The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Mamma Mia

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Cabaret

February 13, 1972    ABC   123 minutes
The shocking thing about Cabaret forty years on, is how little remains "shocking" about it. We've seen tenfold examples of decadence in the decades since; the steady decay of taste, civility and morality that we've witnessed and endured--not least on cable TV--make a coy bisexual romance, and a rising tide of anti-semitism almost laughably tame in comparison. If Cabaret's ribald cabaret songs portend a coming shit-storm, what does that say about our ever-more boundary-less, narcissistic, bling-obsessed culture? But life is a Cabaret, old chum, so feast on the That-Was-Then/This-Is-Now buffet of denial, and enjoy the show. Time has also inevitably stolen the freshness of the movie. It's hard to see now how different and exciting the film felt coming on the heels of so many recent elephantine flops. Yet the historical narrative has decreed Cabaret both a Bway and movie musical landmark. For Harold Prince it made him a revered director; for Kander & Ebb it taught them a lifelong style: show-biz as metaphor; peppy tunes to comment on tough, often harsh issues. It's their thang. For Lotte Lenya it was one last sip from the Weimar glass; for Joel Grey, Bway stardom. For Liza Minnelli, movie stardom; for Bob Fosse, movie director stardom; for Joel, Bob & Liza--an Oscar each.
For Jill Haworth: career suicide. She must've had a good agent, for she was first-billed on Bway (as Sally Bowles), followed by Jack Gilford (as Herr Schultz), Bert Convy (Cliff) and then in smaller typeface "and" Lotte Lenya; "with" (smaller typeface still) Joel Grey. After the movie in the show's first Bway revival, Joel was top-billed, as was Alan Cumming in the subsequent revisionist revival(s). But Haworth suffered a critical drubbing, not least from Walter Kerr who called it a "stunning musical with one wild wrong note": her. Thru-out his career Prince has been hit & miss with his casting, and apparently this was something of a strikeout--tho Jill stayed with the show for two years, succeeded by Penny Fuller, then Anita Gillette--who flared brightly in '61, subbing for the striking/vacationing Anna Maria Alberghetti in Carnival! and earning rapturous reviews. She was quickly snapped up by Joshua Logan for All American (a quick flop) and before she could catch her breath signed for the Irving Berlin comeback, Mr. President. After she survived the one-night flop of Kelly, she was happy to join a hit musical, even two years into the run. A shame she couldn't have opened in it and earned that one big role to call her own. Who was Haworth anyway? Another protege of Otto Preminger's--she was 15 when he cast her in Exodus, followed by The Cardinal and In Harm's Way (films that have carried no rep into history to match their initial self-importance)--Prince saw something he could mold in her; but eventually even he came to disparage her performance. Surely Kander & Ebb were pushing for Liza Minnelli--who had just won a Tony in their first musical, Flora, the Red Menace (which Prince also produced, but did not direct. Abbott did, and it was where they parted ways for good) and she was in the final running. She certainly came out on top later (was anyone else even considered for the movie?); the role tailored even more to her talents, putting her signature forever on the character.

Like Holly Golightly and Mame Dennis, the very name Sally Bowles conjures up a frisson of fairy-tale eccentricity; fantasy women as imagined by gay men. Isherwood's Sally was British, but starting with Julie Harris in the first stage (and film) incarnation, I Am a Camera, she's been played by Yanks. London's Cabaret dared a real Brit: Judi Dench (years before America knew her), who by all accounts was brilliant. Following that Anglo train of thought, I came up with an utterly bonkers casting fantasy: Julie Andrews. Oh, I can see you smirk. But think of it--what an image-breaker! A return to Bway in '66 instead of making Torn Curtain and Hawaii, could've been an exciting career move--and she could've pulled it off. But of course Sally was destined to land in Liza's ready, willing & able hands. In truth she might've been a bit young for Bowles on Bway in '66. By '71--sadly, two years after Mama's passing--she was as ripe as she was ever going to be. The confluence of talent, fitness, receptivity and timing is how legends are made in show biz; and there weren't many thereafter who didn't know who Liza! was.
 
