I’m not a rabid theater-hound. For one thing it is too expensive to be one, and for another the simple hassle of getting in and out of NYC is a deterrent. So, I seldom attend more than three or four plays per year on or off Broadway – sometimes fewer, but occasionally more if I have ulterior motives (i.e. dates). Still less often do I see a play a second time. The exceptions are…well…exceptional.
Cabaret, which is ending its current run this weekend, is very exceptional. It has had four Broadway productions, and I’ve seen three of them, witnessing such unlikely performers of the Sally Bowles role as Natasha Richardson, Brooke Shields, and Molly Ringwald. (I was 13 when the first production opened in 1966, and the New York theater wasn’t really on my radar or in my budget.) Whenever guests – especially from out-of-area – during one of its runs asked me an opinion about what Broadway musical to see, I’d point to it, and as often as not end up in one of the seats next to them.
The play has its origins in Goodbye to Berlin, a quasi-memoir by Christopher Isherwood published in 1938 about his time several years earlier in Weimar Republic Berlin, a city renowned for its easy unashamed decadence. Though the homosexual elements in the book should be obvious to any but the blindest of readers, Isherwood in later years regretted not making them far more explicit. There was a sound reason for his earlier reticence: the 1930s English-speaking world had shame in spades and a more blatant presentation might have prevented publication. He corrected his caution in the graphic 1976 memoir Christopher and His Kind, written oddly in (most of the time) the third person. Nonetheless, the central character of Goodbye to Berlin is the cabaret entertainer Sally Bowles, based on Isherwood’s real acquaintance Jean Ross, whose amorous issues are with men; Jean supposedly gave her OK to the book but declined to see the show. She died in 1973. Sally Bowles first came to the stage in the 1951 play I Am a Camera (a line from the book) and then again in the musical adaptation.
I think the appeal of Cabaret, quite aside from its production values, is the sense of uneasiness it instills. The uneasiness stems from the realization that decadence and reaction are intertwined. Authoritarians demanding to sweep out the trash can come from unexpected ideological directions and can be supported by the most surprising people, all convinced of their correctness. The 1960s accordingly was the right time for the musical to find its first audience. It is hard to convey to those who weren’t there in that decade just how much to my parents’ generation (still in their 40s) society seemed suddenly to have gone crazy; the Weimar excesses were looking familiar. Would it all end the same way? Fortunately, it didn’t. There was a pushback, but it was pretty mild in the way such things are measured. There is no guarantee, though, that the next one will be.
Since it still speaks to us, I don’t believe the show has seen the last of Broadway. Another production will be back one day. But until then, goodbye to all that.
Local news report from last year on the 2014 opening