'Cabaret' is a mirror of its times – at all times

Roundabout Theatre Company's Cabaret

Photos from the Roundabout Theatre Company’s ‘Cabaret,’ playing in Denver from Sept. 27-Oct. 9. To see more, click the forward arrow on the image above. Photos by Joan Marcus.

American musicals hold a mirror up to our culture, hoping to reflect the issues of their day and the concerns of Americans. As a product of the tumultuous 1960s, the original Cabaret seduced and entertained while commenting on social issues and showing a frightening vision of our darkest potential.

The generation reared in the conservative 1950s became the counterculture youth of the ’60s, and American society was divided by volatile conflicts. The African-American civil rights movement that began in the ’50s was growing to involve large-scale nonviolent protests and civil disobedience. The National Organization for Women (NOW) was formed in 1966 in order to help gain full participation for American women in mainstream society and gain the same freedoms and privileges as American men of that time. President Lyndon B. Johnson promoted reforms to extend human rights, education, economic opportunities, and health care. Not all Americans supported these reforms, and some reacted with alarming violence. A rise of Ku Klux Klan activity in the south instigated beatings, shootings, and lynchings of activists.

Broadway was not immune to the cultural shocks of the era. The Broadway and Times Square district saw a rise in prostitution, adult shops, and derelicts, which created a dangerous environment for theatergoing. Production costs were rising, and Broadway producers had to raise ticket prices: a top price of $12 in 1966 was the equivalent of $86 today. Prior to the rise of rock-and-roll in the mid-’50s, showtunes were considered popular music — what played on Broadway played on the radio. By the ’60s, an entire generation was listening to rock and pop instead of
show music.

(Pictured right: Andrea Goss as Sally Bowles in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s national touring production of ‘Cabaret.’ Photo by Joan Marcus.)

Broadway needed to reinvent itself and find a new relevance, and visionary directors like Bob Fosse, Gower Champion, and the emerging Harold Prince became more prominent and, sometimes, more identified with shows than the songwriters. With the rise of the director came the “concept musical,” described by critic Martin Gottfried as a show whose music, lyrics, choreography, and scenes are woven together to create “a tapestry-like theme” or central metaphor, more important than plot. Gottfried identified West Side Story (1957), Gypsy (1959) and Fiddler on the Roof (1964) as the first important concept musicals.

By the early 1960s, Harold Prince had a proven reputation as a producer and was emerging as a formidable director. At this time Prince was taking on the challenge of turning the play I Am a Camera into a musical, but it was not until Prince received the first draft of the libretto from Joe Masteroff that he realized this was an opportunity to tell the story parallel to contemporary problems. Prince saw an opportunity to show ties between racism in the U.S. and the rise of Nazism in the early 1930s through the renamed Cabaret. Prince brought on writing team John Kander (composer) and Fred Ebb (lyricist), whose first show, Flora the Red Menace, had premiered the year before. The team set out to create a show about civil rights and tell audiences that what happened in Germany could happen here. (What he might not have foreseen was that parallel remaining relevant 50 years later.)

At his first rehearsal, Prince showed the cast a photograph of a group of angry young white men taunting a crowd off-camera. The cast assumed that it was a picture of Nazi youth harassing Jews; in fact, the picture was taken that year in Chicago, and the men were taunting black tenants of an integrated housing project. For a short time, Prince thought about ending the show with a film of the march on Selma, Alabama, though he abandoned that idea.

The original idea for the show was to begin with a prologue of cabaret-style songs to set the tone of Weimar Germany and then move into a straight play, but the team found that the songs worked better when distributed throughout the evening. As the show took shape as a more traditional musical, with some songs within book scenes, the cabaret world emerged as a central metaphor. The Brechtian device of songs that comment on the action rather than tell a story gave a central function to the Emcee character. Designer Boris Aronson conceived the production’s penultimate metaphor: a giant mirror center stage reflected the audience and reinforced the message that “it could happen here.”

After previewing in Boston, the play opened in November 1966 to great acclaim. Cabaret won eight Tony Awards, including Best New Musical, Best Direction, Best Score and Best Featured Actor for Joel Grey as the Emcee. The production ran nearly three years, for a total of 1165 performances, followed by international productions, a national tour, an Academy Award-winning film, and Roundabout Theatre Company’s breakthrough revival in 1998. In its own day, and almost 50 years later, Cabaret validates the power of musical theatre to reflect a complicated world and the willingness of audiences to see ourselves in its mirror.

(Note: The article was reprinted with permission from Roundabout Theatre Company’s Upstage Guide.)

Cabaret: Ticket information
Come hear some of the most memorable songs in theatre history, including “Cabaret,” “Willkommen” and “Maybe This Time.” Leave your troubles outside — life is beautiful at Cabaret.

• Sept. 27-Oct. 9
• Buell Theatre
• Tickets: 303-893-4100 or Tickets: 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
• Groups: Call 303-446-4829

Previous NewsCenter coverage:
Reinvented Cabaret returns as a seismic warning

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