The iconic musical Cabaret follows American author Cliff Bradshaw and his encounter with cabaret performer Sally Bowles and the seedy world of the Kit Kat Klub, presided over by the enigmatic Emcee. When Sally is fired by the club’s owner, also her jealous boyfriend, she moves in with Cliff and the two fall in love. As the Nazis begin taking control of the German government, the atmosphere of the Kit Kat Klub and the lives of Cliff and Sally begin to change dramatically. For all the exuberant song and dance, the most powerful aspect of Cabaret remains the political wallop that it delivers. The horror gains momentum around them, as too many characters stay locked in denial or self-interest. At its core, Cabaret is a devastating critique of apathy, and a clever and terrifying look at totalitarianism.
On November 20, 1966, Cabaret first opened on Broadway, and the musical notably broke with many time-tested musical theatre conventions of its day, both in terms of content and form. Aside from a chorus of scantily-clad Kit Kat Girls and a plot that dealt frankly with anti-Semitism and abortion, the production also jettisoned a traditional overture and show curtain for the abruptly beginning opening number “Wilkommen”.
The Broadway classic was born when John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Joe Masteroff’s Cabaret opened on Broadway. But what opened on Broadway in 1966 is, for many, quite different from the Cabaret we’re used to seeing today. Cabaret has seen multiple dramatic transformations in both its book, score, and staging as it was adapted for the screen and then revived on Broadway three times. Each incarnation was groundbreaking for its time, but each new revision also pushed the envelope further and further, in terms of the authenticity of 1930’s Weimar Germany.
It started its life as 1939 semi-autobiographical novel Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood that recounts his time in 1930s pre-Nazi Berlin. The novel was adapted into a play, I Am a Camera, by John Van Druten in 1951. Harold Prince, producer of the original Fiddler on the Roof, purchased the rights to both of the novel and the play, and planned his own musical version of the story with Joe Masteroff (She Loves Me).
With Prince as both producer and director, the original Broadway production of Cabaret opened November 20, 1966 at the Broadhurst Theatre. The show was a hit, winning eight 1967 Tony Awards, including best musical, score, director, choreographer, and featured actor awards for Joel Grey and Peg Murray.
Since then, Bob Fosse directed and choreographed his 1972 movie adaptation. The movie was a huge success both financially and with critics. It won eight 1973 Academy Awards, including best director, best actress for Liza Minelli, and best supporting actor for Joel Grey, making him one of only eight actors to win Tony and Oscar Awards for playing the same role. Even director Sam Mendes (Kate Winslet’s husband) put his stamp on the musical with a radically re-imagined revival at London’s Donmar Warehouse.
Only time will tell whether one of these revisions will become the definitive version of this Broadway classic, but we can probably count on seeing productions of Cabaret continue all over the world for new generations of theatre lovers to discover.
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