My last summer in Canoga Park, I talked my then best friend, Larry Shevick, into getting season tickets for the LA Civic Light Opera; which in '68 offered Cabaret, Mame, I Do! I Do! with Martin & Preston (which for some reason we couldn't see) and a revived CLO operetta from 1942, Rosalinda--which bored me to tears. To see Cabaret we took an hour and a half bus ride--with a transfer in Van Nuys--to get to the Ahmanson in downtown LA. The autumn before, I'd seen The Happy Time (on its way to sadly flopping on Bway) in the brand new theater; a vivid memory to this day. With Cabaret, my one clear picture remains Ron Field's dazzling choreography for the "Telephone Song." We were both blown away by the play, and I didn't feel embarrassed for dragging my friend to musical theater--like I later would with Mame. But even then, and from the start, Cabaret always felt like an imperfect show to me.

When you watch (as you can on YouTube) the first nationally televised Tony Awards from 1967, you can see what a grand opening number is "Willkommen"; racy, vivid, electric, and slightly menacing. It goes a long way in perking up our interest--and remains one of the more memorable opening numbers in Bway history. The song serves as entree to the show, but also in context as floor show at the Kit Kat Klub. How many musicals have songs presented as nightclub numbers? By no means is Cabaret the first show whose club songs have ironic resonance with the story; but because their content skewed to the moral and political, the show seemed revolutionary. Ethan Mordden calls it the "Essential '60s musical." One that couldn't have happened earlier, and wasn't necessary later. Its stature has certainly grown with time, and its gateway to the genre's deconstruction is apparent. The show itself, tho, has also been changed over succeeding productions--even more than Show Boat. Harold Prince's direction was initially considered the show's primary asset (even tho Ron Field's assertive choreography was what people remembered); a staging template presumably part & parcel of all future revivals like Robbins' Fiddler or Champion's Dolly! But that changed as soon as Fosse got his hands on it.

With the increasing failure rate of film musicals none of the major studios were willing to take a risk on Cabaret--which, after all, dealt with Nazis, alter kockers and queers. Agent turned head of ABC pictures, Marty Baum bought the film rights and offered Bway producers, Feuer & Martin their chance in Hlwd. According to his memoir, Cy Feuer took the bulk of the reigns, under many stipulations--given that he wasn't a fan of Joe Masteroff's original libretto. He proudly takes credit for demanding no musical numbers be performed outside a valid context (nightclub, beer garden, gramaphone); an early outlier in denoucning film musicals for breaking-out-in-song style numbers. What worked on stage, Feuer felt was wrong on screen. (Where'd he been the first 40 years of sound movies?) This meant eight nightclub spots had to be staged in a tight space; the main reason Feuer was determined to hire Bob Fosse--who after Sweet Charity was getting no bites for more film work. But Feuer and Fosse both felt he'd learned a good deal from that film's failure, and deserved a second chance. Cy went thru the motions of considering other candidates like Billy Wilder and Gene Kelly, but in the end stuck by Fosse--who repaid his loyalty by turning him into an enemy over a fight for a cameraman. Bob wanted his Charity cinematographer, Robert Surtees, but Feuer held firm over budget and hired Geoffrey Unsworth--to no deficit whatsoever. He. too would win an Oscar. For budgetary reasons, as well as a varnish of authenticity, Feuer lensed the pic entirely in Germany--in and around Munich, which had a good deal more extant old structures than Berlin, and other cities of the north, many of which had been obliterated by a chapter of history set later than the story.

