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.
The first production of Cabaret, which opened on Broadway in 1966 at the Broadhurst, was an enormous commercial and critical success. It ran for years, won a ton of awards, spawned all kinds of international productions and tours, and got written into history books as a perfect example of a successful "concept musical" (a musical with metaphoric or symbolic content that is as or more important than its narrative). I'm not always a huge fan of the term "concept musical" because it gets applied to a ton of stuff that I don't think actually is a concept musical. But the term certainly works for Cabaret, which alternates between scenes in the "real" world of prewar Berlin, and scenes in the Kit Kat Klub, a seedy cabaret with a decadent emcee whose songs reflect the emotional states of the characters, and the sociopolitical tenor of their surroundings. There's not a lot of room for fully-fleshed-out characters in the show--another way Cabaret goes against what we expect of traditional musicals--but it doesn't matter. All the characters we're shown, whether in the Klub or outside it, are basically dead inside, anyway.
Hal Prince, the director the first time around, wanted to keep the action linked directly to pre-war Germany, but additionally wanted the musical to resonate with Civil Rights-era Americans, so mirrors were important to the original production: one, in particular, hung over the stage in place of a curtain, forcing the audience to look at itself before the show, during intermission, and at the finale. Fosse preserved some of the mirror work in the film, too: note the reflections of the swastikas worn by patrons at the Kit Kat Klub at the ending.
Still, both the original production and the film were lighter than the Mendes revival. The Emcee, originated by the very strange, very tiny Joel Grey, was a bemused, androgynous, vaguely sinister trickster. The tawdriness of the Klub was not as pronounced, the Nazis were presented as bad and the other characters, mostly, good. But still, audiences were clearly uncomfortable with what they were presented. This is perhaps most famously evidenced by the hotly negative reaction to "If You Could See Her (The Gorilla Song)," the last lyric of which apparently struck too many spectators as too viciously anti-Semitic, even for a show about Nazis.
The Mendes revival ramps up the musical's many negatives. Its characters become even more ambiguous, even more morally questionable, even more dead. The Klub denizens are no longer only slightly sleazy--they're shooting up in filthy dressing-rooms and stumbling onto the stage without bothering to wipe the blood from their arms or the drool from their chins. The Emcee, as reinterpreted by the wonderful Alan Cumming, is far more sinister, but simultaneously more vulnerable, than Grey's was. He's also a lot more present: once confined to the Klub, the Emcee now slithers his way into the "real" scenes, which blur into the Klub scenes much more fluidly: it is, all of it, a horrible dream.
Indeed, outside the Klub, the characters are forcing themselves through the motions of having a rocking good time when it's obvious to everyone, even themselves, that they're trapped, doomed animals. Sally, the petulant, willfully ignorant party girl, is scared stupid, and bitterly angry: at herself for being a talentless, opportunistic hack; at her body, for betraying her; at the world, for so severely denying her the glamor and comfort and pleasure she craves. The older characters aren't as interested in the sex, drugs, or music--they know the party's over. Still, they go through the motions, attempting normalcy until normalcy becomes too scary to maintain.
The reviews of Mendes' current revival haven't been stellar, but we all forget that they weren't stellar the first time around, either. Back in 1998, Cumming got great reviews, as did the dearly departed Natasha Richardson, whose Sally was so raw, so forced, so brilliantly, terrifyingly bereft of soul. The production, however, was received as too relentless, too numbing, too over-the-top.
But think about that for a second: what's the musical supposed to be like? A wild party? Lots of fun for all involved? A great night at the theater, followed by a late dinner and cocktails and light conversation? Cabaret, the quintessential anti-musical musical, is a little too complicated for that, don't you think? You might notice how bizarre it is, for example, to leave the theater with the catchier numbers lodged in your head: the one about the gorilla, for example, or the infectious one about how tomorrow belongs to....the Hitler Youth. You might be left with the weird, nagging feeling that you just gave a standing ovation to characters who are cowards at best, and Nazis at worst. I'd argue that the Mendes version does exactly what it is supposed to do in fully realizing Cabaret as a musical that is brilliant precisely because it and everything in it is so rotten. If this remarkably dichotomous musical doesn't justify a relentless, numbing, over-the-top production, I don't know what does.
Mendes doesn't use mirrors in his version of Cabaret. He doesn't have to. In act II, after Fraulein Schneider has abruptly broken off her engagement to Herr Schultz because he's a Jew and she is terrified, she justifies her cowardice with the number "What Would You Do?" In this production, she sings it directly to the audience.
There's your mirror, right there.