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By Sandra Hahn, Content Editor Lead
We’re looking for a new form of musical theater, one that’ll break away from what’s become stale and static, and self-imitative. We’re looking back in time only to look forward in form. (1)
—Fred Ebb, Cabaret lyricist
Bob Fosse’s film Cabaret opened 45 years ago, on February 13, 1972.
Variety called it “most unusual: [...] literate, bawdy, sophisticated, sensual, cynical, heart-warming, and disturbingly thought-provoking.” (2)
Roger Ebert described the film as “an unforgettable cry of despair.” (3)
The perfect Valentine’s Day date flick, in other words.
Fosse – the renowned choreographer-turned-director – adapted his version of Cabaret from the groundbreaking stage musical by Harold Prince.
Producer-director Prince and his creative team began working on Cabaret in 1965. By then the “Rodgers and Hammerstein”-style musical had run its course. Amid the social and political turbulence of late-1960s America, theater audiences were looking for more than spontaneous song and dance.
Set in the decadent Berlin cabaret scene of pre-Nazi Germany, Cabaret fit the bill. When it opened on Broadway in 1966, Cabaret demanded that audiences “stretch and think rather than be content merely to be entertained. It asked them to leave the theater more somber than they had entered.” (4)
Cabaret is based on British writer Christopher Isherwood’s semiautobiographical novel Goodbye to Berlin, in which he recounts his experiences in Berlin during the early 1930s. Prince and playwright Joe Masteroff retained most of Isherwood’s characters and situations. But Prince’s primary interest lay in presenting “the cabaret as a metaphor for German society” (5) amid the rise of Nazism and violent anti-Semitism. The “Kit Kat Klub” provided the realistic context for Prince’s musical commentary, brilliantly accomplished by the composer-lyricist team of John Kander and Fred Ebb. With the primary emphasis on the message rather than the story, Cabaret became “the first fully realized concept musical.” (6)(7)
Why not start like Prince: with a concept.
Say you’re interested in learning more about the historical setting. Check out the following books, which are available on ProQuest Ebook Central:
> C. Paul Vincent’s Historical Dictionary of Germany’s Weimar Republic, 1918-1933. Meet the real people behind the names Liza Minnelli’s character “Sally Bowles” drops casually throughout Fosse’s film version of Cabaret: Max Reinhardt, Emil Jannings, Erich von Stroheim. You’ll also find out what UFA stands for.
> Peter Jelavich’s Studies in Cultural History: Berlin Cabaret. How accurately do the musical numbers in Cabaret reflect the real cabaret shows of 1920s and 1930s Berlin?
If you’re more interested in the musical aspect of Cabaret, ProQuest’s Alexander Street Press has the following video interviews with composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb:
> The Legacy Project: John Kander in Conversation with Kirsten Childs, directed by Landon Van Soest, 52 mins. Composer John Kander talks about his creative process with Cabaret and other musicals.
> John Kander and Fred Ebb, directed by Russ Fortier, 29 mins. In this 1980 episode of Elliot Norton Reviews, Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb discuss their collaboration on various creative projects, including Cabaret.
Want to know more about the life of Christopher Isherwood? Check out this feature-length documentary, also available through Alexander Street Press:
> Chris and Don: A Love Story, directed by Guido Santi and Tina Mascara, 2 hours 13 mins. This poignant film explores Isherwood’s lifelong relationship with American artist Don Bachardy.
Whatever your topic of interest, ProQuest’s interdisciplinary resources have you covered.
In the immortal words of Liza (via Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse): “Start celebrating. Right this way, your table’s waiting.“
1. Leve, James. “The Divinely Decadent Lives of Cabaret,” Kander and Ebb. New Haven, US: Yale University Press, 2009. ProQuest Ebook Central.
2. Murf. (1972, Feb 16). “Film reviews: Cabaret.” Variety (Archive: 1905-2000), 266, 18.
4. Genzlinger, Neil. (2014, 08). “The Age of Aquarius.” Opera News, 79, 32-35. Arts Premium Collection.
6. Leve, J. (2004). “Open a new window: The Broadway musical in the 1960s.” Popular Music and Society, 27(4), 548-550. Arts Premium Collection.
7. Rinaldi, Nicholas George. (1982). Music as Mediator: A Description of the Process of Concept Development in the Musical, “Cabaret.” (Order No. 8214132, The Ohio State University). ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 225.