another controversial performance, for she is not an accomplished singer, nor does her own personality match that of the mercurial Ms. Bowles. Her work on film has always had variety, but she is closest to the lady she played in “Brokeback Mountain”, a WASP and wistful American. In “My Week With Marilyn”, she found all the soft vulnerability and innate sexuality of Marilyn Monroe. “Blue Valentine” showed another hidden aspect of her personality.
The critics have been divided, many of them hostile, to her work in this Cabaret. I’ve mentioned so many others who’ve played this iconic role, because each has approached it differently. Liza Minnelli was perhaps the most authentic musical theatre performer to tackle the role, and she remains most people’s favorite. I thought she was brilliant in it, but I also found Williams really quite effective in creating another kind of Sally — a less appealing one, an eccentric, yes, but an irritating one. I found her adequate singing voice absolutely on target to project the kind of talent Sally had. She merely chose to make her Sally Bowles strident, immature, irresponsible, ambitious, self-absorbed, inconsiderate, with not a charming or endearing personality underneath.
It does make it difficult to understand why Clifford Bradshaw should put up with her, would allow her to remain as his “room mate”, would in fact propose marriage to her, would want to take her to America with him when he decides himself to go home as it becomes clear to him that Germany is about to become a dangerous fascist state. In that sense, I think Ms. Williams’ choice was wrong, but it is a choice, and she sticks with it throughout and we know that somehow she will survive the coming dark days until her self destructive ways will undoubtedly do her in. Her work is consistent with the approach director Sam Mendes has taken to the material — he’s made everything about this production more sleazy, more vicious, more shocking.
Alan Cumming sets the tone at the top of the show. Appearing in a revealing outfit that presents him as a far more warped master of ceremonies than was more loveable Joel Grey, his interaction with the Kit Kat girls as he welcomes us with “Willkommen”, is far more gross, far more coarse than was Grey’s attack on the same material. The girls themselves, with their torn mesh stockings, their soiled flimsy gowns, their grotesque hairdos and makeup, are what Mendes and his choreographer Rob Marshall feel is more right for audiences in the teens of the 21st century. Another move to make the show relevant was to re-introduce the final anti-Semitic slur to “If You Could See Her”, sung about a gorilla dancing partner; it turns the song from the cute little pastiche it was (against Fred Ebb’s wishes) in the original into a savage number of dark humor. Again and again, the approach to the material is more blunt, and I think Michelle Williams’ approach to Sally Bowles is in perfect keeping with this vision.
The second story, that of the developing relationship between Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, has been left pretty much alone. In Linda Emond and Danny Burstein, we have two most appealing character actors, living in denial as they reach for some sort of sanity in a difficult time. Burstein’s Schultz never emerges from that denial, but Emond’s Schneider does, and that story line certainly accommodates and is comfortable with the darker tone of the total work.
This Cabaret is an angry work, artful in its conception and in its execution, and I found it stunning. Don’t go expecting to see a fun backstage musical with a jolly M.C., a scantily clad chorus, and a leading lady who’s out there to sing you some show tunes. Those folks don’t live in this particular cabaret, but those who do live there are big time scary and impressive.
Cabaret is onstage at the Kit Kat Klub at Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, New York, NY, 10019.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.