'Cabaret' to its Core: Stripping the layers of the glitzy musical on the eve of MUSKET's production

By Arielle Speciner, Daily Arts Writer
Published November 14, 2011

The room is dimly lit and there’s a piano. The Emcee welcomes the audience with a “Wilkommen” and beautiful girls drape the stage with their voices and bodies. The boys hoot and holler, tables line the room with couples flirting — men with women, women with other women, men with other men. Then, the boisterous and beautiful Sally Bowles sashays in.

The director abruptly stops the show. He gives the cast a few pointers: The actors need to be aware of their surroundings, what they need to change and how to fix their mistakes.

This fantasy life of the glitzy and glamorous show business comes to a halt. And this halt, this barrier between the show and life, is what “Cabaret” is all about.

The musical is set in 1930s Berlin when the Third Reich was on the rise and the Nazis were gaining power. Some Germans thought this new regime would help Germany ascend to power after the hardships of a post-World War I world — little did they know the Nazi party would turn Germany upside down.

But inside the Kit Kat Klub — the fictional setting of the show — The Emcee directs a parade of revelry, ex-pats Sally Bowles and Cliff Bradshaw fall in love and the audience and performers laugh and have fun, ignoring the conflict to come.

Traveling across time and place

The groundbreaking musical has been performed many times since its inception and Broadway run in 1966. Most famously, “Cabaret” made the leap from the stage to film in 1972, starring Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey. “Cabaret” will enjoy a reincarnation this weekend through student theater organization MUSKET’s production at the Power Center.

Many people determine their familiarity with cabarets from the show — MUSKET member and Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore Conor Ryan said he has never been to “a nightly cabaret establishment.” But a rich history exists behind the art of these nightclub staples.

According to former cabaret pianist and MT&D professor Jerry DePuit, Rodolphe Salis established the first cabaret in the late 19th century in Montmartre — then a small town outside Paris. At first the cabaret acted solely as a gathering place for Salis’s bohemian friends to share their poetry and songs. But cabarets eventually spread throughout Europe, evolving into more elaborate political shows and having a big impact on Berlin.

DePuit said these Berlin cabarets were political and satirical, blending an eccentric fantasy life with what was going on at the time in the country. Intellectuals and liberals would attend these shows not only to learn about what was going on in Berlin in the early 1900s, but also to poke fun at the political climate.

MT&D senior Roman Micevic, who is directing the MUSKET performance, said “Cabaret” actually parallels the cabarets of the past because there would be performances with a dialogue and a song or skit that would relate to that scene.

In cabarets, an emcee, or master of ceremonies, “bookends, transitions and presents everything” like a narrator, according to Ryan, who plays the omnipresent, provocative and anonymous Emcee in the musical.

Ryan’s character reveals the truth of the characters’ relationships, like Sally Bowles and Cliff or the German gentile and Jewish lovers Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, while also commenting on the world outside the Kit Kat Klub.

“You’re kind of transported between two worlds, the real life of what’s happening with the characters and then as if you’re an audience member at the cabaret in Berlin in the ’20s,” Ryan said.

And all that jazz

Being an audience member in a 1920s or 1930s Berlin-based cabaret would have been different than witnessing one today.

Ryan compares old-time cabarets to modern-day variety shows like “Saturday Night Live” that are topical, entertaining and informative.

“I believe that it gave people back then what TV gives people now,” Ryan said. “Back in the day, it was like reading a newspaper, only it’s a show.”

But compared to the stage cabarets of the past, the televised form of cabaret is less snarky and controversial.

“It doesn’t quite have the satirical bite or political bite that it used to in Germany,” DePuit said. “Of course, also because of the rise of the Third Reich, people were aware that their world was falling apart. So it got almost militant at times.”

Cabarets have also evolved into the simple singer-and-pianist show, in which the singer takes on the role of the entertainment and the emcee. The lavish cabarets of the past were made up of large orchestras, full ballets and even lantern shows.

The costumes were made of sequins and glitter, makeup was heavy but colorful and women were scantily clad in fishnet stockings, garters and bustiers. The show halls were decorated with wealthy show-goers in the finest of suits and dresses. Though cabarets may seem kitschy and vulgar, they were actually an elegant place to be.

The musical operates on a similarly grand scale.

