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Part of my enjoyment, these past several weeks, rehearsing the musical Cabaret, derives from getting a good close look on how the musical is constructed. We’re doing the original Broadway version, which is distinct, in many key ways, from Bob Fosse’s famous movie and Sam Mendes’ wacked-out revisal, which ran for many years starting in the late 90’s. The pedigree of the original creative team is impressive: Director Hal Prince had learned a lot about fashioning musicals from his experience as a producer (The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof) gleaning much from the show-shaping experts, directors George Abbott and Jerome Robbins. I’d say any education in musical theatre writing should begin with a careful examination of shows directed by Abbott, Robbins and Prince. Librettist Joe Masteroff had previously worked with Prince on the lovely chamber musical, She Loves Me. Cabaret is based on a play, I Am a Camera by one of the mid-century’s most successful playwrights, John Van Druten. Composer John Kander had worked on dance arrangements for Gypsy and scored Prince’s first show as director, A Family Affair. He and lyricist Fred Ebb had written the Liza Minelli vehicle, Flora the Red Menace, directed by Abbott.

Theirs was a unique meeting of minds. And Cabaret is the delicious result of the shared principles these fine chefs brought to the broth.

For instance, concision. Scenes get right to the point, alter the audience’s view, and quickly move on. All of the songs, by contemporary musical theatre standards, are short. (In the production I’m now working on, none are longer than three minutes.) While the disturbing elements of 1930 Berlin sneak up on you, the libretto doesn’t beat around the bush.

There’s also a mix of two realities, and this is a bit more complicated to explain. Among musical theatre wonks, the term “diegetic” is used for the sort of songs you hear, naturally, in life, where the singer is aware they’re singing a song, like when we sing carols around Christmas, or listen to a crooner in a night club. That suspension-of-disbelief event when someone communicates through song, with no awareness that they’ve begun to express themselves musically, as in most musical theatre, that’s “non-diegetic” singing. Cabaret utilizes both. When we’re in the Kit Kat Klub, the M.C. sings or introduces a set of songs that are clearly on-stage performances (“Don’t Tell Mama,” “Two Ladies“); when we’re in the real world of the pensione the characters break into song, unaware of the fact (“Perfectly Marvelous” “It Couldn’t Please Me More“). As I mentioned in my previous post, Kander composed different sorts of music for the two types of numbers: there’s Kurt Weill-pastiche on stage while the character songs (“Why Should I Wake Up?” “What Would You Do?“) use intense, even avant garde harmonic devices in depicting the true and complex emotions of characters in the story.

More obviously, Cabaret takes a page from the song-filled playwriting of Bertolt Brecht. Brecht was not only famous in Berlin in 1930, he ended up becoming the most influential playwright of the 20th century. In several Brecht shows, actors step out of character, face the audience, and sing cynical songs that comment on the situation in the play’s plot. In Cabaret, the numbers in the Kit Kat Klub often comment on what we’ve just seen the characters go through. When Sally and Cliff get an unexpected financial windfall, we immediately see a Klub production number, “Sitting Pretty” about the joys of wealth. After the fruit shop owner in the “real” story tells a musical parable about beauty being skin-deep, the M.C. dances with a simian lady-love in “If You Could See Her.”

One note about the clip: the movie, in many important ways, is a repudiation of the principles Prince and his team brought to the project. It contains no non-diegetic numbers, and completely rewrites the plot (something about a bisexual and an heiress – I don’t remember). Screenwriter Jay Presson Allen adds a monologue to “If You Could See Her” that makes the slightly subtle glaringly clear, as if viewers were dolts, and stretches out the length of the song to way over three minutes. But I digress.

Cabaret‘s creators knew that musical comedy has a seductive charm: we tend to like people who sing at us, openly about their feelings, and if they joke and dance, we like them even more. So, we’re utterly disarmed by Sally Bowles, the M.C., the landlady and Cliff, like them and care for them; it becomes like a punch to the stomach when they do not-so-likable things. Our emotions are tumbled around, and the show is devastating to watch – although sprinkled with many fun numbers.

Perhaps the most common question asked about Nazism is “How could this happen?” Our society, as a whole, wants answers. Cabaret paints a portrait of a time and place and shows normal, likable going-about-their-business Germans slowly getting seduced by a toxic ideology. Simultaneously, the audience is taken in by the enchanting power of musical comedy. Not only do we get a taste of what it was like to live in Berlin before Hitler came to power, we’re implicated, in a way, the patsies who fall for funny cabaret entertainment, unaware (at least for a while) of the implications of our fall. Indicting the audience – nothing could be more Brechtian than that.

You’ve a rare opportunity to see, for free, a production of the original Broadway version of Cabaret. Nowadays, it’s far more common for theatres to mount the nonsensical sledgehammer Mendes revisal (which has something to do with a homosexual getting a girl pregnant and then she goes to the gas chamber – avoid!). My work as musical director involves leading an all-girl band, but more importantly I aided the shaping of some fine acting-in-song by Laurie Gardner, Aidan Sank, Sean Loftus, Cecilia Şenocak and Raphael Krasnow in concert with director Justin Boccitto. No need for reservations. Just walk in to Circle-in-the-Square, 50th between Broadway and Eighth, Sunday, June 5th at 8 and Monday, June 6th at 2 & 8 and see what I mean.

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