I've been thinking a lot about Cabaret since I saw the Mendes revival (of the revival) last week. I've been thinking that a big part of what makes Cabaret such a masterpiece is its central dichotomy: it is an incredibly compelling, brilliantly scored stage musical that goes against everything we have been conditioned to assume we're going to get from a stage musical. Cabaret is the most ingenious, inspired, total bummer of a musical I can think of, and certainly that I have ever seen.
Yeah, I know musicals are varied and that there's no one type and that it's hard to generalize them, and all that. But still, an awful lot of American stage musicals rely on structures and tropes and trajectories that we see over and over and over again: boy meets girl, loses girl, wins girl back. Love saves the day even in times of despair. The community prevails even when terrible things happen. In the saddest musicals I can think of--Carousel, West Side Story, Fiddler, Hedwig and the Angry Inch--people die, love is denied, families and neighborhoods are torn apart, bad things happen to beloved characters. But then, audiences are always left with hope, even if just the teeniest ray of it: Billy gives his lonely, outcast daughter a star, and the whole community sings a song of strength. Maria tells everyone off after Tony dies, and the gangs imply that things will improve, or at least that they heard what she said and will take it seriously. Tevye and his neighbors are driven from their homes, but he grudgingly wishes his intermarried daughter well, and takes his traditions with him to the new world where, we presume, he'll be safe. Hedwig releases Yitzhak from bondage and gets the audience to wave their hands in solidarity with him as he sings a big rock anthem. There's always hope. Always. Even if it's very far off in the distance.
But Cabaret? Not a goddamned glimmer. The musical is set at the dawn of Nazi Germany, for chrissakes, so all there is for the characters is certain misery, angst, and fear. And Totalitarianism. Also, for many of them, suffering, torture, and death. No hope--not even, as Sally Bowles would say, an inkling. Cabaret is a musical that dangles dread in your face from the second the lights go down and the first notes of the opening number sound. Wilkommen? Bienvenue? Welcome, my ass. The music sounds great and the Emcee is beckoning, but we all already know that he's the embodiment of a country gone insane. We're in for two-plus hours with a group of characters who are manically forcing themselves to go gleefully through the motions as the city around them teeters on the brink of hell. Sure, they all get to drink, do drugs and have increasingly unsettling sex while the decline is happening, which is some small comfort for them and for us: It's nice to self-medicate in times of crisis. Anyway, it keeps the terror and the hunger at bay.