My personal heretical view is that the score to Cabaret doesn't merit its exalted status. Kander & Ebb's cabaret numbers have punch and verve, and some catchy, if rinky-dinky, vamps. It's easy to tap along to "Two Ladies," "Don't Tell Mama" or either of "The Money Song"s. But most of the I Am a Camera story-songs are just average--not up to the standard measure of great musical scores. Kander & Ebb won all the accolades that year, but I find Bock & Harnick's Apple Tree, Jones & Schmidt's I Do!, I Do!, and Styne, Comden & Green's Hallelujah, Baby! far richer in repeated listening than Cabaret. Not to mention the rest of Bway '66: Coleman & Fields' Sweet Charity, Strouse & Adams' Superman and Jerry Herman's Mame. Cabaret, like Kander & Ebb's first Bway score, Flora, the Red Menace, is wildly uneven--showing real promise but holding some duds. "Willkommen" is a killer opening, I grant you, but nothing in the show tops it. What else is great? "So What" has, especially in Lotte Lenya's recording,  haunting echoes of Weill, but the show is mostly Weill-lite. "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," manages to be exquisitely beautiful and terrifying at once. It's everything the show wants to be in one number--and ends the act with the same chill the pogram at Tzeitel's wedding brought to Fiddler.

The rest, I say, is spinach. As a teen I was a sucker for almost any big showtune, but try as I might I have never been seduced by "Cabaret." Repeated listenings to "Married," "Meeskite," and The Pineapple Song fuel my negative assessment. "What Would You Do?" sounds like the eve of destruction; but Weill made the same point with arresting, not simply dissonant melody. And I nominate "Why Should I Wake Up" as one of the worst songs in a major musical in all the Golden Age. Those familiar only with the Cabaret movie, will find most of the titles above unfamiliar--because they were all cut. Ten songs from Bway didn't make it into the screenplay. What other major, award-winning genre-defining musical gutted it's acclaimed Bway score for the movie? And no one complained. I rest my case. Kander & Ebb wrote three new songs for the movie (or more accurately, for Liza) and they've become so iconic to the musical that stage productions have now incorporated them.

Jay Allen's screenplay rewrote the book as well, swapping the elder (Lenya-Jack Gilford) romance for the younger one, retrieving Fritz & Natalia from John Van Druten's play, I Am a Camera. Christopher Isherwood's stand-in, Cliff, becomes Brian in the movie, and now discreetly if unashamedly gay--but pussy-friendly when it comes to...well, Liza--a faggot magnet if ever there was one. This was bolder, at any rate, than Prince's Bway version, which but hinted at homosexuality--something Sam Mendes remedied with a trowel in his '96 Bway revival--which itself was revived in 2014. But where the original musical suggested an ensemble piece, the movie positions Sally, seen thru Brian's eyes, as the central figure. With an American Sally, it was thought wise to change Yank Cliff into British Brian. And Michael York, with his broad face and blonde bangs, makes a good contrast to Liza's dark helmeted, heavily mascaraed guise. He was a hunk of gay-bait at the time, what with this unapologetically queer role, following another recent (tho rather obscure) pic, as a social climbing charmer seducing his way into an Austrian castle in Something for Everyone, the film directing debut of Harold Prince (which he followed up but once); a greatly under appreciated gem with a glamorous Angela Lansbury performance among other treats. Come to think of it, it might make a swell musical--But I digress. York   makes  a  fine  "camera"   turned  on   1931  Berlin
Marisa Berenson conveys the insecurity of her character convincingly; and Helmut Griem, as a playboy baron is a honey of a teddy bear (with the blondest moustache ever seen) who casts a genuine erotic charge to the suggested ménage a trois'. And as sole Bway holdover, we have Joel Grey, as the ghoulish face of Weimar indifference--a vaudeville performance I find bafflingly overrated. He's fine, but there's nothing beyond his act--not a moment of interaction off stage as a human being with Sally, or anyone else. The only reason I can think he won the Oscar is because voters had a hard time choosing between James Caan, Robert Duvall and Al Pacino in The Godfather. Before the '71 Oscars were even handed out in March of '72 it was already "known" what the next year's winner would be--such was the tidal force of Godfather's impact; only just opened and already deemed a landmark film--little else was given chance to challenge it. But then few expected the impact of Cabaret either. After the movie's February 13th launch at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York (where it played until August), Fosse took Liza back into the dance studio for 8 weeks of grueling rehearsals for an NBC television special, with new material written by Kander & Ebb, and Fosse working at the top of his game. The concert ("Liza with a Z") shrewdly ended on a lengthy Cabaret segment, with Liza reprising her now signature moves to a live audience in the Lycreum theatre on May 31st. The rest of us saw it during TV season premiere week on Sept 10th. Critics were beside themselves. By year's end, Liza and Fosse were still fresh in media coverage and Cabaret scored big with the Hlwd Academy, tying The Godfather for 10 nominations. The latter oddly seems to have been shortchanged: how they missed Gordon Willis' rich cinematography or Nino Rota's memorable score is incomprehensible. For Cabaret it was the exclusion of "Maybe This Time" from the Best Song list--on the grounds it was a trunk song--previously unused but not written specifically for the movie. To quote, Fred Ebb, so what? (When was the last time you heard nominees, "Ben"--from that flick about killer rats--"Marmalade, Molasses & Honey" by the Bergmans & Maurice Jarre, or Sammy Fain's "Strange Are the Ways of Love"?) On Oscar night Cabaret took an early sweep of awards, culminating in the shock of Fosse winning over Coppola. By night's end it loomed possible to win Best Pic as well, but Godfather prevailed--tho in total winning only three Oscars to Cabaret's stunning eight.  It would be three decades before another Bway musical received a Best Picture nomination--and remarkably, for another work by Fosse, Kander & Ebb--whose Chicago resulted directly from their smooth collaboration on Cabaret.


