Brandeis Theater Co. turns Spingold into 'Cabaret'

Get a behind-the-scenes glimpse before the production's Nov. 21 opening

Willkommen, bienvenue!

Weimar Berlin explodes into life — and song — when the Brandeis Theater Company presents “Cabaret” at Spingold’s Mainstage Theater from Thursday, Nov. 21, to Sunday, Nov. 24.

Set in 1931, the musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb is a perennial favorite on stage and screen despite the darkness of its material. Outside the walls of a cabaret called the Kit Kat Klub, the Nazi threat is building, and freedom and safety are evaporating. Inside the club, the performers’ theatrical exuberance keeps them — and us — caught in the thrall of sensual abandon. For now.

Based on the Christopher Isherwood novel “Goodbye to Berlin,” the musical has been drawing audiences into its potent mixture of chilling reality and flamboyant theatricality since its Broadway debut in 1966.

Because, really, what good is sitting alone in your room?

The origins

In his fictionalized memoir “Goodbye to Berlin” (reissued as “The Berlin Stories”), young Isherwood, who is gay, leaves repressed England for a new beginning in Berlin.

The author is unambiguous in his portrayal of Berlin’s dark side. “The whole city lay under an epidemic of discreet, infectious fear,” Isherwood writes. The novel is studded with arrests and disappearances. Banks collapse between breakfast and lunch. Uniformed men in heavy boots stomp through the streets.

Yet one of Isherwood’s friends remains unmoved by current events: naughty, high-maintenance Sally Bowles, a mediocre singer and would-be actress. In the novel, she occupies only a single chapter. After enduring a series of romantic and career disasters, Sally bids toodle-oo to Berlin, promising to send Christopher a postcard from Paris or Rome when she becomes famous. (Jean Ross, the real-life inspiration for Sally, has been described by those who knew her as warm, intelligent and politically aware. She remained friends with Isherwood until her death in 1973.)

At the novel’s conclusion, as Isherwood packs to return to England, he overhears his landlady, who a year earlier had voted Communist, talking reverently to a friend about Hitler. “She is merely acclimatizing herself,” Isherwood observes, “like an animal which changes its coat for the winter.”

For a time, Isherwood and his close friend W.H. Auden discussed adapting the novel as a musical. “Our ultimate message,” Isherwood wrote Auden, “is the indestructibility of landladies and artists.”

The musical

Several decades later, theater director Harold Prince was also interested in adapting “The Berlin Stories” as a musical, drawn to the project by what he described as “the parallel between the spiritual bankruptcy of Germany in the 1920s and our country in the 1960s.”  

He developed “Cabaret” for over a year with composer Kander and lyricist Ebb. They wrote the part of cabaret singer Sally Bowles — elevated now into a main character — with Liza Minnelli in mind, but Prince refused to cast her, believing that she sang too well. Jill Haworth played Sally on Broadway. But Minnelli didn’t have to wait long. Her iconic portrayal of Sally in Bob Fosse’s 1972 film adaptation is considered by many to be one of the greatest performances in a musical.

In the inaugural Broadway production (as well as in the film adaptation and the 1987 Broadway revival), Joel Grey played the master of ceremonies with an exquisite blend of androgyny, seduction and aggression.

To play Fraulein Schneider — the German landlady who loves her Jewish grocer but rejects him out of fear that she, too, may be persecuted by the Nazis — Prince cast Lotte Lenya, one of Germany’s most famous performers and composer Kurt Weill’s widow, who brought a haunting realism to the production.

At one point, Prince considered ending the Broadway production with a film of the Selma marches and the Little Rock riots. Ultimately, he decided to let audiences make their own connections between Weimar Germany and the United States, confident they would understand the dangers of closing their eyes to the world outside the cabaret.  

The music

“Cabaret” was Kander and Ebb’s breakthrough musical. The songs are gutsy and intense, with big ranges and big feelings, yet the lyrics are simple and straightforward. The language scans into actable, conversational rhythms. Every song advances the plot and the character development.

The songs also brilliantly evoke a specific time and place. There are sly nods to the influences of Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht and their “The Threepenny Opera.” Many of the songs  provide social context and commentary.

Seductive and disturbing, the entire experience of “Cabaret” comes after audiences from every angle.

Ingrid Schorr, associate director of the Office of the Arts; Ryan McKittrick, lecturer in theater arts; and Nancy Armstrong, adjunct associate professor of theater arts, contributed to this story.

Categories: Arts

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