Currently on tour of the UK is a revival of the stage musical Cabaret, which had a big screen adaptation made in 1972.
Based on John Van Druten's 1951 play I Am A Camera- which itself was based on the novella Goodbye To Berlin by Christopher Isherwood- and with music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb (who also wrote Chicago and Kiss Of The Spider Woman), Cabaret tells the story of a vivacious young showgirl- Sally Bowles- who sings and dances at the Kit Kat Klub, a seedy nightclub in 1930s Berlin. She meets and falls in love with a young writer, but the atmosphere in the city is changing, as the Nazis begin their rise to power. The show opened on Broadway in 1966 with the London premiere happening two years later and featuring Judi Dench in the lead role as Sally Bowles.
The film was directed by Bob Fosse and starred Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles, Michael York as Brian Roberts, and Joel Grey as the Master of Ceremonies (reprising his role from the original Broadway production).
|Liza Minnelli with director Bob Fosse on set|
Sally Bowles is Liza Minnelli's Norman Bates or Ellen Ripley; this is the role that she will be forever twinned with in people's minds. And that's no bad thing. It is a truly iconic role- her introduction at the Kit Kat Klub before she sings 'Mein Herr', in bowler hat and black stockings and suspenders, is a defining moment of 70s cinema, as is her final defiant rendition of the film's title song. Sally is a complicated character; a woman who enjoys 'divine decadence', a vivacious flibbertigibbet, flirtatious, inappropriate, sensuous, yet still having a little-girl-lost quality which stops her being an over-the-top archetype. It may be a cliche but she just wants to be loved. It's an outstanding performance which still impresses, 45 years later.
As Sally's love interest Brian, Michael York is a wonderful counterfoil for Minnelli. Brian is quiet, studious, a little shy, like the audience a little taken aback by the force of nature that is Sally Bowles. But he impresses in the quieter moments as their fumbling relationship takes root; Brian's also one of the few people to actively speak up against the Nazis' rise and call people out on their anti-Semitism. Of course, this doesn't get him very far, but it's important to show that not everyone in Berlin was sleepwalking into the arms of the Nazis.
As the Master of Ceremonies for the Kit Kat Klub, Joel Grey is a consummate all-rounder. From the opening notes of 'Wilkommen', he's your guide to the hedonistic world of the club and its refuge against the real world. A capering, white-faced, rouged puppet, he sings and dances as the clouds begin to gather and keeps the club together. He is never seen outside the Klub and all his musical numbers echo what is happening in the outside world- a Tyrolean hand-slapping dance number is cut between scenes of a man being beaten up, and the truly shocking 'If You Could See Her' with the gut-punch final line of 'she wouldn't look Jewish at all' (sung to a woman in a gorilla suit) comes as a group of Nazi thugs kill Natalia's dog.
As goes the other cast members, Helmut Griem is charming as rich playboy Maximilian von Heune, with whom both Sally and Brian have a relationship, whilst Fritz Wepper and Marisa Berenson are both similarly lovely in their supporting roles of Fritz and Natalia. Fritz is passing as a Christian, although is Jewish, whilst Natalia is Jewish; their relationship is quite endearing as Fritz must decide whether to 'out' himself as Jewish in order to marry the woman he loves (no mean feat given the atmosphere of the time).
The film's treatment of the Nazis is interesting. At the beginning, a Nazi is thrown out of the Kit Kat Klub; their rhetoric is not accepted there. However, the growing tide of the party starts to come to the fore, culminating in a scene in a beer garden where the patriotic song 'Tomorrow Belongs To Me' is sung by a young man who is revealed to be wearing a Hitler Youth uniform. As the other patrons start to join in, Brian looks uncomfortable. After this, a can-can routine at the Klub turns into a goose-step (although it's not clear whether this is mockery or not) and Brian gets beaten up after opposing Nazis in the street. At the very end of the film, a shot of the club shows men in Nazi uniforms sitting in the audience.
Visually, the film is really interesting and there's a nice contrast in both style and camera-work between the club and the real world. And also, whilst this is a musical, all of the musical numbers- bar 'Tomorrow Belongs To Me'- take place in the Klub; Sally doesn't suddenly burst into song whilst in bed with Brian. Of the musical numbers, Minnelli gets the lion's share of the good ones- with 'Mein Herr', the beautifully poignant 'Maybe This Time' and the title song 'Cabaret' becoming well known. Grey doesn't get short-changed, however, with the wicked 'Two Ladies', the magnificent duet 'Money, Money' with Minnelli, and the opening number 'Wilkommen'.
Cabaret holds the record for the most Oscars won by a film which didn't win Best Picture. Nominated for ten Academy Awards, it won eight; Minnelli and Grey won Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor respectively, and the film was also honoured for its cinematography, art direction, sound, and editing. But perhaps the biggest surprise on the night was Fosse winning Best Director (over Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather, which went on to win Best Picture).
The film also won the Golden Globe and BAFTA Film Award for Best Film, with Minnelli and Grey also winning those awards for their performances. In 1995, Cabaret was also selected by the Library of Congress as one of twenty-five films to be entered into the National Film Registry that year as a work that is 'culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant'. It's also seen as a landmark film in LGBT cinema as it deals with themes of sexuality in an unusually frank and non-sensational (and non-judgemental) way.
|Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey with their Oscars at the 1973 ceremony|
|'Life is a cabaret, old chum. Come to the cabaret!'|