By Timothy Rawles, January 2020 Issue.
Most people might remember Cabaret as a 1972 movie musical starring Liza Minnelli. Or maybe they remember the 2014 Broadway revival directed by Sam Mendes, who originally directed the 1993 version with Alan Cummings, as the Emcee.
But what you may not know is that all of those versions are actually adaptations of the 1966 Kander and Ebb original. And what’s more, each major production thereafter is slightly different from what they originally created.
The Arizona Theatre Company is giving Cabaret new life through January 26, 2020, and according to director Sara Bruner, her interpretation is as relevant as ever.
“I think it’s timeless and timely,” she says. “And I keep referring to it as ‘unfortunately so’ because unfortunately, it’s not a story we’re done telling, unfortunately, it’s a story we all need to share. Unfortunately, it stays relevant.”
If you aren’t familiar with Cabaret, it’s the tale of American author Cliff Bradshaw and his relationship with cabaret star Sally Bowles. They meet at the Kit Kat Club in Berlin where Sally entertains and eventually, they fall in love. The Nazi party is gaining footing in Germany, but Sally appears comfortably blind to the politics even though Cliff warns her of encroaching doom.
This may not seem like musicals you’re used to and that’s because it isn’t. This is a story with many facets and depending on how sensitive you are to allegory its message might get lost in all the rousing songs.
“There are all kinds of different people who are coming in to see shows,” says Bruner. “Some people do really just want to come and be entertained and too often audiences come in and they see what they want to and get out of it what they want to.”
She says her job is to get the audience to think about what they’re seeing, and hopefully, there’s a breakthrough somewhere and the heart of the piece will resonate in a special kind of way. “I think that Cabaret is beautifully built and that it’s absolutely entertaining, but it’s not only for entertainment. Kander and Ebb are masters and they created a show with a lot of glitz and glamour and the wow factor that a musical can inhabit, but then really delivered a gut-punch, starting at the end of the first act and all throughout the second act. My hope is that we can take every single person on that journey.”
Whereas Bruner must tell the story by directing her actors, the choreographer must speak through dance. Jaclyn Miller has that responsibility for this production.
One of the things Cabaret does so well is embody its namesake. Jaclyn has the task of uplifting the audience by way of her own dance interpretations. That includes some of the gritty, hedonistic and seedy natures of the club.
“That world was decadent, and people were indulging in everything,” she explains. “We want that to be there but we really try to restore a lot of the entertainment value of it. These people were people who loved to entertain. These cabarets. All these things were based on satire. So, each of these numbers, we’ve tried to look at what’s the satire? What were they commenting on; socially, politically? We’ve tried to find, you know, what’s our in, what’s our point of view to each and every number so it’s all for something, it’s not for nothing.”
She adds: “It’s been really fun and challenging to figure out what our version is of this show.”
If anything, Cabaret has always been provocative and is pretty famous for pushing boundaries. Bruner, a self-proclaimed Shakespeare nerd, says her version is still racy, but that’s because it’s ingrained in the story.
“I guess by nature this show is more provocative, but my approaches to the Shakespeare plays have been more provocative in their own right. So, it’s a little bit hard to compare,” she says. “The show is just a little bit racier by nature but I’m always examining gender. I’m always trying to figure out really authentic ways of approaching these pieces from where I stand today.”
As a queer person Bruner has a distinctive point of view, “I mean it’s being filtered through me and I get hired to have a vision and a point of view and that’s inherent in all of my pieces. Being shocking for shocking sake is cheap and boring.”
Miller agrees. She says there is no visual reference for the 1966 version but the ’72 film must have been shocking to some at the time.
“You know we live in a very, very different age now so the idea of shocking people, that’s not something that really occurs to me. The intention is not to just be provocative or shocking for the sake of the show being racy but what are we actually trying to convey, what are we trying to get across? What are we trying to hit the audience with intentionality not just because. So, I don’t think that I even think about shows in the nature of being provocative.”
Audiences are going in expecting something. The older ones probably remember the controversial Fosse movie adaptation while the younger ones probably don’t know what to expect. Either way, hopefully, everyone will get a message, especially where we are in history.
“I think this is a play that exists on the precipice,” says Bruner. “The play takes place in probably 1930, Hitler didn’t come into power until 1933 and what I’m interested in is the precipice because I think that’s our parallel.”
For Miller, the play means giving the audience a feeling of immersion inside a place where everyone was welcome.
“I feel like these cabarets were the pinnacle of acceptance at this time; come as you are, be who you want to be, present how you want, and sleep with whoever you want to sleep with. There was just a level of acceptance and getting to feel included and a part of that party and that celebration of life and authenticity and as the oppression of the outside world starts to settle in then suddenly the sort of hard conformity, the strict line, the rigidity of movement that suddenly is inhabiting the walls of the club that wasn’t before.”
Mendes famously ended his 1998 show with a glowing white wall that symbolized a concentration camp and the fate of many of Cabaret’s characters.
As for how this play will end, the women will only hint at it, but for both of them, it’s personal on many levels.
“I think being a Jewish person it’s impossible to not have an emotional shift at the end of this show no matter how it’s told because the truth of it is inevitable,” says Miller. “It’s a part of my history so in any iteration it is impossible to not feel the impact of what happened.”
As for Bruner, the ending is really her signature.
“’Life is a cabaret.’ My brain and my heart have always been drawn to that one simple sentence which is not so simple at all. This whole story, this whole endeavor is about art and life. And the whole structure of the play is this is art and this is life. We go from real life then we go into the club and its performative. Certainly, as someone who has grown up as an artist, I am so fascinated by life and art and how the two interact.
“I learn something from the play every day when we’re working on it. It’s revealing something to me constantly.”
Cabaret runs at the Temple of Music & Art from November 30 through December 29, 2019, and then the Herberger Theater Center from January 4 to January 26, 2020.