'Cabaret' - the Musical
Created | Updated Nov 7, 2006
The musical Cabaret was the first big success for songwriting team John Kander and Fred Ebb1, a big hit on Broadway, running for over 1,000 performances in its initial engagement and with numerous successful revivals around the world in the decades since it was first performed. Dealing with the rise of the Nazi party in 1930s Berlin, the musical is hard-edged, taking no prisoners in a starkly real storyline based on Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin and the subsequent play/film I am a Camera.2
Cabaret is often cited as one of the first major 'concept musicals', where the direction, design and symbolism of the piece can be just as important as the plot. The images evoked of decadent Berlin and the ways in which it bows to the rise of Nazism are powerful and disturbing, able to affect multiple generations of theatre-goers. The piece was conceived by producer-director Hal Prince, who worked closely with librettist Joe Masteroff, composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb to shape both the general outline and the specific details of the show. The show opened on Broadway on 20 November, 1966, where the opening-night cast included Joel Grey, Jill Haworth and Lotte Lenya. The production ran for 1,165 performances and won 8 Tony Awards. A subsequent London production included Judi Dench, Peter Sallis and Barry Dennen in the cast. It opened on 28 February, 1968 and ran for 336 performances.
Berlin, 1930: The Kit Kat Klub is a thriving nightspot attracting visitors from across Europe who are welcomed by the effeminate Emcee, his Kit Kat Girls and 'the toast of Mayfair', singer Sally Bowles. Writer Clifford Bradshaw comes to Berlin from America to write his first novel and is given a room by one Fräulein Schneider (who has a long-running feud with Fräulein Kost, another resident who is running a house of ill-repute), on the recommendation of Ernst Ludwig, a pleasant German gentleman who Cliff met on the train. He soon finds his way to the club where he becomes romantically entangled with Sally, who moves in with him; a fact which is tactfully ignored by Fräulein Schneider as she is also having an affair with Jewish fruitseller Herr Schultz.
Life seems perfect for a while until both Ernst and Fräulein Kost are revealed to be members of the new Nazi party. On realising the power that the Nazis are gaining, Fräulein Schneider is forced to break off her engagement to Herr Schultz, despite Sally and Cliff urging her not to. Life also degenerates for the younger lovers. After Sally aborts their baby, Cliff leaves the country before the Nazis gain total control. As he leaves, he is haunted by the voices of the people he left behind and wonders what will become of them.
Throughout the action, the Emcee comments and reflects on the characters and events in a cynical style through numbers at the Kit Kat Klub. This Brechtian linking device remains one of the most famous features of the show and the Emcee's numbers form the core of those transposed into the film version. Wryly commenting on the action, the Emcee never allows the audience to forget the consequences of what each character does and decides. While the show starts out in an exuberant style, by the end of the first act the audience members are feeling distinctly uncomfortable; by the end, the fact that these sort of things actually happened in Berlin at the time truly hits home.
In order of appearance:
The Emcee - a small, effeminate man who hosts and performs at the Kit Kat Klub. He watches all that goes on and seems to enjoy the horror of the situation. The Emcee has occasionally been played by a woman.
Clifford Bradshaw - an American novelist who comes to Berlin for inspiration. He falls in love with Sally Bowles, but cannot stay with her after she aborts their baby. As the Nazi party gains power, he watches his friends' lives deteriorate, finding himself powerless to do anything, and finally leaving Berlin for a safer place.
Ernst Ludwig - a young German man who is being taught English by Cliff. He is a money-runner for the Nazi party, even getting Cliff involved in this action. Ludwig reveals his true colours when he persuades Fräulein Schneider to break off her relationship and later when he orders Cliff to be beaten up.
Fräulein Schneider - an elderly German woman who owns a block of flats which she rents out to various people. She used to be wealthy, but is now reduced to the state where she has to allow Fräulein Kost to remain in the house as she needs the money. She has been romancing Herr Schultz for a while and is delighted when he proposes to her. However, she calls off the wedding the day after their engagement party, fearing reprisals were she to marry a Jew.
Fräulein Kost - a prostitute who operates from one of Fräulein Schneider's rooms. She is sympathetic to the Nazi cause.
Herr Schultz - Fräulein Schneider's Jewish fiancé who owns a fruit shop on the Nollendorfplatz, of which he is immensely proud. He is continually giving Fräulein Schneider gifts of fruit and regards her with true tenderness. When she breaks off their engagement, he moves sadly out of the apartments as 'it will be easier...for her.'
