Victory Gardens Theater
By Albert Williams
Remember "Springtime for Hitler," the pro-Nazi production number in Mel Brooks's movie The Producers? Remember the stunned silence with which the audience responded to it, mouths agape in disbelief? There was a similar silence, prolonged and deadly still, at the curtain call of Cabaret at the Shubert Theatre last weekend, but it was for different, more complex reasons. Some viewers were stunned and shattered, others shocked, and others simply unsure how to respond to the way the show's relentlessly raunchy depiction of nightlife in Weimar Berlin led to a bleak final image of a concentration camp.
One thing's for sure: this isn't your mother's Cabaret. Or Harold Prince's or Bob Fosse's, though it couldn't exist without them. Thirty seasons after it first played Chicago--also at the Shubert, in the fall of 1968--this brilliant musical-theater landmark has been radically reworked. The provocative result--dark, stark, spare, unabashedly sexual yet almost never erotic--is the creation of an imaginative, risk-taking British director, Sam Mendes, working in collaboration with choreographer and codirector Rob Marshall, musical supervisor Patrick Vaccariello, and the show's authors, playwright Joe Masteroff and songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb. Mendes's Cabaret both draws on and turns against familiar elements of the work's previous incarnations. Forget the preening, puppetlike emcee Joel Grey created in Prince's 1966 Broadway premiere and Fosse's 1972 movie version, with his garishly colored clown makeup and almost infantile sexuality; as played here by the wonderful Norbert Leo Butz, the character is a carnal monster who struts bare chested with a rock star's arrogance, leering at the audience as he puts a crudely sexual spin on the last word of his famous catchphrase: "Meine Dammen und Herren, mesdames et messieurs, ladies and gentlemen..." Forget too the Rubenesque voluptuousness and bravura vocal talent Liza Minnelli brought to the movie role of Sally Bowles, the nightclub singer who belts out the show's title tune; Teri Hatcher's Sally is stick thin and fragile, a jittery cokehead who has to clutch her mike stand to keep from keeling over as she stutters through the song. The Kit Kat Klub chorines are underwear-clad zombies, mirthless mannequins parading emotionlessly through Marshall's crotch-thrusting, finger-sucking, thigh-stroking, fanny-spanking choreography. More clearly than ever before, Sally's relationship with Clifford Bradshaw, the young tourist whose moral outrage at the rise of Nazism gives the story its center, is doomed not only by her essential frivolity but by his fast-emerging homosexuality. Forget divine decadence; this Cabaret is a study in depravity and decay, where rampant sex is a function not of pleasure but of hunger and desperation.
Mendes's boldly reinvented production is the latest incarnation of material that's been frequently reworked for 60 years. Christopher Isherwood's 1939 Goodbye to Berlin chronicled in fictional form his adventures and observations of a decade earlier, when he traveled to Berlin to visit his friend W.H. Auden. The book evaded the issue of the author's homosexuality by portraying him as a detached observer, a literary camera shooting snapshots of a city in crisis. Isherwood's portrait of Sally Bowles--a character inspired by Jean Ross, a lodger at his rooming house who earned her living as a nightclub singer--accurately depicted his relationship with her as platonic but soft-pedaled the reason: theirs was the kinship of two promiscuous lovers of men. Writer-director John Van Druten's 1951 Broadway adaptation, I Am a Camera, followed the same path, resulting in a dramatically nebulous effort whose main attraction was the dynamic performance of Julie Harris as Sally; a 1955 film version, with Harris playing opposite Laurence Harvey, turned the characters' relationship into a romantic one. In 1966 director Prince, choreographer Ronald Field, and authors Masteroff, Kander, and Ebb greatly reworked the material: Englishman Isherwood became American Clifford Bradshaw, a fairly typical Broadway leading man in love with Sally (homosexuality was confined to a few minor characters). Prince and company also beefed up the role of the lovers' landlady, Fraulein Schneider, whose ill-fated midlife relationship with the Jewish grocer Herr Schultz introduces the issue of emerging anti-Semitism; assigning the role to venerable German actress Lotte Lenya (whose late husband, composer Kurt Weill, was a primary influence on Kander and Ebb's score) added a touch of incalculable authenticity. Setting much of the action in a cabaret, Prince and company introduced the character of the emcee as a way to punctuate the narrative with high-concept musical numbers played in front of an oversize distorting mirror, which showed the audience an expressionistically grotesque reflection of itself. The original Cabaret suffered somewhat from an imbalance as it moved between the garishly entertaining cabaret sequences and the more conventional dramatic scenes; Fosse's movie drew a clearer line between the Kit Kat Klub and the world outside, cutting virtually all the songs that didn't take place in the cabaret, adding new songs for that milieu, and transforming Sally into a superstar singer while cementing Joel Grey's interpretation of the emcee. Fosse also threw away Masteroff's script in favor of a screenplay by Jay Presson Allen, which replaced the Fraulein Schneider story line with one about a young Jewish woman engaged to a gentile man and forcefully raised the long-ignored matter of the hero's homosexuality (partly in response to Isherwood's own 1971 public coming out). A 1987 revival of the stage musical, which played here at the Auditorium en route to Broadway, borrowed some of the movie's new songs and revamped the character of Cliff to make him bisexual; but it still veered uncomfortably between conventional musical drama and high-concept cabaret entertainment, and though Alyson Reed and Regina Resnik delivered powerful performances as Sally and Fraulein Schneider, Joel Grey's emcee seemed to have become pale, tired, and in need of rethinking.