Fosse begins the film with a nod to Prince's staging: a mirror reflecting the audience, only this mirror is severely warped and reflects a '30s tableaux vivant modeled on drawings by George Grosz. From the start the editing is striking, the quick cuts lend excitement and heighten movement; but extend beyond the scope of the number as well--simultaneously showing bits of Brian's arrival in Berlin. Nonlinear scenes are intercut. It's a technique Fosse will use again and again, thruout his films. He also throws in peripheral moments, casually, beginning with the club owner tossing out a soliciting Nazi. Later we see the owner brutally beaten (to death?) and other roadside attractions of violence that are casually dispensed to suggest the mounting danger, while still keeping our focus--as it must be for our main characters--tightly on their own personal concerns. Liza--er, Sally is barely featured in "Wilkommen,:" just part of the ensemble, but she makes an entrance nonetheless when answering the door to Michael York, flashing green nails as badge of her "decadence." Is it because of age that I now view this woman with far less enchantment than I did as a youth? Now she seems transparently needy, desperate and deeply insecure; or does it just seem that way because of how Liza comes across? But put her in a number and she's the ultimate pro. It's hard to fathom just what level of repute the Kit Kat is kicking. Let's face it, this floor show, for all its crudeness looks mighty sophisticated--if not for the lighting cues alone. Supposedly a singer in a dive bar, Liza's Sally lays out iconic tracks screaming for career definition. That she got. And an Oscar to seal the deal.