Sally Bowles - an English singer in the Klub, whose worldly-wise attitude belies her total lack of perception of the events around her. She falls in love with Cliff, but seems to value her seedy job above everything else, even aborting her and Cliff's baby in order to keep it.
The ensemble play other employees and patrons of the Kit Kat Klub, as well as the sailors who use Fräulein Kost's services.
At the time of Cabaret's Broadway opening, John Kander was accused of swiping his musical ideas from Kurt Weill, who composed in Berlin at the time of the events depicted in the show. However, Lotte Lenya, who was playing the role of Fräulein Schneider, and happened to have been Weill's wife, reassured him that the songs were not Weill, they simply were Berlin. The main musical numbers from the original stage show are as follows:
'Willkommen' - the Emcee welcomes people to the cabaret in three languages, immediately evoking the decadent, cosmopolitan atmosphere of 1930s Berlin. 'In here, life is beautiful, the girls are beautiful, even the orchestra is beautiful... we have no troubles here.' These words of the Emcee will come back to haunt the characters later.
In 'So What', Fräulein Schneider looks back over her life as she welcomes Cliff to Berlin. She has lost a lot, but in the end she says it doesn't matter, because 'it'll all go on if we're here or not, so who cares? So what?'
'Don't Tell Mama' is Sally Bowles's first number at the club, where she implores her audience to keep mum about her act, which is more than a little risqué. 'You can tell my grandma, suits me fine - just yesterday she joined the line. But don't tell mama what you saw!'
'The Telephone Song' is often cut from current revivals of the show. Various audience members at the cabaret club try to seduce each other through the medium of the table telephones and generally succeed. The number helps to set up the atmosphere early on in the show and is essential in introducing the key theme of promiscuity.
In 'Perfectly Marvellous', Sally talks her way into Cliff's apartment by cunningly working things round so that it looks like his idea. By the song's end he has reluctantly given in, but still says he has 'a terrible feeling I've said a dumb thing.'
'Two Ladies' - the Emcee parodies Cliff and Sally's new arrangement by demonstrating his own domestic situation, where he lives and sleeps with two ladies. All three of the participants seem quite happy about the arrangement and the Emcee encourages the audience to join in - 'There's room on the bottom if you drop in some night!'
'It Couldn't Please Me More' is also known as the 'Pineapple Song' and is probably the most charming number in the show. It's a duet between Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, where she expresses her delight when he brings her a gift of a pineapple from his fruit shop.
'Tomorrow Belongs To Me' is the anthem of the Nazis in the show and is sung twice, both following moments when the Schultz/Schneider romance seems the most secure. Sung by the waiters of the Kit Kat Klub it seems like a harmless piece of national pride, but when reprised by Fräulein Kost, Ernst and the guests at Schultz and Schneider's engagement party, it becomes disturbing and sinister. The response of the Emcee to this is simply to laugh. This number is so effective that it has sometimes been mistaken for a genuine Nazi song.
'Why Should I Wake Up?' sings Cliff, basking in the wonderful dream that is his life with Sally. This song is at once a touching song of love and a disturbing advocation of complete apathy.
'Sitting Pretty' is sung by the Emcee when Cliff makes a dubious moral decision about how he's going to earn money and suggests that the reason the Emcee is 'sitting pretty' while the rest of his family starve is because he offers love for sale. Much of the song is in a rapid patter style, followed by a dance as cabaret girls dressed as various national currencies parade across the stage.
In 'Married', Herr Schultz and Fräulein Schneider think about the wonderful consequences of marriage, he recalling his late wife, she imagining what it would be like.
'Meeskite' is a party piece performed by Herr Schultz to amuse the guests at his engagement party. It is a piece of Jewish humour, telling the story of an ugly man's life (ugly-faced being the meaning of 'meeskite'). It also condemns prejudice quite gently.
'If You Could See Her' begins as a touching song of love sung by the Emcee to his onstage gorilla girlfriend, but turns into a comment on German attitudes to the Jews, the attitude which is forcing the breakup of Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider's romance. 'If you could see her through my eyes' says the Emcee of the gorilla 'she wouldn't look Jewish at all'. Or at least that's what he would have said if pressures at the time had not forced the line to be changed due to a suggestion of anti-Semitism. The line was altered to 'she isn't a meeskite at all', but was reinstated for the movie and in subsequent stage productions.