Rethinking is exactly what Mendes's Cabaret delivers, in spades. First seen in London in 1993 and revised for Broadway in 1998, it completely erases the boundary between the scenes inside and outside the Kit Kat Klub; it's a cabaret musical in true Brecht-Weill fashion--and not just because the first nine rows of the theater have been turned into nightclub seating, with viewers sitting and drinking at tables. The key to Mendes's vision is the gritty gay emcee, who seems to direct almost all of the action as he strides about Robert Brill's bilevel, black-and-silver set. (A tilted picture frame replaces the distorting mirror, surrounding the crack onstage instrumentalists and their raspy saxophones and pungent banjos.) When Cliff first arrives in Berlin (in a train car symbolized by the same black chairs the cabaret singers use), the emcee enters and caresses his chest, making clear from the start that Cliff, like Isherwood, has come to Berlin in part to search for boys. When Schultz gives Fraulein Schneider a pineapple as a token of his affection, the emcee leads the Kit Kat Girls in an obscene pineapple fertility dance that mocks the older couple's gentle, tentative courtship; later, when Nazi hooligans vandalize Schultz's store, the crime is symbolized by the emcee coolly dropping a brick on the stage. When Cliff learns Sally is pregnant and promises to stay with her so they can raise the child together, the emcee walks into their bedroom with a microphone, setting Sally up to sing an oddly subdued rendition of the usually bombastic "Maybe This Time." And when Sally decides to have the abortion that will rupture her relationship with Cliff, the emcee, now in drag, croons a torchy rendition of "I Don't Care Much"--a 1960s Kander and Ebb hit for Barbra Streisand that has been interpolated here--before staggering downstage in drugged disorientation to introduce Sally's rendition of "Cabaret."
More than ever, Cabaret is the emcee's show--whether he's inviting audience members of both genders onto the stage to dance with him, celebrating the pleasures of sexual sandwiches in "Two Ladies" (this time one of the "ladies" is a man, and the singers cavort in silhouetted sex that includes pretty explicit simulations of cock sucking and fist fucking), or forcing the Kit Kat Girls into a series of degrading postures to demonstrate the power of "Money" (Marshall's sexually brutal staging of this song is radically different from Grey and Minnelli's campy film version). So it's fitting that the emcee is the last person we see before the lights go out: in an image that recalls Martin Sherman's Holocaust drama Bent, he hangs lifeless against the throbbing glare of a humming electric fence, dressed in a prison uniform adorned with both a yellow star and a pink triangle.
Mendes's audacious use of the emcee puts his point across with the blunt force of a gestapo officer's baton. It's the production's greatest strength but also its biggest weakness: with the emcee calling all the shots, it's hard to get involved in the parallel romantic stories. If we don't already know that the courtship of Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider is doomed, it's made all too obvious by the emcee's sneering pineapple dance; so there's no tension in the survival-minded Schneider's decision to break up with Schultz. (Barbara Andres's portrayal of Schneider is a solid but fairly bland piece of work that lacks both the raggedy pathos of Lenya's great performance in the 1966 original and the stentorian power of Resnik in the 1987 revival. And while Dick Latessa obviously wants to purge his Schultz of all codgerly cuteness, he comes off rather pompous as a result.)
Teri Hatcher's Sally gets off to a strong start in her first two nightclub numbers--"Don't Tell Mama," which an oversize chair and Hatcher's girlish nightie give an almost pedophilic quality, and the brassy, brazen "Mein Herr"--but soon comes off as just a pawn in the emcee's game, far from the foolish yet sympathetic free spirit of past interpretations. And the early and frequent focus on the homosexuality of Rick Holmes's Cliff, though more truthful to the reality behind Isherwood's original story, undercuts the drama: since we know from the start that he's gay, his attempt to forge a lasting relationship with Sally comes off as an exercise in futility.
Yet even with these shortcomings, Mendes's Cabaret is a spectacular achievement. It's powerful, well crafted, and uncompromising in its refusal to soft-pedal the darkest undercurrents of Isherwood's story or the history that inspired it.
As it happens, the original Sally Bowles--Julie Harris--is in town, starring in the world premiere of Claudia Allen's Winter at Victory Gardens. In this earnest, rather labored one-act, Harris plays Dotha, a spry senior who suddenly finds herself in a nursing home after breaking her hip. Confined to a wheelchair and rendered grotesque after having her hair chopped short to combat a case of ringworm, poor Dotha is seized by an atypical, seemingly unshakable fit of depression; but she makes her way out of it with the help of an old flame, Mark, who inhabits the room down the hall. Turnabout is fair play: earlier Dotha had tried to ease Mark's unhappiness over being immobile, incontinent, and dependent on a workhorse wife.
Allen has a gift for the flow of dialogue and an off-kilter sense of humor--the conversations between Dotha, Mark, Mark's wife Miriam, and Dotha's daughter Ora are peppered with quirky trivia about details of the characters' lives. And her desire to candidly portray the infirmities and anxieties of old age is admirable. But none of this can disguise the fundamental manipulativeness of this schematic story, with its pat parallels and overstated metaphors. Winter "is the season of death" and "we're in the winter of our lives," says Harris toward the end, as if we couldn't figure out the seasonal symbolism when she gazes out an invisible window at a snowstorm. It takes actors of conviction and understated intensity to deliver lines like this; Allen is lucky to have Harris and Mike Nussbaum as Dotha and Mark, and Nancy Lollar and Meg Thalken delivering solid support as Miriam and Ora under Sandy Shinner's direction. Harris, of course, carries an extra resonance that stems from our memories of her in movies such as I Am a Camera, The Haunting, and The Member of the Wedding (with her hair cropped short she looks eerily like the young tomboy she played in that film version of Carson McCullers's play). Her presence on an off-Loop stage is a major theater event. Too bad the play isn't.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Neil Preston.