Quick question: Who starred as Sally Bowles in the original Broadway production of Kander and Ebb’s musical Cabaret? Nope. It wasn’t Liza Minnelli, although her Oscar-winning performance in the 1972 movie jump-started her career to such a degree that the role has become synonymous with Minnelli in the public mind.
In point of fact, if you’ve only seen the film version, you haven’t seen the real Cabaret. True, the movie, the 1966 stage original and the 1987 Broadway revival all shared the ace-in-the-hole of the incomparable Joel Grey in the role of the Emcee, but the resemblance nearly ends there. Sally, as first played by Jill Haworth, was actually a mediocre singer who couldn’t forsake her gig at the Kit Kat Klub because she had hit her career ceiling – not so much because she loved being there. In the original she was English and her writer boyfriend Cliff was American; in the movie Cliff was renamed Brian and made more obviously bisexual, and their nationalities were swapped.
But that’s just the beginning of the discrepancies. New characters in the subplots were added and old ones dropped. A marriage between Sally’s Christian landlady and a Jewish fruit merchant became one between a Jewish heiress and a Jewish man passing for Christian. Only about half a dozen of the songs from the original were retained for the movie, while several new songs written for the movie have been added to subsequent stage revivals. And the settings for song performances inside and outside the Klub were switched around.
So, in describing what you can expect if you go to see the SUNY-New Paltz Department of Theatre Arts’ production of Cabaret that opens this Thursday, let’s stick to the basics that the stage musical and the movie have in common. Based on John Van Druten’s 1951 play I Am a Camera, adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical 1939 novel Goodbye to Berlin, Cabaret takes place in Weimar Berlin in 1931. It’s a dark and ominous story of the inexorable rise of Nazism as the German populace – including expatriates like Sally – lives in denial, seeking escape from an ugly reality in the decadent urban club scene of the day.
Whether you get the original song lineup, the movie score or some mix of the two, the musical numbers are memorable indeed. Besides the familiar title song, you’ll surely hear the Emcee’s rather creepy “Wilkommen,” the racy “Two Ladies,” probably some version of the cynical “Money Song” and “If You Could See Her.” The latter, in which the Emcee romances a woman in a gorilla suit, provoked controversy in its original Broadway outing for its hard-hitting punchline: “But if you could see her through my eyes/She wouldn’t look Jewish at all.” Most chilling of all is the Nazi youth anthem “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” whose escalation in Cabaret is sort of the antithesis of the scene in Casablanca where the French café patrons drown out “Deutschland über Alles” with a rousing rendition of the “Marseillaise.”
It’s never a bad time to revive a great musical that also happens to prod us to think about what happens to societies that get complacent about incitements to violence against unpopular minorities. And considering the sort of hateful discourse that a lot of Americans have been wrapping in the First Amendment of late, this may be a better time than ever to refamiliarize ourselves with Cabaret.
Directed by SUNY-New Paltz assistant professor Nancy Saklad, the production opens April 19 at McKenna Theatre and runs through the 29th, with performances at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and matinées at 2 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets to Cabaret cost $20 general admission, $18 for seniors, students and SUNY staff; $9 rush seats are available to SUNY students with ID. To order, call the box office at (845) 257-3880 or visit www.newpaltz.edu/theatre/productions.html#cabaret.