In Praise of Cabaret
Je suis enchanté
When preparing to write about a musical this week, I noticed something interesting; outside of politics and social issues, the occasional -- almost never serious -- foray into sport and pop culture, and the odd, completely sideways satirical stuff to entertain myself, I have dedicated a noticeable number of columns to plays. And it curiously finds its way into Reality Check. Now, this means next to nothing to readers of this space, especially those on my mailing list and where this thing ends up in syndication or on the Huffington Post and blogged all over the Internet. This is mainly because many of those readers have no idea I write about music, review shows and interview performers in the guise of my Contributing Editor position at the Aquarian Weekly. I usually separate my intrigue with the arts and mostly pop culture to another side of my readership. All that stuff is on my website, if anyone's really interested, which I am almost sure you are not.
Yet plays find their way here, and sometimes television or a smattering of films too. I may have written about five to ten films in the 18 years I've penned this column, and that's pushing it and probably includes documentaries. But the plays, the live theater experience, and how it fits into what I guess I deem as the audience for this column, appear to have been my choice to share. And this will be one of those times.
The theater experience of seeing the 1966 musical, Cabaret (which I only knew previously from stills and the ultra-campy 1972 film of the same name) that is currently staged at the Roundabout Theater in the original location of the notorious Studio 54 (best known for its 1970s ultra-decadence of overt sexuality and drug frenzy set to disco music) is stunning. The entire place, echoing the ghosts of Manhattan glitterati, is decked out as an early 1930s German cabaret with scantily clad waiters and waitresses gliding beneath seductive red lights amidst a generally gory atmosphere of mischief. Alcohol flows and music is forever peppered throughout the place.
And that is cool and I highly recommend going to the thing for that alone, however one aspect of the experience in particular struck me about the play; its wonderfully conflated hyper-sense of mystery and dread. It is akin to a kid's ride at Disney wherein every part of the outer senses of reality is jettisoned to reprogram you. And then the music starts and the play begins and the dancers and emcee are in your face and you are partly entertained, but mostly stricken by something deeper.
For those unfamiliar with the plot of Cabaret, I will leave you to check Wikipedia, but the overall theme is simply a glimpse of a damaged society submerged in the insatiable craving of the human id, shedding the terrible notion of a collective for the pure, unadulterated joys (or numbing) of hedonism, which is bitch-slapped into the stark reality that they are suddenly expected to be fascists. That's pretty much it in a nutshell.
The characters caught in this swirling epic are not unlike those in the 1997 film, Titanic; there is a Somerset Maugham type romance between a mostly lazy and probably delusional American novelist visiting Berlin to "be inspired" (yuk! yuk!) and a freeloading young English girl, who misinterprets her slutty existence for stardom (a Paris Hilton who can carry a tune). There is another middle-aged romance between a patrician flophouse owner and a Jewish fruit salesman, who she falls in love with and then kicks out to avoid Nazi persecution.
The backdrop for all of this is, of course, a cabaret, wherein performers (including the band, which plays Kurt Weil style music live on the stage) in all manner of suggestive undress, sexual orientation, and frighteningly Goth stage make-up, cavort to playful drinking tunes with lyrics that celebrate screwing, substance abuse and money. Their ringleader, the emcee, patrols over the activity, at first leading its mayhem, and then observing its fallout -- constantly hovering over its inevitable disintegration like Poe's raven, and, then, in a moment of brilliant satire, joins its destruction at the hands of monsters.
What was memorable for me and the wife, who incidentally hates musicals, but loved this and counts it as one of the two to three finest things she has seen on Broadway, is that the horror of its subtext, which is toyed with in the film from what I recall, is laid bare and put up as if Kristallnacht set to oom-pah music. It is that amazing sense of disjointed dichotomy that you are tapping your foot to racist-induced murder, and not in that playful Sweeney Todd, bawdy English way, but the subversive German balls-to-the-wall-not-interested-in-subtlety-it's-time-to-get-real Nietzschean way. You know that way? No? You need to see this play.
This version is directed by Sam Mendez, who made the last great American film of the 20th century, American Beauty, which I am pretty certain is one of the five-to-ten films I wrote about here, and is wonderfully performed by its two stars, Emma Stone (who will have been done with her run by the time you read this, but from what I hear is ably replaced by Sienna Miller) and Alan Cumming, who is so terrifyingly hilarious and erotically threatening, his visage and voice do not easily fade from your consciousness long after the music wanes and your wandering down 7th avenue in a slight snow shower and you settle into the Monkey Bar on East 54th and wonder what the fuck just happened? Was I supposed to be entertained by this or transformed?
I know I'm getting into Dorothy Parker territory here; "disorientation is the font of transformative theater", but there is something about art that punches you in the gut. Maybe it was the four Hendricks's and tonics I swilled during it, but there is a lasting affect to Cabaret that hits from all angles.
Okay, I am sure there are people reading this right now wondering if this is even an endorsement for something they would want to endure, like when someone gets off a insane rollercoaster, falls flat on his face, gets up, and begs you to go next. But for me there is hardly anything better in musical theater than the "If You Could See Her" number sung teasingly by Cummings, twirling an extra in a gorilla suit, and pulling the audience in the front row into the performance and garnishing laughs, beseeching, "Why can' they leave us alone?" and then hitting them with the final, concussive lines; "I understand your objection/I grant you the problem's not small/But if you could see her through my eyes/She wouldn't look Jewish at all."
Then the entire theater goes silent. I mean scary silent, as if all of our respiratory systems shut off.
And the lights go dark.
And you can see and hear dread.