Goodbye Berlin, Hello Broadway

"I am a camera with its shutter open, quite
passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the
man shaving at the window opposite and the
woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some
day, all this will have to be developed, carefully
printed, fixed "
Christopher Isherwood, 1939

Cabaret's place in American musical theatre history begins in 1933 with the Broadway premiere of The Threepenny Opera. Based on John Gay's eighteenth century play The Beggar's Opera, playwright Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill set their version in Victorian London and told the story of the outlaw Mack the Knife in an attempt to send up the political chaos in Germany during the 20s and 30s. Although it was not an instant success, three decades later a musical that "fixed" Isherwood showed how much it owed to this German import.

Cabaret is foremost an adaptation by librettist Joe Masteroff of John Van Druten's play I Am a Camera, itself a dramatisation of Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories (The Last of Mr Norris and Goodbye to Berlin), by librettist Joe Masteroff. The actress Lotte Lenya (Kurt Weill's widow) formed the most obvious link between the two productions, having played Jenny in the original The Threepenny Opera and Fraulein Schneider in the original Cabaret in 1966. Lenya's presence in this new show added authenticity for Kander and Ebb, the creators of Cabaret, who wanted to recreate the "feel" of pre-Nazi Berlin.

In scoring the show, composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb wrote a number of cabaret songs to recapture but not parody the music of the period. "When I wrote Cabaret," recalls Kander, "I went and listened for months to lots of records of German jazz of the 1920s and I forgot about it. It sort of seeps into your subconscious and comes out in a sort of natural flavour rather than pastiche."

For the libretto, Masteroff and director Hal Prince decided to concentrate on a number of Isherwood's characters. Van Druten's play centres mainly on the story of English entertainer Sally Bowles and her failed romances, set against the rise of the Third Reich. "Hal told me right from the beginning," says Masteroff, "that he didn't want this to be a musical about Sally Bowles who, he feels, is the least interesting character in Berlin Stories."

Anxiety that Cabaret might become just another "star vehicle" did not bother Bob Fosse's 1972 film version. Although Jay Allen's screenplay leans more to Isherwood than either Masteroff's libretto or Van Druten's play, Fosse makes the Sally Bowles character (an American in the film and played by Liza Minnelli) the focus of the film's dramatic action as she connects the Kit Kat Klub with the Nazi menace.

Clifford Bradshaw, the American novelist who arrives in Berlin just as the Nazis' power is growing, is the character that has seen the most change. When the show was revived for its twentieth anniversary in 1987, with the same director, Hal Prince wanted to confront the issues he had had to leave out of a musical about the Nazis, saying, "in 1966 the show was soft centred".

Joe Masteroff explains the situation: In the original stories the character really had no sex. In 1966 our Cliff was heterosexual; in Bob Fosse's film he was bisexual." On account of the 1987 version, he has now become unmistakeably homosexual, and his affair with Sally has no chance of changing his orientation. When she aborts, what may be, his child, she has not sabotaged a lasting romance.

But it is the Master of Ceremonies (known as "Emcee") in the Kit Kat Klub that gives Cabaret its own distinctive style. Developed after Masteroff had completed his libretto, this was Hal Prince's own concept and the character was created out of improvised routines between the actor Joel Grey (who originally played Emcee) and the director.

Emcee is yet another throwback to The Threepenny Opera. Although no similar character appears in the Brecht-Weill piece, Emcee's routine provides the setting in which to present cabaret-type songs that comment on the historical and social themes throughout the musical, an effect that Brecht demanded from theatre music. Emcee, in Prince's words, "Represents the Depression. He starts out as a pathetic, self-deluded entertainer who gradually turns into an emblem of the Nazi mentality."

Never having been to Germany, Joel Grey relied on Lotte Lenya to tell him what Berlin was like in the 20s and 30s. "if we were doing something in rehearsal that was incorrect in terms of what really happened at the time, she certainly let us know," says Grey. "So it gave everybody a real link, because she had been there." As Emcee increases the menace within his twilight world, so the characters must come to terms with the growing menace of Nazism, in whatever way they can.

The use of a Master of Ceremonies as a unifying symbol, a device Cabaret can call its own, is further explored in the musical Chicago. Bob Fosse, the director of the Cabaret film, presented this vaudeville-style critique on American deca-dence by also having a Master of Ceremonies to introduce each character as a variety act. In Prince's production of Evita, the character of Che acts as a cynical commentator exposing the corrupt Perons. The Engineer in Miss Saigon is the latest incarnation of this technique, with his ambition to be part of the American dream giving a political edge to the tragic story of two lovers from different cultures.

For all the debt it owes to The Threepenny Opera, Cabaret has been more influential in making the art of political theatre both more accessible and more popular.

© Stephen Gallagher (Plays International)