Monday, May 3, 2010

Musical Mondays: Cabaret

Cabaret won 8 Oscars in 1973, including directing for Bob Fosse. It lost out Best Picture to The Godfather. Francis Ford Coppolla got his revenge on Fosse two years later when he and Godfather II beat Fosse who was also nominated for Lenny. Cabaret took Best Actress for Liza Minnelli, Best Supporting Actor for Joel Grey, as well as Sound, Music, Cinematography, Editing, and Art Direction. On Broadway, the Kander and Ebb musical also won lots of awards in 1967, including for Joel Grey again, and later Alan Cumming in the 1998 revival.

The story differs only slightly between the stage and film versions. A few songs are added and subtracted, and my personal preference is for the recent revival which combines a bit of both. The movie soundtrack was always my favorite growing up. It was produced at a local theater when I was about 11, and my mom let me go not really realizing how adult the themes can be - adultery, abortion, sex, homosexuality, Nazis, etc.

American Sally Bowles works at a Cabaret in 1931 Berlin. She meets British Brian who rents a room nearby and hopes to teach English to pay his way. The emcee at the Kit Kat Club is the character who links the tumultuous romance between Brian and Sally, and what's happening in real-life Berlin. Brian is staid and proper, and Sally couldn't be more wild. She tries to live a bohemian life, but she really wants a happy secure life but can't seem to behave properly to get it. We see Germany deteriorating and the Nazis picking up their power, and its influence on all of the lives of the characters. Bohemian lifestyles aren't really allowed much in Nazi Germany. Most of the violence is played for laughs on stage in allegory, but interspersed with scenes of real violence. As most movies of the WWII type, nothing ends very well, which generally goes against the rules of previous musical theater. It's a gritty movie that happens to smooth over the roughest edges with song, often in the background or on stage at the club. Liza is wonderful as Sally Bowles. She's flighty, over the top and gets mad when other people tell her she's wrong with the way she's living. Michael York (the future Basil Exposition from Austin Powers) is also great; quietly judging Sally, but secretly wishing he could be more impetuous. And no one beats Joel Grey as the emcee. Alan Cumming and Neil Patrick Harris created their own versions, but Grey really set the standard that no one will ever live up to completely. The video is Cummings at the 1998 Tonys.

The theme of the movie comes from the title song told at the end, but pieces of every song become part of the same central theme. There's very little of a traditional musical theater model that the movie follows in terms of song. There's not really a bad guy - other than the amorphous Nazis - and the heroine isn't really someone worth rooting for when she continuously sabotages herself. "Maybe This Time" is her song about her hopes that life will be different now that she's met a different guy. Nothing's different (she cheats and everything goes down the tubes) - "...everybody loves a winner, so nobody loves me." When Sally meets a rich German guy who wants to date her, she and the emcee sings "Money (Makes the World Go Round)". The emcee sings one of my favorite songs (though I do like quite a few of them), to mock the Nazi hatred of Jews without getting in trouble. "If you could see her" usually has the emcee falling in love someone in a gorilla suit, and he sings "..if you could see her through my eyes, she doesn't look Jewish at all." The emcee gets away with a lot, but does a great job of actually retelling the story going on around him through songs that don't sound nearly as serious as everything actually is. And the final song, "Cabaret" states Sally's feelings perfectly, "what good is sitting alone in your room, come to the cabaret."

If you're trying to see more Oscar type movies, particularly from the 1970s (my own under-watched decade), this makes a great treat, whether or not you're a fan of musicals.

There is one story line that was completely removed from the movie, that of a quiet love story between the older owner of Sally and Brian's boarding house, Fraulein Schneider and a Jewish owner of a fruit stand, Herr Schultz. Ron Rifkin won the Tony for playing Herr Schultz on Broadway. Their story is sweet and shows a very non-bohemian effect of the Nazi terror toward Jews.

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