“I think ‘Cabaret’ is just one of those shows that doesn’t really fade into the background,” said MT&D senior Laura Reed, who plays Sally Bowles. “It was so groundbreaking when it came out. It’s a concept musical.”

“Cabaret” was such a game-changer because the subject matter is dark and deep. It may have been difficult for some audiences to watch and appreciate it. The show includes debates about abortion and anti-Semitism — in MUSKET’s production, one of the main characters is bisexual. When the show first came out, all of these subjects were barely spoken about, let alone presented on stage.

And the show's setting is not exactly a Broadway-friendly atmosphere.

“If someone just said the words ‘musical theater’ in your head, or ‘go see a Broadway musical,’ I’m sure the first thing you wouldn’t think of was World War II and the Nazis,” Ryan said. “You’d think a chorus line of the Rockettes.”

Ryan also believes that, though there are flamboyancies to the show, it digs deeper than just spectacular numbers.

“It’s not about the smoke and mirrors and dazzling, beautiful women and dance numbers,” he said. “It has elements of that in it, but it’s really about a story about these people living in that time.”

And though that time no longer exists, there is still a connection to be made between 20th century Germany and contemporary society.

“I think the repercussions of Nazi Germany and World War II is obviously something we are still living with,” Reed said. “The mindset of pushing away the problems of the world and choosing to ignore it is absolutely relevant today.”

She added, “We’re always sort of faced with that choice of accepting who you are and going with the flow and not worrying about it. ... Or choosing to open our eyes and view the world and the mess that it may be.”

Devon Perry, MT&D junior and musical director of “Cabaret,” said not only does the setting of the show cross over to today, but the music does too.

The composers, John Kander and Fred Ebb, wrote the music after World War II, but it reflects the sounds of the ’30s. European oompah-pah horns and jazzy vocal runs grace the score.

“As soon as you hear it you’ll realize it’s not contemporary by any means,” she said.

Perry is planning to bring modernity to the show while harking back to its era by using a keyboard to play instruments that are either out-of-date or hard to find, like the accordion. The accordion was one of the main instruments used in 1930s Berlin, but it was too expensive and difficult to find one to play for the production.

Micevic found not only musical relevancy in “Cabaret,” but also a connection to today’s politics and economic state.

“It’s a timeless tale,” he said. “There are so many parallels to Weimar Germany and today.”

According to Micevic, there’s also a correlation between the rise of the Nazis in post-World War I Germany and rise of the Tea Party today — he claims a similar economic situation and scapegoating tendency.

The musical is also notable for breaking the fourth wall and directing commentary toward the audience. This style is very imitative of the way cabarets are performed today and were performed in the past.

“At the end of the evening, the audience feels that they know you as a person as well as a performer, so there’s no hiding behind a character,” DePuit said. “A good cabaret performer really makes you feel that you’ve been sung to directly and you really know them by the end of the act. It’s a very personal art form.”

Maybe this time

Though it’s a social commentary, “Cabaret” is still a show with lights, cameras and action. It still involves deep, fictional characters, direction and talented actors.

Actors need to dig deep to find a connection to their character. Reed latched on that connection — and she loved it.

“I sort of feel like Sally is absolutely this side of me that exists and that I’m getting to explore,” she said. “I was sort of surprised at how similar we were in some ways, so I’m just having a lot of fun playing her.”

Ryan, too, feels a personal connection to the Emcee.

“I have been singing this show in the shower since I was seven,” he said. “It’s really the reason I wanted to be an actor. … It has been a dream of mine to play this role forever.”

Actors leaving their real lives to transition into fictional, entertaining characters resembles how the cabarets transcribed real life into engaging numbers. For the MUSKET actors, this is just something they do for fun — block out real life and live in a fantasy world. But for some, it’s a way of living.

“There’s this idea of this decadent sort of dream world that we’re living in today,” Micevic said. “We’re all plugged into our own music with our iPods, we can choose to follow the news, we have a lot more information through the Internet. It’s so much easier for us to ignore this sort of news, and that’s exactly what this cabaret is all about.”

Cabarets put on an air of lightness, and some people, like Sally Bowles, get swept up in its charm. But Micevic said we should open our eyes to what is going on in front of us and not ignore it.

“We should be aware of this dream world, this happy-go-lucky place that we can go to,” he said.

This is the essence of “Cabaret,” a show that embraces history and glitzy escapism but also grounds itself in reality. This is the life, old chum, of a cabaret.