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Sep 14, 2004 7:47 am

Life Was a Cabaret

You may have noticed the sudden upsurge of Liza Minelli, or thought that Frank Sinatra you heard was a late New York tribute. But actually, Fred Ebb, the lyricist who, with John Kander, created"Chicago","Cabaret" and"New York, New York" (can you name another song so much of which has become part of our language?) has died.

In tribute tonight, we listened to the original cast album of"Cabaret," and to the only version of"New York, New York" we have in the house: the one by Wendy Mae Chambers on the Car Horn Organ [RealAudio here]. We heard Sinatra on the news.

"Cabaret" is one of my favorite musicals, though I remain firmly attached to the original stage version. I understand why the later revisions were made: Christopher Isherwood's original"Berlin Stories" were much more sexually open and adventurous, more morally ambiguous, than Broadway would allow in the late 1960s, though how they got the movie made in the early 1970s is a bit beyond me. The open portrayal of homosexuality, even as bisexuality, was probably something of a milestone for Hollywood, at least in a hit film. It is, perhaps, a more adult show.

But it's the earlier version that I still like. Some of it is imprinting, of course: the version you fall in love with is the one that defines the work, and revisions smack of heresy. But the focus on Cliff/Isherwood and his sexuality and explorations of Berlin's seamy side takes a great deal away from the context of rising Nazi power (the stories date from 1929-1933 and the play and movie seem to be set in 1932, though it's been a while since I saw them) and the effect that had on individuals well before Kristallnacht. In its earlier version, along with"Fiddler On The Roof","Cabaret" was the only Jewish musical, and the portrayal of Herr Schultz and his relationship with Fraulein Schneider is one of the most interesting parts of the whole play. The ease and charm with which this mixed couple -- he is Jewish, she is not -- become close, then engaged, and her decision to break off the engagement as Nazi influence rises, is a portrait in miniature of the Jewish assimilation into German life, and de-assimilation under the pressure of organized hate. The moviemakers' decision to make both Schultz and Schneider Jews makes them pitiable, but not interesting.

I've never seen a version of the play in which I thought Sally Bowles was the most interesting character, though she certainly gets a lot of time on stage. I did get to see Joel Gray play the MC in his final tour with the show, and I've only once seen an MC who came close (and that was by imitation, rather than innate quality) to the charming horror and seemingly accidental perfect poise that Gray brought to the role. Everyone likes"Life is a Cabaret," if they like the show at all, but"What Would You Do?" is the truly heartbreaking moment for me, and the chilling beauty of"Tomorrow Belongs To Me" is one of the most challenging aesthetic/moral moments in musical theater.

I like the way the musical wrestled with the historical context and allowed multiple stories to interweave. The original musical was perhaps the high point of that engagement, in the various extant versions. I suppose if I weren't Jewish, an historian, and so boringly heterosexual, I might feel differently. Ebb and Kander did fantastic work, though, and left us with some great, fun, challenging material.

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Richard Henry Morgan - 9/14/2004

I find it interesting that you too find "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" so striking and memorable -- it is, in fact, the only part of the film that I remember. I can picture the scene. They're in a beer garden, and a beautiful voice starts up. And one by one the people there turn towards the voice, and then the camera too. And you get a headshot of the singer. And then the camera pulls back, and it's a Hitler youth in brownshirt uniform. Evil doesn't proclaim itself as evil, but always comes in guise, often beautiful. Was it the Danish K, the hammer of Hegel, who said there are two modes of analysis, the aesthetic and the moral?

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