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i'm going to blame this one on the #nameapencemusical trend that was going around on twitter earlier [i am sticking with my first choice "white side story"], but somehow, i ended up watching a bunch of clips from cabaret on youtube. cabaret is my favourite musical ever, not just because i have the same fascination with weimar germany that everyone with my slightly dark tastes seems to have, but because i'm kind of amazed that the film of it got made when it did. people whose lives had been directly shaped by the second world war were very much alive. homosexuality was still considered a mental disorder. abortion was illegal. but somehow, producers were persuaded to take a racy broadway play that included references to bisexuality and abortion, set in the "good old days" in germany before the war, that was based on an unsuccessful film of a moderately well-received novel by christopher isherwood and put it in the hands of bob fosse, whose previous cinematic effort, sweet charity, had been a critical and box office disaster. it's one of those situations where you know that what's about to happen is going in the history books for either bad or good reasons.

cabaret went into the history books for all good reasons: it carted off an arseload of oscars [mere weeks after the supreme court passed judgment on the roe vs wade case], including ones for fosse as best director, liza minelli as best actress and joel grey, whose wordless performance netted him an award for best supporting actor.

while i don't want to give out spoilers, i'll put it out there that a film about libertine sexuality set in the last days of the weimar republic as the nazis rose to power is not exactly going to be the sort of musical that you watch with the family. [note :: unless you're my family. this film served as my introduction to bisexuality, abortion and cabaret-style performances, because my upbringing was super-efficient that way.] rather, it's a bleak look at a fractured period of history, the intermission between the two world wars, when people wanted to believe [but didn't really] that the horror of the first was over and never to be repeated.

the play was revived in 1993 in london by director sam mendes [american beauty, jarhead], and his version was brought back to broadway to become one of the most successful revivals of all time. i hadn't seen any clips from the revival show until last night, when i stumbled over them, the way that one does, on youtube. and, although it had been a while since i saw the film, i couldn't help but think that the later performances of sally bowles, nightclub performer and unlikely heroine, seemed a little different than what i'd remembered. things change, of course, every actor would play a role slightly differently, but in this case, there was a clear demarcation between minnelli and all the others.

[ok, seriously, if spoilers are a problem for you, stop here.]

the title song of cabaret comes as sally has decided to leave behind the dream of domestic bliss offered by her american lover, and return to the seedy glory of the kitkat club. the choice, of course, is also to stay in germany and face the coming storm rather than escape to the comparative safety of paris. it's an emotional moment for her, with the loss of a relationship, and the knowledge that something bad is closing in on her and her friends at the club. nonetheless, the show must go on and, in the minnelli performance we see a young woman who is rallying the outcasts at the club to live as if there's no tomorrow [while we shudder at the irony].



in the 1993 revival in london saw the role played by jane horrocks, fresh off the success of the first series of absolutely fabulous, where she played bubble, the dimwitted assistant of wannabe p.r. magnate edina monsoon. you can definitely see some of horrocks' natural inclination to make things comedic and zany, which is fine, but doesn't it seem like there's an extra effort being made to slow down and annunciate the lyrics, just to make sure that we don't miss the significance of the words?



when the mendes version of the play was brought back to new york five years later, the late natasha richardson starred as sally. her tense, jittery, wild-eyed performance is closer to gloria swanson in sunset boulevard than to minnelli in cabaret.



the revival was itself revived in london and then again on broadway in 2014 and this time, both michelle williams and emma stone took a turn as sally and both of them push the performance even further into drama: there is no missing the anguish in the central character's voice and face and there is no way that rendition of the song was making anyone in that club feel like they were escaping the ugliness of the world.

michelle williams ::



emma stone ::



so what gives? how and why did sally become such a downer?

well, you could say that a film performance is always going to be far more naturalistic than a stage performance, so you can't compare them directly. but that's only a matter of the gestures and expressions, not the voice. closing one's eyes during the different renditions of the track doesn't change the progression of the performance. it starts off sounding like a typical 30s-era song and ends up full-on les misérables.

although technology and people sneaking cellphones into things they shouldn't allows us to see these clips in isolation, most people seeing and hearing these performances would presumably have seen the two hours of film or play that proceed them. audiences are aware that sally bowles, in a combination of strength and self-destructiveness, has walked away from the man she loves. we know that the characters in and around the club are aware of the creeping spectre of nazi violence and hatred. why do we now need to see and hear her pain pushing through her tough exterior with greater and greater force every time the show is resurrected?

dom and i [and most of our friends] bitch a lot about how the subtlety has gone out of performance arts in general, and how that's become a self-fulfilling prophecy. indeed, the staging of the 1993 london revival, which has become the template for everything since, ends with the remaining cast at the club stripping and retreating as the primary nazi character in the story casually destroys the club set, and, as the club patrons and performers press into a huddled pile of naked bodies, the sound of gas being released fills the room. so it's not just the one song where the import of what we're seeing is being hammered home with a lot more force.

