By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
How crazy is the irony that if it weren’t for legendary director/choreographer Bob Fosse, the musical Cabaret would have disappeared from the stage years ago … but because of Bob Fosse there can never be a wholly successful stage production of Cabaret?
Here’s the backstory. In 1966, composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb wrote the musical Cabaret based on John Van Druten’s play I Am a Camera which, in turn, was created from Christopher Isherwood’s novel Goodbye to Berlin set in the twilight of Germany’s Weimer Republic.
Cabaret continues through March 2. Carnegie Mellon University, Oakland. 412/268-2407. www.drama.cmu.edu
The Broadway production, directed by Hal Prince, takes place mostly in the Kit Kat Klub, a seedy Berlin nightclub overseen by a creepy Emcee and featuring the British chanteuse, Sally Bowles, who falls for the Isherwood manqué, a hapless American writer named Cliff.
The show came along at a time when musical comedy was turning into what George S. Kaufman once called “musical serious.” Though Prince, always a visionary, stretched the boundaries of the form somewhat to incorporate the rise of Nazism, the ’66 Cabaret was still an rooted in the existing musical comedy schematic. The show had a very respectable run but, probably, would have slowly slid into obscurity…
… if it weren’t for Bob Fosse. Unconnected with the Broadway production, in 1970 Fosse directed the film version. He threw out most of the script, several songs, got landmark performances from Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli and gave the work the actual dread and terror only hinted at in the Broadway version. In the process he created what still remains the greatest movie musical of all time – the film won eight Oscars with Fosse even beating out Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather.
Now here comes the irony. For years afterward, when Cabaret was revived the creators tried to make the stage version more like the movie, but only ending up with a clunky hybrid. And if you know the movie it’s impossible to forget all of the iconic Fosse moments while watching the stage show.
In 1998, Sam Mendes and (Pittsburgh’s own) Rob Marshall blew it all up when they co-directed a Broadway revival that obliterated the ’66 Cabaret and leapfrogged over the Fosse version. This ’98 Cabaret is dark, dank and diseased with a corrupted sexuality and a focus placing the Third Reich front and center … literally so with a new ending set in a concentration camp.
There’s no denying that Mendes and Marshall have created their own vision, unconnected to any version before. Truth be told, however, I’m not sure this “new” version is any more satisfying than the original – the alterations feel grafted on, as though Mendes and Marshall were loading too much cargo onto a rickety cart. And, ultimately, it’s impossible not to compare it, unfavorably (and yes unfairly), to Fosse’s.
Carnegie Mellon University presents the ’98 Cabaret directed and choreographed by Tomé Cousin … and he is working hand-in-glove with Mendes and Marshall.
This is a purposefully ugly production and where the script is ominous and threatening, Cousin ramps it up to in-your-face and harrowing. The characters exist on a knife’s edge – not just because of what’s happening politically, but because they have been emotionally damaged nearly to the point of psychosis. How these people can cross the street on their own is astounding, that they can perform relentlessly rehearsed snazzy nightclub numbers seems miraculous. The subtext is played on top and Cousin is making sure you don’t miss a beat of terror or despair.
The roles of the Emcee and Sally have been double cast so your mileage could vary. On the night I caught the show Ramsey Pack and Caroline Mixon were playing at the top of their game, he brings a blood-eyed sensuality to the Emcee and she aches with desperation. Jonathan Norwood is on point with Cliff’s confusion and Gena Sims’ sad resignation as Fräulein Schneider is moving.
It should come as no surprise that the entire ensemble does remarkable work and Cousin’s choreography has a defining vocabulary of it’s own.
The more I see the stage version of Cabaret, and I just saw another a few months ago, the more I wonder if maybe we need to just let it slip away.
Thanks a lot Bob Fosse!