So I chose

A former collaborator of mine was recently interviewed in our college alumni magazine. (Yes, I’m strenuously trying to avoid dropping names here. Strenuously.) He and I took many of the same classes and he fondly recalled one professor’s explanation of Shakespeare’s artistry as a sort of dialectic. Audiences love seeing characters with multiple facets, and it’s effective when authors show both sides of an argument rather than just saying something is good or bad.

So, I’m rehearsing a production of Cabaret – the original 1966 Broadway version by Joe Masteroff, John Kander & Fred Ebb – and there’s an emotionally-wrenching scene in the second act where a lovable old landlady tells the leads she’s broken off her engagement to a Jewish greengrocer. At first, we’re horrified by her cowardice and the protagonist, an American who is the prism through which the audience sees events in Berlin, circa 1930, blurts out his disapproval. But it’s not as black and white as it would first seem. In a song and monologue, the old lady articulates what’s led to her decision. 

Our first impulse is to recoil at her action; now, it’s a manifestation of a palpable fear, and therefore sympathetic. I find this one of the most moving scenes in all of musical theatre, and went for something similar in Such Good Friends, having my heroine convince her closest friend, a blacklisted writer, that he should go back to the HUAC and name names. It’s a horrible thing to suggest, giving in to the devils, bringing pain to other innocents, but as her playful seduction has its effects, we come to see the other side, that she’s doing this out of love and genuine concern for her friend.

In Cabaret many characters steadfastly avoid thinking about politics, until the political insinuates its way into their lives and there’s no longer any way to avoid the subject. Fred Ebb’s lyric has the character repeat words for emphasis, when she maintains that she “isn’t at war with anyone, not anyone.” Soon after, Joe Masteroff’s monologue has her go through a litany of difficulties she’s survived in the past, as she claims she’ll survive the Nazis too. But I think it’s even more remarkable what John Kander’s doing with the music here.

The score is too easily dismissed as a gloss on Kurt Weill, and certainly the rhythmic block chords of Wilkommen’s infectious vamp bring the most popular composer of that time and place to mind. But outside the Kit Kat Klub, in the non-diagetic numbers, Kander leans towards the more experimental harmonies one associates with Richard Strauss or Alban Berg. He makes very clever use of the flatted fifth, long associated with evil (or, quite literally, the devil) in music. In the landlady’s first song, the flat fifth of the scale is the distinguishing note of a rather breezy waltz. It’s as if the note is wholly under her control, the devilish gleam in her eye. In the middle of the show, the hero sings a love ballad, Why Should I Wake Up, which compares the joys of love to sleepwalking. After the words “Drifting in this euphoric state” the orchestra flats the fifth, suggesting the undercurrent of Hitler’s rise that the lovebirds are then ignoring. In the finale, he remembers the sights and sounds of Berlin, but this time the familiar Wilkommen has added dissonances. This way, a song we experienced as a friendly and blithe introduction to the show has been tarnished in memory. The audience, listening to the show, therefore feels that something wonderful has been lost, as a man’s mind and a new, poisonous context, rewrite recently-experienced joys.

Listen to What Would You Do with an ear out for the flat fifth: it’s prominent on the second and third beat of the first two measures, and again in between many of the lines. In this song, the effect of the Nazi rise to power is topic A. The character who corralled the flat fifth into a happy waltz in the first act is now unable to do the brave thing; dissonance has won out. Early on, on the line “But imagine if you were me” Kander does something I’ve never seen anywhere else. He modulates, not in between sections but right before the section is over. It’s so subtle, you don’t notice it unless you’re looking for it. And – getting a little technical here – there’s an unusual use of an enharmonic, as the G# we’ve heard so much of in the key of E becomes an A-flat to give a minor cadence to the end of the line (“were”) in the new key of F major. Next comes a surprisingly short bridge in which the long notes step up. She sings a seventh to start it off, then climbs to an octave. Then she cuts herself off, too wracked with pain to finish her thought after “even so” and the section’s over sooner than we’d expect. (In the score I’m looking at, “even so” is followed by a comma, leaving the impression she’s cut off her sentence.) The second bridge is a recognizable return to the earlier bridge’s theme, but this time, it goes longer, stepping up from seventh, to octave, to ninth. Jumps of a ninth are exceedingly rare in musical theatre. But the climax is the biggest surprise of all: Kander modulates down to E and the character is silent as the orchestra plays fortissimo. The music is expressing what the character can’t, at the moment. The effect is devastating.

It won’t cost you a dime, so I highly recommend coming to see what Cecilia Şenocak does with What Would You Do in our production of Cabaret at Circle-in-the-Square Sunday, June 5th at 8 or Monday, June 6th 2011 at 2 & 8. No need for a reservation: walk in and grab a seat. One can talk about a masterful musical theatre number till the cows come home; you really have to see it in context to fully appreciate it. 

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