The musical's evolution in concept from Isherwood's stories and Van Druten's play was slow in coming 'round to using the club songs for social and narrative commentary. Once they hit upon it, tho, this became the show's defining feature--which the movie took to its ultimate conclusion: dropping all the show's songs except for club numbers. Purists will argue that four of the ten cut songs are heard as instrumental recordings on gramaphone or the radio; and "Married" gets a German vocal as well--but these are all background scoring. Fosse knew he wouldn't get another chance if he failed to deliver, and with Gwen Verdon at his side to assist, he pulled out every trick in his book. 
"Mein Herr" is "Big Spender" by way of The Blue Angel. Yet contemporary in feel as well. "Money, Money" replaced Bway's "Sitting Pretty" (better known as "The Money Song") to goose up the avarice in a music-hall turn. No credit for stage lighting is to be found but Fosse worked with such lamp magicians as Jules Fisher--whose influence was enuf to be noted here. Liza's two big solos, "Maybe This Time," and the title song are saturated in back light. Effective yes, but a bit above the pay grade of this club. But then Fosse, as he later made clear in All That Jazz, is all about Show Biz. Yet the most effective number in the picture is easily the pastoral edelweiss of "Tomorrow Belongs to Me." It's first heard in a short verse on a scratchy record. But later a fresh-faced boy tenor begins seranading a beer garden, only to be joined by one after another radiant face--each as down-home and innocent as your favorite relative--all the more chilling for being the very folk who will rise with the tide of facism into the hell of Germany's future. It's as sly a visual manuever as the tune is hauntingly beautiful.

There isn't much to liven up the secondary romance between Berenson's wealthy Jewess and her closeted-Jew suitor--especially with hindsight to see where this will end up. But coy is not the word for the central threesome--oblique is. It looks all fun & games, the trio twirling in Bavarian fields one moment, a silent car trip (the two men alone) and a read-between-the-lines goodbye the next. Only the lines are barely readable to start with. "Screw Max" barks Brian to Sally. "I do," she admits. Smiling, Brian replies: "So do I." This, too, is meant to be another manifestation of the festering "decadence." Promiscuity that leads to pregnancy and abortion--the whole Book of Slut, as prelude to the rise of facism. Max runs away to Argentina, Sally aborts and Cliff goes home, disgusted. Liza--er, Sally gets her eleven o'clock manifesto aria, and Joel Grey gets to creep us out to wrap it quickly up. 
Here's the first movie musical in which the end credits roll in silence. The pic barely crested two hours, and contained its musical numbers as contextual entertainments. It was greatly enhanced in editing (yet another Oscar), giving it a contemporary sheen. Here was an antidote to the bloated Roadshow fatigue. ABC released the film in exclusive venues, but avoided the Roadshow format. The critics and public ate it up. The movie ultimately grossed $20,175,000 in film rentals. Enuf to make Hlwd reassess (briefly) its recent turnaround on musicals. Closer to home, Cabaret was cool enuf that all my hippie college friends would be inclined to go see it, unlike they would say, Hello, Dolly! or Sweet Charity. Cinematic decadence was quite fashionable in the early '70s--even porn became culture's darling with such fare as Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door. But after three transitional years of dark, deliberately raw and often unpleasant movies 1972 brought signs of an uplift in Hlwd. The Godfather was all it was cracked up to be; Hitchcock recovered with Frenzy, a masterful brightly-coloured London thriller; Deliverance was an exciting outdoor adventure like no other; and the under-appreciated What's Up Doc?--to my mind one of the funniest comedies ever made (with priceless performances from Madeline Kahn and Mabel Albertson)--was filmed in San Francisco, with one of the greatest slapstick chases since Harold Lloyd. But my moviegoing was still just an occasional indulgence, not yet a regular habit.

