“The bigger the issue, the smaller you write. Remember that. You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying on the road. You pick the smallest manageable part of the big thing, and work off the resonance.”
– Richard Price
World War II may have officially ended in 1945, but the world continued to remember it vividly for decades to follow. Several prominent Nazi officers faced lengthy trials that lasted until 1966, the same year that a hit Broadway musical by the name of Cabaret first opened. Based on the 1951 play I Am A Camera and the 1939 novel Goodbye to Berlin, Cabaret follows an American novelist named Cliff Bradshaw as he visits Weimar Germany during the Nazi’s rise to power. The show explores themes of homosexuality and queerness, sexuality and sexual promiscuity, and most notably, Jewishness. These areas were highly stigmatized, coming to a head with the systematic murder of 6,000,000 Jews and over 10,000,000 other “political enemies” of the Nazi party in the years that followed. But, as author Richard Price says, “the bigger the issue, the smaller you write.” These astronomical figures are simply beyond comprehension, especially in the context of living, breathing people. By focusing on the “smallest manageable part of the big thing,” in this case a seedy little cabaret and its regulars, Cabaret is able to tell an emotionally complex story and “work off the resonance” to apply that empathy to the other millions of murders by the Nazi party. Cabaret explores socially stigmatized people and cultures to build empathy on the small scale of the Kit Kat Club so that audiences can better comprehend the mass persecution of Jews, queers, and political dissidents in Nazi Germany, all culminating in a powerful message against political apathy.
Cabaret is a raunchy show. Something you never would’ve guessed given the name, I know. The show opens with “Willkommen,” a number that sets the tone for the sexual explicitness of the following two hours. Alan Cumming, who plays The Emcee in the 1993 revival production, wastes no time in sexually touching, thrusting on, and making obscene comments to the employees of his cabaret. Sexual acts are mimed and visually referenced throughout the number, and the lyrics encourage the audience to relax and enjoy the festivities. Off the bat, the cabaret girls (and boys) and the Emcee are distinctly libertine and contrasting to the more traditional and tight-laced characters we see in the following scenes. This casual approach to controversial topics persists throughout the show, most notably in portraying abortion, prostitution, promiscuity, and queerness. Sally Bowles, a cabaret singer and romantic partner of Cliff, explains to him early in the show that she’s gotten abortions “thousands of times,” while tossing back her hair and laughing nonchalantly. Later in the show, Sally ends up getting an abortion against Cliff’s wishes, causing a rift between the two. The discussion of abortion shifts in tone from lightheartedness and triviality to an expression of Sally giving up on Cliff and reverting to the unhappy life she knew before him, tied up neatly with the following musical number, “I Don’t Care Much” in the 1987 and subsequent productions. Sally’s choice to get an abortion may have been controversial, but the complexity the issue brings out in her character causes the audience to empathize with her struggles and inner turmoil.
Meanwhile, prostitution and sexual promiscuity are explored as examples of the bacchanalia of Berlin, and as symptoms of the period’s strained economy. Among Sally’s first words to Cliff are, “[Max is] the man I’m sleeping with… this week,” in reference not only to her sexual relationship but also to her limited options in housing. Cliff’s neighbor, Fraulein Kost, is later revealed to be a prostitute after telling her landlady, Fraulein Schneider, “No [prostitution], no rent.” It’s an occupation Kost is clearly not pleased with, but she has no other options. Each of these circumstances unify the characters of the show under the umbrella of social deviance, one way or another. The audience begins to empathize with a set of characters living contrary to social standards, and recognize the overlapping consistencies between Sally, Kost, Cliff, the Emcee, and the other sexually charged characters of the show. This consistency becomes relevant in the second act, when Nazism begins turning these peers against each other, ignoring the similarities of their circumstances and cultivating hate where there was none before. But we’ll get to that soon enough; first, we have to acknowledge the elephant in the cabaret, so to speak.
Cabaret is a gay show. The production includes multiple bisexual characters, plenty of gay and lesbian characters, sometimes an asexual character, arguably a transgender character, and multiple uses of drag. Three years before Stonewall brought the LGBT community to the forefront of people’s minds, Cabaret was already humanizing and defending these historically persecuted people. The original 1966 production featured Joel Grey as a notably asexual character, although this was changed in the 1993 and subsequent productions, where Alan Cumming played up the character’s sexuality. In these later productions, both the Emcee and Cliff are shown to be bisexual- Cliff kisses one of the cabaret boys and implies that they once had an affair, and goes on to rediscover himself as a bisexual rather than gay man. Meanwhile, the Emcee accentuates his sexuality by performing his explicit choreography on both men and women, and by making lusty comments about both. Various other men throughout the show are implied to be queer in some respect through a permeating sense of homoeroticism and physical touching (especially men touching other men on the chest). Yet perhaps the greatest example of both queerness and sexuality throughout the show is the musical number “Two Ladies,” in which the Emcee describes his living situation with two women, and the group sex they’re implied to have. The 1998 and 2014 revivals particularly featured one of the cabaret boys playing a woman, either pulling for a bit of commentary on the sexual openness of ‘38 Berlin, or potentially implying that this second woman is in fact transgender. In discussing the day to day life of the two ladies in the song, both describe traditional gender roles and no reference is given to the existence of drag. Historically, Berlin was an epicenter for queer nightlife at the time, and gender queer and nonconforming people were treated fairly in that respect. Whether or not this was the intended implication, the Emcee was certainly wearing drag during the entr’acte and introduction of the second act. So what does all this queerness do for the show? We can surmise that it’s meant to continue painting characters as “others” in preparation for the eventual rise of Nazism in Germany, but its greater strength is in giving queer characters depth and meaning. These are not simply token characters; many (at least of the main queer characters) have goals and fears, inner struggles, and symbolic meaning. Cliff particularly learns about the political state of Germany and chooses to flee before the Nazis come to power, and struggles in his relationship with Sally. And the Emcee has a startling symbolic meaning*, which becomes clearer and clearer as the show goes on… During the entr’acte, he makes his symbolization of Nazism evident by saluting Hitler on stage, juxtaposed with his feminine lingerie costuming. Dread begins to creep in as the audience is taken out of the fun and excitement of the Kit Kat Club and reminded where the show is set and what is certain to follow. The first act of the show sets the scene of sexual, stigmatized, and often queer characters, and the second act delivers the message by delving into the Nazism and anti-Semitism that pervaded Weimar Germany.