In 'What Would You Do?', Fräulein Schneider asks Cliff and Sally if she had any option but to give in to the mood of the times and break off her engagement. At her age, she can't afford to take risks. 'Suppose simply keeping still means you manage until the end? What would you do my brave young friend?'.
'Cabaret' seems to be a joyous affirmation of life, but in the context of the show it represents Sally's great defeat - she has returned to the squalid stage of the Kit Kat Klub and has just rejected Cliff and aborted his baby. The idea that 'life is a cabaret' is a clear fallacy, life is anything but - Cliff has just been beaten by Ernst's cronies.
The finale - 'Auf Wiedersehen' - mixes elements of 'Willkommen' and 'Cabaret', along with various seemingly throwaway lines of dialogue and musical themes from earlier in the show, which take on more sinister meaning at this late point. The massed cast sings the song of welcome against increasingly discordant music, still believing that life is beautiful, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Atypically for a musical's finale, the song builds to complete, empty silence.
The 1972 film of Cabaret was substantially different to the original stage production. Directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse, it dropped the Schultz-Schneider subplot, bringing in a different Jewish story from Isherwood's books in its place. The nationalities of Cliff and Sally were also reversed, due to the casting of Liza Minnelli as Sally, and sexuality was explored in more depth, with both Cliff (now named Brian) and Sally having an affair with the same 'sugar daddy'. Joel Grey played the role of the Emcee, as he had in the original Broadway production, and Michael Yorke played Brian.
Much of the score was also dropped, retaining only some of the numbers sung in the cabaret itself ('Willkommen', 'Two Ladies', 'If You Could See Her' and 'Cabaret') plus the Nazi anthem 'Tomorrow Belongs To Me'. Three new numbers by Kander and Ebb were added to bolster the score, all of which were sung in the setting of the Klub. 'Mein Herr' replaced 'Don't Tell Mama' as Sally's stage number, and is famous for the routine danced on and around chairs by the cabaret girls. The song tells of a woman who does whatever she feels like, however she feels like doing it and who doesn't give a damn how how other people feel about it. 'Maybe This Time' is a tearjerker which was originally written in 1964, but was brought in for the film anyway. The singer (Sally), sings of her hope that, against all odds, this time her love affair is going to last. 'Money, Money' replaced 'Sitting Pretty' and is conceived as a duet for Sally and the Emcee. Like the other song it is about money and the need for it. It expresses greed and an orgasmic love of money.
The film won eight Academy Awards but failed to bag the 'Best Picture' award, which went to The Godfather.
Cabaret continues to be revived worldwide by professional and amateur companies and had a run on Broadway in the late 1990s which exceeded the length of the original engagement, running for 2,378 performances in a theatre converted to a more cabaret-style environment. While some productions remain entirely faithful to the original script and score, most tend to make additions, deletions or changes, meaning that this is a constantly evolving musical. For example, Cliff's bisexuality, never really suggested in the original script, is sometimes retained from the movie version and both 'Money, Money' and 'Maybe This Time' are frequently inserted into the score of revival versions. Also, various numbers such as 'Sitting Pretty', 'Meeskite', 'The Telephone Song' and 'Why Should I Wake Up?' are dropped from the score, depending on the director's interpretation of the show and occasionally a number cut from the original, such as 'I Don't Care Much' (a song originally intended to be sung by a nameless prostitute, now appropriated by the Emcee) is interpolated. A new song, 'Don't Go', was written for a Broadway revival in 1987, but has not been used in subsequent productions and the song 'And the World Goes Round' from the film New York, New York (also by Kander and Ebb) has been used in some European productions.
Cabaret has been recorded many times, and most of the recordings have been made available on compact disc. There are six particularly notable English language versions - the original Broadway cast, the original London cast, the film soundtrack, the 1986 London revival, the 1998 Broadway revival and a complete studio recording with Jonathan Pryce, Maria Friedman and Judi Dench. Many international versions have also been recorded, including three notable Viennese cast recordings. The film version has been released multiple times on VHS and DVD, and a stage version from the Donmar in London (starring Jane Horrocks as Sally Bowles and Alan Cumming as the Emcee) was filmed for television in 1993.