Since my first trip to New York, after Baba bought me my own 12" portable TV to take back to California, I'd been gorging on the Late Show in my bedroom (no more sneaking into the family room late at night) boning up on my film education, seeing classics like Double Indemnity, Citizen Kane, Grand Illusion, Keaton's The General, Foreign Correspondent, the Marx Bros, Mae West, The Blue Angel, Meet Me in St. Louis, all for the first time. Typically, I watched 27 movies in January of '72. 26 more in February. In March I had fallen to 9 (including Cabaret), and by May I saw but one. This shows the trajectory of my social life that spring, as I buried myself in DeAnza's theatre dept. and the numerous friendships it reaped. The spring show was Orpheus Descending, a Tennesse Williams play with a large cast that incorporated us all. Forty-something Judith B. was back for another turn as stage diva; on- and off-stage hitting on the younger biker hippie playing the hero, Val. No, not me--my namesake was a role far beyond my ability or desire; I was Dog Hamma, redneck husband to shrewish wife, Dolly (played by Micky Martin). We mostly sat backstage--while Judith B. emoted, or Helen Maciaznek curated her Girl from Mars performance as Carol Cutrere--until those few scenes when we'd run on for three pages and overact like crazy. The cast parties were phenomenal and in retrospect, painfully youthful. Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll were all present, tho not for me. Yet with some wine or vodka I was as high in spirit as the best of them. Aside from the quarterly productions in which we built sets and ran techs as well as rehearsed, our time was spent in classes. Ellis taught acting and some tech, but the department's sole other teacher--and my first true mentor, Mike Holler was a 27 year old bearded hipster--short & slim and reeking of charisma. He opened our eyes to Artuad, Beckett, Joseph Chaikin, and the limitlessness of our imaginations. Radical stuff to someone whose entire knowledge of theater was "Broadway!" Which didn't mean I was any too quick to forget my original love. I would soon find ways to use everything I knew.

Come June I was back at Baba's in New York for my third summer residency--with Bill again in tow for several weeks. He left early that year over some quarrel we had that neither now remembers. Micky Martin came for a few days in August and with her gusty laugh propelled Tom Stoppard's off-Bway play, The Real Inspector Hound and its curtain-riser, After Magritte, into one of my most fondly remembered theatre experiences. On July 2nd, Fiddler on the Roof ended its record Bway run (with the movie Roadshow still going strong). Just the night before, Hair and Follies both closed--bringing a sudden end to the last Golden Age musicals on Bway. I was too young and enthusiastic yet to notice a new--much lesser--age had begun. But, tellingly, the shows I saw that summer weren't so memorable. As I had plotted my own Some Like it Hot musical since I was 14, I raced first to Sugar--which hadn't exactly set Bway on fire. The ingredients were all there: Jule Styne, Bob Merrill, Gower Champion, David Merrick--even Robert Morse & Tony Roberts felt recognizably right. And it wasn't bad. But it wasn't the great musical it was supposed to be. Two Gentlemen of Verona was fun, but I had yet to get into the score--that would happen much later. Phil Silvers was stellar, but the revival of A Funny Thing Happened wasn't zany enuf by half. And I can't say I enjoyed Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, Al Carmines' Joan, or Don't Play Us Cheap--and Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death just plain scared me. And even with my recent "discovery" of '50s rock, Grease was so slight I could get no purchase on it. (Yet, in what was surely a sign of the coming times, this is the show that would surpass Fiddler as Bway's longest run--at least until A Chorus Line smashed that record.) Sadly, the Bway of '72 was nothing like the Bway of '62 which ignited the imagination of this nine-year-old, and set a template that would be extinct by the time I was ready to join the club. So much had changed, especially the huge drop in prestige and cultural relevance. None of this deterred my determination to move to New York as soon as I could. It would be sooner than I thought.

As for Cabaret, after 40 years and seven viewings, it's earned my respect, but not my love.

Next Up: 1776


Report Card:   Cabaret
Overall Film:  B+
Bway Fidelity:  C-
Songs from Bway: 5
Songs Cut from Bway: 10 
New Songs:  3  (by Kander & Ebb)
Standout Numbers:  "Mein Herr" "Money, Money" 
              "Maybe this Time"  "Tomorrow Belongs to Me"
Casting: No complaints
Standout Cast: Liza, Michael York
Cast from Bway: Joel Grey
Direction:  Fosse finds his form
Choreography:  First rate Fosse
Scenic Design: Bavarian locations
Costumes:  '30s schmattas and lingerie 
Standout Set: Schenider's rooming house
Titles: Plain typeface over long fade-in     
Oscar noms: 10-- Best Picture, Screenplay,
      8 wins: Liza Minnelli, Joel Grey, Bob Fosse
      Cinematography, Art Direction, Scoring,
      Sound, Film Editing

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