Cabaret is a Jewish show. The lyrics were written by Fred Ebb, set to music by John Kander, staged by Robert Field, performed originally by Joel Grey, and augmented with a book written by Joe Masteroff, all of whom are Jewish. No doubt it was through their insights that they created the character of Herr Schultz, a German-born Jew and the subject of much anti-Semitism throughout the show. Our first look at this is when Fraulein Kost insinuates (to his face) that he’s greedy and rich, and tries to extort two Reichsmarks out of him. Immediately following this, the Emcee makes his first move representing the Nazis- he enters a darkened stage in a spotlight, sets down a record player, and plays the song “Tomorrow Belongs To Me.” Before reaching the final words, he shuts the record player off and superimposes himself and the Nazi regime into the lyrics of the song, declaring that tomorrow belongs to ME. It’s an unsettling moment to say the least, and one that goes without much explanation for some time. Later, the Emcee, acting outside of the action as more of a ghost or narrator, follows Herr Schultz across the stage during his engagement party. His mischievous smile is foreboding and heart wrenching, signaling to the audience that Herr Schultz’s engagement will not have a happy ending. Sure enough, Fraulein Kost makes another anti-Semitic comment and reveals one Herr Ludwig to be a Nazi. Kost and Ludwig then begin singing a frightening reprise of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” causing much of the rest of the party to join in. Schultz, Schneider, and Cliff look on speechless and frozen, in clear understanding of the implications of the song and its significant support. With a cymbal crash at the end of the song, the Emcee appears above the stage and pulls back his black trench coat to reveal a red swastika painted onto his bare backside. The Emcee soon after drops a brick through Schultz’s window in a representation of Kristallnacht, and follows it up with the number, “If You Could See Her.” During the number, the Emcee walks a gorilla dressed as a woman around the stage and sings of her virtues and how society won’t let them be together. It appears entirely out of the blue and frequently elicits confused laughter from the audience before delivering its horrifying last line**, “But if you could see her through my eyes, she wouldn’t look Jewish at all.” Definitively, we now see the Emcee representative of both the queer and/or socially deviant victims of the Nazis, and representative of the Nazis themselves. We’ve seen who is affected and who does the affecting, and have developed empathy for each of the characters, particularly through their different experiences of oppression. But rather than just presenting a sobering tale of the lives lost to the Nazis, Cabaret offers a definitive and powerful message, and suggests a way to prevent repeating the events of WWII.
The final number of Cabaret is more powerful than any other theatrical moment I’ve experienced. As Cliff boards the train to Paris, escaping Germany before it gets too bad, he begins to write his novel:
“There was a cabaret, and there was a master of ceremonies, and there was a city called Berlin in a country called Germany. It was the end of the world. And I was dancing with Sally Bowles, and we were both fast asleep.”
Cliff can no longer continue dancing, fast asleep, keeping his eyes closed to the changing political climate. I am reminded of another of Cliff’s lines earlier in the show. “If you’re not against all this, you’re for it. Or you might as well be.” The finale continues into an eerie reprise of the opening number, and shows physically and auditorily what happens when you allow yourself to be ambivalent to politics. The music becomes discordant and off-beat, the lighting breaks down and becomes irregular, and the staging falls apart. Through political ambivalence and in the context of the play, it is literally the end of the world. One by one, the cast recites the most important quotes of the show, connecting very clearly to the message of political engagement. Herr Schultz ignores the reality of Kristallnacht by calling his broken windows the results of “mischievous children…” Fraulein Schneider recounts her choice to break off an engagement to a Jew with her lines “One does what one must” and “I must be sensible.” Most directly, Sally Bowles says, “It’ll work itself out… It’s only politics, what’s that got to do with us?” In the most haunting moment of the show, the Emcee then takes the spotlight and does a short striptease, before dropping his trench coat to reveal a striped concentration camp uniform. He’s marked with three symbols- a yellow Star of David, marking him a Jew, a red star, marking him a Socialist or Communist, and a pink triangle, marking him a homosexual or sexual deviant. Right before us, it is clear that nearly every one of these characters we’ve grown to love will be killed. The Emcee proceeds to turn slowly around to the other characters, whose inactions allowed this to happen, before taking an elaborate bow reminiscent of a crucifixion. The lights flash white, a cymbal crashes, and we move to blackout. Cabaret is over, and as the audience exits the theatre, they’re drawn to think of what happens next. The Emcee will die. The cabaret girls and the cabaret boys will die. Herr Schultz will die. Fraulein Schneider may very possibly be labeled a “race defiler” and die.
This is what politics has got to do with us. As Cliff pointed out, “If you’re not against all this, you’re for it. Or you might as well be.”
*It should be noted that this analysis is based primarily off of the later revival productions of Cabaret, featuring Alan Cumming as The Emcee. These productions took on a darker tone than their predecessors, but as no recordings of the originals exist, I can not say whether or not all of the symbolism was consistent between productions.
**The word “Jewish” in this line was changed to the less recognizable Yiddish insult “meeskite” in the 1966 production for fear of too much controversy, but was changed back to “Jewish” in later productions.