Cabaret's Downfall

I am very remiss in putting together my latest batch of reviews of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival – earlier reviews can be found here, here, here, here, here, and here. We were up in our favorite little theater town on the 18th through the 20th of this month, and one thing and another has kept me away from reviewing until now. Hopefully the memories have not faded too far.

Cabaret is an extremely difficult musical to do. It has a deadly serious theme. It is among the least kid-friendly shows in the pre-Sondheim canon. And it calls for considerable musical and theatrical sophistication on the part of the performers and the audience, who have to process a show with both traditional Broadway numbers (“Perfectly Marvelous,” for example, or “Married”) where characters sing, with cabaret numbers addressed to the audience (as if it is an audience at the cabaret in the show) where performers sing – but sing songs that comment on the action happening in the “story” part of the show. The Music Man is a more sophisticated show that it appears on first glance – certainly musically – but it goes down like ice cream. Not Cabaret.

On top of this, Cabaret has three serious problems, one structural, two thematic, and all related to one another. The structural problem is that the show is a downer. Boy meets girl, boy and girl try to make a go of it, get in trouble, politics get in the way and, ultimately, they give up. Ditto older boy and girl, he Jewish, she not. Act I is full of thrilling numbers; Act II is full of depressing numbers. There is really very little one can do about this – the show ends with Cliff abandoning Sally and Berlin, returning to America, predicting the rise of the Nazis and the end of the world. That’s not an ending that sends your audience out humming bars from the show; it’s an ending that sends them out from the show to the bars.

The thematic problems are twofold. First, since it is based on the Isherwood stories, it’s based on a text that was written before the Nazis came to power, and tried to destroy the world. And yet, the show itself was written with full knowledge of what was to come – knowledge that cannot help but seep into the show, and the production, and the audience’s response thereto. The show winds up being structured as a warning – but a warning to people who are already dead, from people who have the privileged information from living in the future. And that quality leaves a bad taste to the proceedings. Second, the Nazis were, among other things, reactionaries, reacting to what they forthrightly called the decadence of the Weimar Republic. Much of Cabaret depicts that decadence. It does not take too much of a slip for the show to wind up appearing to make the argument that the decadence caused the rise of Nazism – which feels like a kind of blaming of the victim. While I can’t see any director intending to suffuse his or her production with this kind of sentiment, it’s genuinely hard to keep down; it springs too readily from the material.

Amanda Dehnert has come up with a unique and highly surprising solution to the problems with the show, one that would never have occurred to me. Of course, the solution creates serious problems of its own. But if you love this show, make the opportunity to see this production, because I assure you, you’ll never see it done this way again.

Dehnert has turned Cabaret into a memory play, a recollection by the Emcee, of all people, in immediately post-war Berlin, recalling the wild and crazy times before the world ended. The set is a magnificent ruin, and the Emcee’s first action at the start of the show is to conjure up a company to people it, and introduce us to them. And in every “Broadway” number where the characters (as opposed to the performers) sing, the Emcee hovers over them, helping to set the scene by bringing in props and scenery, playing bit parts, etc.

It’s an insane conceit, and it completely changes the show. For one thing, it drains the Emcee of any vestige of menace. I was not around to see the original Broadway production, but we’ve all seen Joel Grey’s death’s head from the 1972 movie version. That’s menace. Alan Cummings played the Emcee rather differently in the Sam Mendes production from the 1990s; he played him as more of a sensualist, but a cynical one, one who is convinced that he is smarter than all the rest of these clowns, Nazis and decadents alike, and will outlast them all (he plays the song, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” on a gramaphone alone on stage, and cuts it off before the last words, and hisses, “to me!” to himself). He’s wrong, of course (at the end of the production, Cummings drops his cabaret garb, revealing a prisoner’s stripes and a pink triangle underneath, and we know exactly how he’s going to vanish), but that ambition anchors and makes sense of the character as a character.

Bruce Dow is perfectly cast for this Emcee: an oversized baby, a monster of polymorphous perversity. Two numbers center on the Emcee: “Two Ladies” and the untitled number at the top of Act II, and in both the Emcee steals our hearts – I can’t believe I’m writing that phrase – with his unabashed neediness. How could you hate this creature, the production seems to be saying? He’s harmless? He’s hopeless, yes; he’s ridiculous, yes; but he’s harmless! And now all his beautiful, hopeless, ridiculous but harmless friends are burnt to dust . . . Dow is a phenomenal performer, and with a lesser actor I could see this interpretation not working at all, but he makes this disturbing and strangely adorable Emcee utterly believable as a character, and utterly central to the play (as, in this interpretation, it is).