people assume that fosse's vagueness at certain points of cabaret were instances of self-censorship forced on him by the standards of the time. but when the film was released, it was initially given an 'x' rating in both the united states and the united kingdom, and producers had to fight to get it reduced to 'adults only' just so that it could be shown in regular theatres. if fosse was really concerned about how people were going to react, he would have edited a lot more than he did. he was vague in a few parts because he knew that sometimes it's more powerful not to say or show something explicitly. he knew the audience would get it anyway.

audience at a berlin nightclub, 1924
in the intervening forty-five years, it seems like directors and actors have become a lot less confident in their audience's ability to pick up on things. so now, if you're not going to say it outright, you better be certain you communicate it pretty clearly in other means. if people don't pick up the hint, it's the director's fault, not theirs. so, yes, they want to make sure that they take pains to show us that sally isn't as happy about going back to her old life as she might have seemed in 1972.

but i think that there's more at work here than that. i feel like we, as an audience, don't just need to be reassured that sally bowles isn't just hurting because she feels she's been forced to choose between her independence and the man she loves, or because she knows that the rising popularity and power of the nazis is an ill omen for all of them. we need to be reassured that she knows that the nazis are the nazis. we need to know that the fear that she is feeling is the fear of someone who knows that they are witnessing the rise of the darkest political force ever. but that's a ridiculous idea, because, much though the nazi party was criticized and ridiculed, and though certain factions of the party were associated with violent and thuggish behaviour, people in 1931 germany didn't think that they would literally start shipping off jews, gypsies, queers, the disabled and others to prison camps and then packing them into ovens. if you'd said that to anyone at the time, they would have thought you were a loon. which is not to say that hitler's populist rhetoric and contempt for all those groups wasn't known, but there's a big difference between knowing he had said that the jews had sold germany out in the great war and that they represented a continued threat to german safety as long as they remained in the country, and knowing that means that his government are going to act on those beliefs by murdering millions of people.

we want to believe that people knew that what was happening in 1930s germany was different than anything else. because if no one knew that things were that bad, if they were living in the kingdom of the devil himself and they thought this was normal, that means that anyone could be hitler, or at least anyone could be like hitler, and we wouldn't know until things had gotten so out of control that they couldn't possibly be walked back. we need to know that the nazis were special, and that, if anyone like that came around, we'd be able to spot them a mile off, because they'd look exactly the same.

jean ross
we like to think that, because it's comforting to believe that people were fooled by hitler and his nazis [actually, a rather derisive term used to describe them because of it's similarity both to the party's name and to 'ignaz', a nickname kind of like 'bubba' and generally applied to the same sort of people in the south of germany as 'bubba' is to people in the south of the united states]. either they were one of his ravenous supporters, or they just didn't spot the violence simmering under the surface of his campaign. but the fact is that there were lots of critics pointing these things out. it's just that the people to whom his message was most resonant- poor southerners, labourers in the north who had lost their jobs and educated people from smaller cities who'd been knocked from the middle class by the waves of economic crises that hit the country after the end of the great war- they were prepared to give him a pass on some of his views, because those weren't of primary importance to them. and hitler's attacks were directed primarily against groups that a lot of people in a lot of countries disliked, sometimes to the point of violence.

there was a real life sally bowles, a young englishwoman from a privileged background who'd chosen to embrace the seamy world of the berlin nightlife as a performer and  a participant. her name was jean ross and when writer christopher isherwood first sought to have his short story "sally bowles" [later included in his episodic novel goodbye to berlin] published, the resemblance was so obvious that his editor told him to get ross's permission to print the story, so that she couldn't sue them. ross happened to be on vacation in england when hitler came to power, and she was aware enough of what he represented to know that she was better off not going back. [her story is pretty fascinating all the way through.]

ross never went to see a performance of the play that was made from goodbye to berlin, or of cabaret. she died in 1973, so she never could have seen the revival shows. i think it would be fascinating to know which one seemed most authentic to her: the stubbornly cheerful person determined to enjoy every moment life gives her, or the one trying to distract herself from the profound evil that is imposing itself ever more upon her. but maybe i'm missing the point. whether she felt defiant or terrified, neither jean ross nor any of her friends could be certain how bad things would get as they sang and drank and danced in the berlin nightclubs. that's something they would only be able to know when the music was over.

p.s. :: the image at the top is a poster by polish artist wiktor gorka. a cold war-era polish artists interpreting an american filmmaker's interpretation of a british writer's experience of the end of weimar-era germany. 

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