Cabaret & the Berlin Stories

The Berlin Stories

Now, out of the dressing-room, came a slim sparkling-eyed girl in an absurdly tart-like black satin dress, with a little cap stuck jauntily on her pale flame-colored hair, and a silly naughty giggle. This was Sally Bowles in person...I couldn't take my eyes off her. I was dumbfounded, infatuated. Who was she? What was she? ... I only knew that she was lovable in a way no human could ever quite be, since, being a creature of art, she had been created out of pure love.

Christopher Isherwood wrote those words upon meeting Julie Harris for the first time, while she was in rehearsal for I Am A Camera in 1951. His "The Berlin Stories" was first published in 1935, and it was then that the world was introduced to Sally Bowles and her Cabaret world. Is Sally fictional? Is Fraulein Kost or Fraulein Schneider real or simply the work of a fiction writer? A singer, a whore, and a lady with rooms to let, all trapped in a world turned upside down in decadent Berlin. It was the 1930's, and the story was told through the lens of Isherwood's eyes.

Wilkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome!

"Leave your troubles outside! So? Life is disappointing? Forget it! We have no troubles here! Here life is Beautiful!" And indeed life was beautiful and certainly decadent inside the cabarets of Berlin, where wealthy patrons danced and drank, while outside life was not so beautiful. The whores walked the streets, men powdered their faces, and transvestites enjoyed having champagne drunk from their slippers while in the cabarets. The music blared. The sex was cheap and as plentiful as the booze. Meanwhile, the Nazis pounded on doors rounding up the Jews and soon Hitler would come to power. Isherwood's final sentence in "Goodbye To Berlin" sums it up, "No. Even now I can't altogether believe th at any of this has really happened..."

Tomorrow Belongs to Me

In 1966 Kander and Ebb had successfully transformed the Isherwood stories and Van Druten's play into the brilliant musical Cabaret, with a book by Joe Masteroff. Told against the backdrop of the rise of Hitler's National Sosialism, we meet Sally Bowles, Clifford Bradshaw (Isherwood), Fraulein Kost, Fraulein Schneider and others from "The Berlin Stories". Joe, the Kit Kat Klub cabaret and his performance became Broadway history. The stars of the show were Jill Haworth, Jack Gilford and Bert Convy "and" Lotte Lenya. Grey simply came under the "with" billing. However, the role has been his, especially after he recreated it in the 1972 film. After twenty years, he came back to Broadway for the revival, and this time he had star billing. You cannot think of Cabaret without an image of Joel Grey in that haunting make-up, symbolic of the decaying of Germany. The musical picked up eight Tony Awards including Best Musical, and the Best Featured Actor in a Musical Tony went to Joel Grey.

What was really remarkable about the original production, to me, was the book by Masteroff. The characters from Isherwood's stories came to life and were portrayed exactly as they were written. (Other characters were introduced in the film that were not in the Broadway musical.) Fraulein Schneider, as portrayed by Lotte Lenya, was based on Fraulein Schroeder. Why the name change is beyond me - perhaps to be more Americanized or maybe Schneider is easier to pronounce? I've always found it amusing that in the stories, Fraulein Schroeder consistently referred to Isherwood as "Herr Issyvoo". In any event, Lenya was brilliant, and fortunately her performance is preserved on the newly released and remastered cast recording.

While speaking of the stories (for you Cabaret aficionados), Sally Bowles simply disappeared after her stint in Berlin - first off to Paris and then to Rome. Isherwood never saw the character of Sally again, if indeed she did exist, or if any of the characters existed. Surely, we know the story certainly occurred. Somehow, I think there really was a Sally Bowles.

Over the years, I've seen many productions of Cabaret, and in every production the emcee was a reincarnation of Joel Grey. There was simply no other way to play the role. Enter Alan Cumming in the 1998 revival directed by Sam Mendes.What you will find here is something totally different, totally daring, and absolutely brilliant. This new production is nothing like any other production I have ever seen. While the characters in the original all had their moments, this production belongs to the emcee. The entire musical has been transformed into an environmental production. You sit at the Kit Kat Klub at little tables adorned with old fashioned lamps and fringed shades. You are not in the theater watching a proscenium arch waiting for a musical to begin. You are in 1930 Berlin, and you are a patron of the cabaret.

The book is still there, but it seems to slow things down. This production is ripe with sex. Cumming's crotch-grabbing performance is so raunchy at times that, out of context (for instance, if you've seen a clip from the Tony telecast), it appears offensive. Nothing could be further from the truth. It's simply that we are seeing the Isherwood stories from a new perspective - not as observers, but as participants - and Cumming is delivering the emcee right in your face ... as decadent as Berlin must have been. His performance is a must see. Simply brilliant.

I missed certain numbers, especially the haunting "Tomorrow Belongs To Me", which is still done, but differently. The addition of "Mein Heir" and "Maybe This Time" for Sally, from the film, were pluses in my book. However, Cumming's final scene, which is different from the film and the original production, is simply shattering. You have to see this Cabaret. It's different, for sure, but it delivers the same story and entertainment as the original. However, Mendes has come up with quite a few new punches that spell knockout.

Now, that I'm back home, I walk over to the bookshelf. There it is, "T he Berlin Stories" by Christopher Isherwood, and I thumb through it; it is like visiting old friends. I read the forward by Isherwood again. After the war and the original production of I Am A Camera in 1951, he went back to the Berlin of his youth. He writes:

With reverent feet, I entered the deep dank courtyard, whose floor the sun never strikes, and climbed the musty stairs, dark even in the daytime, to Frl. Schroeder's door. The scream she uttered on recognizing me must have been heard all over the building.

"Herr Issyvoo!", no doubt.

See you Sunday!

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