Written By Cindy Lefler 9/30/2015
Welcome to Berlin, Germany, 1931; a time that saw the rise of Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich – and the fall of humanity and compassion.
“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.”
~Christopher Isherwood – “Goodbye to Berlin,” part of the novel, “The Berlin Stories.”
The Sketch Club is opening its 2014-2015 season in October with “Cabaret” to acknowledge one of the most important aspects of theatre. Yes, its goal is to entertain, but, as acclaimed American acting teacher Stella Adler once said, “The theatre was created to tell people the truth about life and the social situation.” Ms. Adler was right; the purpose of theatre is to make people feel – whether it is to feel happy and joyous, or to feel weight of the complexities of humanity, and the intricacies of world around them. Never was there a more compelling tale of humanity – or of a society devolving into incivility – than that of “Cabaret.” Inside the Kit Kat Club, “life is beautiful,” but outside, the darkness of hatred, oppression and genocide is looming and growing like the billowing black smoke of a fire consuming everything in its path. And try as they might, those seeking refuge in the insidious isolation and delicious debauchery of the club cannot keep that darkness.
“Cabaret,” the musical was based on an earlier straight play entitled: “I Am a Camera,” which was based on a book written by Christopher Isherwood called “The Berlin Stories.” Set in 1931, just as Adolf Hitler was moving into power, Isherwood’s Berlin consists of seamy clubs offering grotesque nightlife and powerful hordes gaining power by feeding off of fear and ignorance. Isherwood juxtaposes that portion of Berlin with the other, perhaps just as dangerous, side of the city – those who would rather bury their heads in the sand than admit to what is happening to the society around them. The story of “Cabaret” revolves around the 19-year-old English cabaret performer Sally Bowles and her relationship with the young American writer Cliff Bradshaw. A sub-plot involves the doomed romance between German boarding house owner Fräulein Schneider and her elderly suitor Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit vendor. Overseeing all is the Master of Ceremonies at the Kit Kat Club, who serves as a mirror – albeit a funhouse mirror, bending and twisting the truth – to the impending menace of the Third Reich.
The Emcee has no name, and that is by design; this bizarre and surreal human is both omnipotent and omniscient, a puppeteer who manipulates all around him while serving up commentary on the consequences. The inspiration for the character of the Emcee came from director Harold Prince’s own experiences at a nightclub in 1951 while stationed with the army in Stuttgart. He said: “There was a dwarf emcee, hair parted in the middle and lacquered down with brilliantine, his mouth made into a bright red cupid’s bow, who wore heavy false eyelashes and sang, danced, goosed, tickled, and pawed four lumpen Valkyres waving diaphanous butterfly wings.” Sixteen years later, Joel Grey would turn that image into one of the most memorable characters in the history of musical theatre.
The show’s dark undercurrents are a stark contrast to the often upbeat score, a way composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb present the facade that helps those inside the doors ignore the outside world that is constantly pounding on it. As the play progresses, the subtle realization that the Final Solution is upon them and cannot be shut out becomes undeniable.
The original 1966 Broadway production was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, and won eight, including “Best Musical,” “Best Original Score,” and “Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical,” which went to Joel Grey as the Emcee. Many revivals would follow over the years, including in 1998, when Alan Cumming won a Tony for “Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical” as the Emcee – the same role for which Grey won the award as a “featured” actor 32 years earlier. The fact that “Cabaret” has been revived so many times – three times on Broadway, and four times in London, not to mention several international productions – speaks volumes about its timelessness, its ability to entertain, and as Stella Adler would say, “to tell people the truth about life and the social situation.”
As we open the doors to our production of “Cabaret” to watch the characters be manipulated through a world that is at the same time bright and glittery and dark and confusing, I think of the words of William Shakespeare, and how he saw the realities of society and humanity around him:
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts…”
Auf Wiedersehen… See you all at the Kit Kat Club!