Charles Karel Bouley
I was uncomfortable leaving the Hollywood Pantages'production of Cabaret and I wasn't sure if that was a good thing. I've been to many a musical there, where by the end we are on our feet, dancing, singing, practically leaping out back to our cars and singing all the way home. This wasn't one of them.
But how could this be? This was the film that came out when I was ten years old, in 1972, starring, or, should I say, making the star of a young Liza Minnelli. I was pre-gay then, but I knew, I simply knew the Bob Fosse choreography, the singing, the dancing, the brazenness would be iconic. I was right. I saw the movie again in my late teens and knew, oh, the lines! Green nail polish became "Divine Decadence" and I still gasp when Michael York yells "Screw the Baron," and Liza so casually replies "I have" only to have Michael York laughingly reply, "Well, so do I..." Oh the scandal!
Yes, there was the whole Hitler thing, but so many movies of the time used WWII as a backdrop since it hadn't even been over for three decades and it was the war of my parent's generation (Vietnam would become mine since I was born in 1962 and then Iraq).
But none of it mattered inside the Kit Kat club where everything, including the org-a-stra, was beautiful. In there, life was a cabaret indeed, with German and Jew, soldier and non getting along just fine as Joel Gray, in another star-making role, became the narrator of the times inside and out.
The love story between German and Jew and the fact the two became two separate things even though many were born in Germany and were as German as the next seemed secondary to me years ago.
But Wednesday, July 20th, 2016 as I sat in incredible seats, Joey Fatone to my left, my good friend Daniel Charleston to my right, I knew the Republican National Convention was going on. As I heard "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" eerily played on stage, I pictured trump behind the screen, Queen's "We Are The Champions" playing and thinking, "I bet if someone had heard this song, they would have played it instead..."
In 1929 English novelist Christopher Isherwood left his upper middle class life and moved to Berlin, where he embraced his attraction to men full gusto. He worked as an English tutor and in 1931 met Jean Ross, who would become the fictional Sally Bowles. In 1935 he wrote a short novel "Goodbye to Berlin" and it, along with the 1935 "Mr. Norris Changes Trains" became "The Berlin Stories." Those stories serve as the source for the 1951 Play and 1955 Film "I Am Camera," both starring Julie Harris. In 1966 the stories became the Broadway hit "Cabaret" and in 1972 an Oscar-Winning film. Isherwood would end up in California, friends with Truman Capote and Aldous Huxley. He would start an affair with a man almost 30 years his junior, Don Bachardy, when he was 48. The affair would last until his death at 81 in Santa Monica. Many regard his greatest work to the "A Single Man" about a day in the life of a gay English Professor in California. It would also become a film starring Collin Firth.
So Isherwood was an outcast, gay, and thus the Kit Kat Club and had a life of colorful friends, and thus, "Cabaret." But he also saw the ugly side, the dangerous side, and he saw first hand what happens when those inside the cabaret ignore what is truly going on outside. He saw first hand how true evil can and will take power if given a chance, and while many good people tried or try to stop it, sometimes, an angry population coupled with a slick nationalist populist can destroy great culture and great nations, and many lives along the way.
The immortal music of John Kander and Fred Ebb is far from dated, and the book by Joe Masteroff is more relevant now than ever since the material's inception by Isherwood. Randy Harrison (gorgeous as an adult as he was a teen in "Queer As Folk") is the emcee, the devilish voice that entices you to play, to indulge, to enjoy, to ignore reality and make fun of the evil. When he sings "If You Could See Her Through My Eyes" to a dancing gorilla and finishes with "She wouldn't look Jewish at all..." Yes, there's a thunk in the theatre. And yes, so many of us thought you could replace the word Jewish with Muslim in today's world all too easily. And I couldn't help think of actress Leslie Jones from "Ghostbusters" who was sent a photo of a gorilla comparing it to her by some some self-loathing gay conservative just the day before. Harrison is sexy, commanding, and yes, eerie enough for the part and while who doesn't want to see Alan Cummings in the role, Harrison's incarnation is young and fresh, almost a millennial Emcee with a warning for an entirely new generation.
Andrea Goss has the biggest shoes to fill and you can't, so don't go there; and that's the most brilliant decision of this production. Goss is not Minnelli at her prime, no one is. But neither was Sally Bowles. Goss is probably more close to the real Jean Ross than Minnelli. For instance, in the theme song, Goss' inflection of the simple world "corpse..." I've sung that song more times than Liza and I'll tell you, I never really got it. I never really understood that Bowles was looking at her friend's corpse, her dead body, laid out like so many other of her friends at the time. And that "Cabaret" wasn't a screw it all, grab a drink and let's party song at it's core, it was more of a defiant declaration that we don't have a choice in it, the powers that be, outside of the cabaret, are often greater than ourselves. Goss made me see Bowles' humanity more than Minnelli, as I may have been eclipsed by her star and less by the role.
Lee Aaron Rosen's Bradshaw is Isherwood, coming to terms with his love of men, of decadence, of freedom, right as his freedom and the freedom of so many was coming under attack, particularly gays, gypsies and Romas, they, we, were rounded up before the yellow stars, the pink triangles. Ned Noyes is Ernst Ludwig, a friend, until a swastika divides them. Shannon Cochran and Mark Nelson Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schulz two people who find love later in life only to have ideology come between them; and not even their own.
Randy Harrison as the Emcee. Photo: Pantages Theatre
People torn apart, a country divided by fear and hatred of those that are different; residents blaming immigrants, demagogues rising to power fueled by a media gone mad; gays, jews, blacks, muslims being injured or killed in the name of religion...if it sounds familiar it's because the themes of "Cabaret" are happening in the USA right this very moment.
At the end of the play, when Harrison's emcee turns around and his outfit becomes that of a concentration camp with a pink triangle and a yellow Star of David, as the gunfire is heard and the blackout happens, in the darkness in my mind's eye I see the Donald Trump ad with Hillary's face and the Star of David being used and them pleading ignorance; you want the highest office in the land and your staff is so stupid....anyway. Thus, the feeling I referenced at the beginning.
Are we sitting in the Cabaret, watching Rome burn? As Noam Chomsky says Donald Trump is a threat to our very existence, as organization and expert after expert warn of the dire consequences of his election and as hatred not only rises but now shows its face everywhere unashamed and often with deadly results, are we dancing along with the Kit Kat boys and girls while our country falls apart? The emcee being whatever talking head is on the 70" incarnation of the Kit Kat Club beamed right in to our own darkened living room or to our 7" computer screens daily?
When you go see "Cabaret," and you should, expect it to leave you bothered; expect it to hit a little too close to home; expect it to make you feel and think. And that's called great theatre, and somehow, characters born in 1931, themes played out almost 100 years ago, are made relevant and alive by a first rate cast and crew as the Kit Kat Club beckons patrons back one more time.