Whatever else it is, the conceit is certainly a solution to many of the problems I articulated below. There is no chance that anyone seeing this production will blame the cabaret atmosphere of Weimar from precipitating the reaction of the Nazis. And, with a very strong actor as Cliff (Sean Arbuckle – have I ever seen him do a poor job in anything? I don’t think so) we don’t completely lose sight of the fact that these big babies didn’t stand a chance against what was coming, and that this was, indeed, a problem. More important, we solve the problem of retrospection. If this is a story told to us by the Emcee – where he has the same privileged knowledge of the future that we do, but more direct knowledge of the past – then the pinched “I warned you” quality of the original show vanishes, which is an unequivocal gain.

And some of the numbers gain significantly from the transposition of the setting to post-war memories. The pineapple song is adorable in its original context. Sung by a Jewish man to a German woman in the ruins of post-war Berlin, it’s almost heartbreaking. Similarly “Money Makes the World Go Around” – taken from the movie version of the show, and a wonderful addition it is – is far more terrifying in the ruins than it could ever be in the original cabaret. These boys and girls in 1930 thought they knew what hunger is. They have no idea – but now the Emcee does know, and his ghosts know, too, and the resonances are almost overpowering (a bunch of the cast is pulled onstage in a cage part-way through the number; watching two of the girls fight over a sausage, I couldn’t help thinking, “a sausage! they wouldn’t fight over a sausage – they would kill!”).

But other numbers do not go so well. In fact, the entire second act does not go so well. The arc of the play, after all, does not support a nostalgic interpretation. And some numbers are particularly damaged by the shift to a retrospective view.

“If You Could See Her Through My Eyes” is supposed to be a punch in the guts. Joel Grey rubbed our noses in it (in the movie, anyhow). Alan Cummings made it the showcase of his “I can adapt to the new regime, just you watch” interpretation of the Emcee. But for Dow to do the number as intended would mean remembering his own complicity in the darkening times, and that’s not where this show is going. So, for the first verse, Dow is singing to a picture we can’t see at all – and so the jokes are lost entirely. Then we shift to a home movie of him and the gorilla at the beach in happier times – this is one of the better uses of video in the production, actually, I’ll give it that much credit. And then we return to Dow, and the girl in the gorilla suit comes onstage, and Dow ends the song by lifting off her gorilla’s head to reveal the beautiful blonde beneathe, and whispers that brutal last line – “she wouldn’t look Jewish at all” sadly and sweetly. A song about the rise of anti-Semitism has become a song deploring the rise of anti-Semitism – which, as it is the absolute cheapest, easiest sentiment imaginable, turns the song into a cheap and empty moment.

Another second-act song, “I Don’t Care Much” – a number cut from the original show restored by Mendes, and given to the Emcee to sing – is beautifully sung by Dow, but doesn’t fit into the show at all. This Emcee cares plenty – the whole show is about how much he misses these people, how much he misses all the fun they had. And, most worryingly, Sally’s big final number – “Cabaret” itself – has similar problems. After all, if we’re all being nostalgic for the lost world, how are we supposed to play this dancing-on-the-deck-of-the-Titanic number? Was Sally right after all? Was Elsie right after all? That can’t be. Trish Lindstrom gives her all to the song, but the song vanishes into the vastness, lacking any remaining structural grounding in the show.

And I do want to stress that she gives her all. Indeed, all of the performers give their all – from a performance perspective, this is an absolutely top-notch production. I’ve talked a bunch about Dow as the Emcee, but Lindstrom is a thoroughly persuasive Sally – she was never intended to be the obvious star that Liza Minelli is, and Lindstrom is much more the British party girl with enough voice to get a gig in this cabaret and not much else. And her chemistry with Cliff is palpable – we believe their mutual affection across considerable obstacles (among them, Cliff’s homosexuality, which is spelled out as clearly in this stage production as in the movie, which is to say, much more so than in the original stage production), and we feel the pain of their parting ways. Nora McLellan, Frank Moore and Diana Coatsworth do fine jobs as, respectively, the landlady, Fraulein Schneider; her suitor, Herr Schultz; and the prostitute, Fraulein Kost. And the entire chorus throws heart and soul into the big numbers – particularly “Money” and “Two Ladies.” (The only big chorus number that doesn’t work, in fact, is the first “Tomorrow Belongs To Me,” but the reprise is handled with great force.)

One final question I had about the production is: if you don’t know the show, will you have any idea what’s going on? I think the answer is, “no.” This production was both extremely interesting and, at least some of the time, extremely effective as a take on Cabaret. But I’m not sure it is Cabaret.

But whatever it is, it’s well-worth a trip to Stratford to see it. I applaud Dehnert – and the Festival – for taking this risk, because it was a risk worth taking. Cabaret deserved another look, a fresh look. This new look doesn’t always work, but it is new, and at times it worked very well, and if nothing else it made me think seriously about the show in a way that I would not have from a more straightforward production.