Something a bit different to usual, this blog entry is (mostly) about musical theatre. I saw a stage production of the musical CABARET a few years back, and I found it a very enjoyable night out. What intrigued me the most was realising how different the original musical is to the Liza Minnelli film version from 1972 (which I’ve been watching for over half my life). Last weekend I went to see another, much glossier and extravagant production, with Will Young (yes, that Will Young) as the Emcee. Again, it was a completely different take on the source material, Christopher Isherwood’s GOODBYE TO BERLIN. Not only did it differ drastically from the film version, but from all other incarnations of the musical (to the best of my knowledge) in its core message. This got me thinking about the issue of adaptation.

The musical follows a down-on-his-luck American writer Cliff Bradshaw arriving in Berlin in the early 1930s and beginning a turbulent relationship with a  performer at the local Kit Kat cabaret club, Sally Bowles. In the background of their complex relationship is the rapid rise to power of the Nazi party, and the drastic and terrible social impact it had on millions.

Bob Fosse’s film places much of the focus on the emotional turmoil of Liza Minnelli’s Sally Bowles, and the character of Cliff Bradshaw is Anglicised as Brian Roberts (Michael York) in the film (as Sally was Americanised), though their respective character arcs remain largely unchanged from the original musical. The main sub-plot of the stage musical involving a doomed romance between a Jewish fruit seller and an elderly German landlady is changed to the doomed relationship between a younger German couple who are both Jewish in the film. Fosse’s film is notable for his distinctive dance choreography and for confining all but one of the musical numbers to the stage of the Kit Kat Klub, and telling the rest of the story in standard narrative drama form.

The portrayal of the character of the Emcee (Master of Ceremonies) at the club varies greatly across the various adaptations. Acting as the face of the Kit Kat Klub, he interacts with the audience, sings, dances and provides commentary on the key events in the story. He often appears omnipotent, even supernatural, and fully aware of his, and Germany’s current position and future as much as the watching audience. He’s usually camp, flamboyant and implied to be sexually deviant. He serves as narrator, host and guide in Cabaret’s story.

It’s the portrayal of the Emcee I’d like to focus on here. He was most famously played (creepily, but sympathetically) by Joel Grey in the film, but Will Young’s take on the character in the latest UK revival is something entirely different. Young portrays Emcee as an abusive, grotesque, tormented and tormenting demon. Whereas the character is usually an innocent victim of the Nazi’s rise (promoting as he does very anti-Nazi ideals), here he is shown to be a facilitator, a collaborator. He’s the National Socialists’ man on the inside, a corrupting influence in Germany’s entertainment industry to fit the party’s own ends, despite presumably being on their list of undesirables. Though he’s more of an outright antagonist in this latest production, you can’t help but sympathise at the end when it is revealed his steadfast support of the Nazis didn’t absolve him of his lifestyle choices in their eyes. Young’s Emcee is what makes the 2012-13 production so distinctive, impactful, even terrifying, and proves that the pop star has real acting muscles ready to flex.

The 2012 Cabaret revival is an angry and passionate production, an unexpected gut-punch. It demonstrates the unstoppable force, the horrific power and influence of the National Socialist Party in early 1930s Germany, and implies their coming to power was all-but inevitable, whereas previous versions of the story emphasised a more subtle, slow corruption of Germany. Cabaret has always been a dark musical, but never this black and blatant, and it effectively shocks because of these artistic decisions.

You could perhaps argue that this latest production lacks elegance, and certainly argue that it lacks subtlety compared to previous productions and Fosse’s film, and that’s true – the heartbreaking, powerful and eerily beautiful Nazi rally song “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” is here sung by Young’s Emcee atop a pulpit whilst controlling dancers on stage with swastika-topped strings. Then again, you could also argue that is thematically appropriate for the story, as there was nothing subtle about the Nazis’ rise to power.

While no-one will likely dare to tackle Cabaret on film again any time soon (Fosse’s adaptation is just too iconic), the stage show will be continually revived in different forms for years to come. A Broadway revival is due next year, enticingly starring Alan Cumming and Michelle Williams, and directed by Sam Mendes.

Cabaret is the kind of story that benefits from repeated reinterpretation – it’s a layered and complex tale of humanity and inhumanity that can be read in a variety of ways. The 2012 UK show will stay with me for a long time because it dared to do something different with a well-known story. The songs and orchestration were all present and correct, but the story trappings were in a new form, all to fit a particular purpose. I don’t see it as superior to Bob Fosse’s film adaptation, it’s just very different. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

Writer and film fanatic fond of black comedies, sci-fi, animation and films about dysfunctional families.
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