50 years of 'Cabaret': How the 1966 musical keeps sharpening its edges for modern times

The musical “Cabaret” will turn 50 this year, and its latest incarnation opens Wednesday at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre. It comes with a slightly complicated provenance: This “Cabaret” is the national tour of Roundabout Theater Company’s 2014 Broadway revival, which itself was a remounting of Roundabout’s Tony-winning 1998 Broadway revival. (More on that later.) The salient fact is that nearly 50 years have passed since Joel Grey first sang “Willkommen” in 1966.

Fifty years, in the scope of theatrical history, is an eye blink — “Cabaret” is a baby next to, say, Greek tragedy — but the pace of progress has sped up since 1966. Harold Prince, who conceived and directed the original production, created a startlingly innovative piece of theater that also, inevitably, was a product of its time. Successive interpretations of “Cabaret” followed suit, with each new iteration both reflecting and disrupting a distinct cultural moment. As a result, the musical’s evolution can be seen as a mirror of American society over the last half-century: what has changed and what hasn’t.

We can track America's attitude toward homosexuality, for example, through the progressive outing of the “Cabaret” male lead, from reluctant straight man back in 1966 to unambiguous — if closeted — gay man today. 

The English writer Christopher Isherwood published “The Berlin Stories,” the semi-autobiographical collection that served as the source for “Cabaret,” in 1945. His narrator, a thinly veiled stand-in for the author, is an expatriate writer in Berlin in the late 1920s and early 1930s. It’s the last gasp of the permissive, decadent Weimar Republic; the Nazis are consolidating power, but nobody is paying attention. The offbeat vagabonds the narrator meets are lost in hedonistic pursuits, oblivious to the horror massing on the horizon: “There was a cabaret and there was a master of ceremonies and there was a city called Berlin in a country called Germany,” the narrator writes. “It was the end of the world … and I was dancing with Sally Bowles and we were both fast asleep.”

Sally, although she plays a relatively minor role in “The Berlin Stories,” seized readers’ imagination from the outset. Needy, untalented, reckless, manipulative — but highly entertaining — she may be the model for the movie stereotype film critic Nathan Rabin dubbed the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Isherwood was gay, but while he was writing “The Berlin Stories” in 1930s and 1940s he couldn’t very well admit that. He disguised the truth in a murkily doomed romance between the narrator and Sally.

Prince’s first production, which named the male lead Cliff Bradshaw, left him in the closet. In Bob Fosse’s 1972 film, the lead’s name is Brian, and he’s a bi-curious Englishman. By Prince’s first Broadway revival in 1987, Cliff had gone back to being American but was bisexual. And ever since 1998, when Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall co-directed the influential revival that eventually led to this current tour, he's been a gay man gathering the courage to express himself in a brief window of freedom before fascism sets in. 

In 1966, the musical was risqué for Broadway. “It was very sexy,” recalls Joe Masteroff, now 96, who wrote the book. “There were girls out in nightclub clothes. One thing I will never forget: When the show opened in Boston, there were a lot of walkouts. Once the reviews came out, the public came back.” 

By 1998, the costumes Patricia Zipprodt had designed for the original had come to seem tame.

“It was incredibly shocking in 1966 that women were wearing stockings,” Marshall says. “So Sam and I thought, ‘Let’s just go a step further, and let’s show ripped stockings. Let’s show the track marks on the arms, so we understand the drug use in the clubs. Let’s show an even seedier side.’ We were working to shock.” 

Prince’s Emcee, Joel Grey, had been an androgynous fellow in a natty suit and white face — a living marionette. But Mendes’ and Marshall’s Emcee, a then-unknown young British actor named Alan Cumming, played the role shirtless, with rouged nipples and suspenders in unexpected places. But as lubricious as William Ivey Long’s costumes were for their time, they’ve grown familiar, even sweet, to modern audiences. 

That’s just how things work in theater, says composer John Kander, 89.

“The original production was looked on as unbelievably innovative, but then 20 years later, a lot of those innovations were sort of acceptable, so some of the alterations that were made for the production in the 1980s were, again, very innovative,” he says. “And when Sam and Robby did theirs, it was innovative again — but for its period, for the attitudes of its audience. And I suspect that if the piece is still around in 15 or 20 years, this version will probably look kind of tame as well. We revive pieces of theater not to go back but to present something pertinent to the world we live in.”

One of the technical innovations of Prince’s production was its set, which featured a large mirror that reflected the audience.

“You wouldn’t see the stage; you’d see yourselves,” Kander recalls.

This strategy pervaded theater so thoroughly that it lost its impact, but its initial effect — the way it brought the audience into the cabaret — inspired later directors to come up with new ways to break the fourth wall. 

In 1993, Mendes set the show inside a nightclub-style space at Donmar Warehouse in London. Masteroff saw it and recommended it to his friend Todd Haimes, the artistic director of New York's Roundabout Theatre Company. (Masteroff also wrote the book for “She Loves Me,” which was Roundabout’s first musical revival.)

Haimes recalls phoning Mendes and asking if he would be interested in staging the show in New York.

Mendes replied: “I’d love to do it in New York, but there are two requirements. One, you have to find a cabaret space that’s no more than 500 seats, and two, you have to use Alan Cumming.”

Like “Cabaret,” Roundabout celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. It’s a coincidence: The company and the musical were born separately and spent their early lives apart, but when they finally came together, the pairing proved exceptionally fruitful, launching careers, winning awards, bringing accounts into the black. But in the early 1990s, things didn’t look very propitious. 

“It was complete insanity,” says Haimes, who relates the travails he endured to produce “Cabaret” with humor and relish. “It took years. We had to get Alan a green card. We tried finding a 500-seat cabaret space in Manhattan. It couldn’t have any poles or anything in the audience. It had to be unobstructed. It’s almost impossible. And we looked for years, and Sam went on to other things.”

After Mendes bowed out, Haimes asked Marshall, who had choreographed Roundabout’s “She Loves Me,” to direct and choreograph the production; he agreed. Then Mendes became available again. Instead of clashing, the two directors decided to work together.

“We turned to each other and said, ‘It seems like it’s fate, why don’t we co-direct this and bring both of our sensibilities,’” Marshall says. “Sam had never done a show on Broadway; I was directing for the first time on Broadway. So we did it together. And it was this wonderful, unique collaboration, which turned out to be a great experience for both of us. We took Sam’s idea and expanded on it. The whole place became a cabaret, with a whole world and life happening simultaneously.”

Haimes finally located a space, in the former Henry Miller’s Theatre on 43rd Street. Today it’s the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, but in the 1990s, it was a disco, Club Expo.

“The real estate developer Douglas Durst, the nightclub people were his tenants,” Haimes says. “He said, ‘Maybe you could do it at the nightclub during the 8-to-10 period, and they can convert it back into a nightclub afterward.’ When I think about it, it was total insanity.”

They made a deal to stage “Cabaret” every night at 8, and then at 11 they would strike the set and turn the space back into a nightclub.

“At 11 o’clock at night you’d walk out of the theater and see, like, lines of people for the nightclub,” Haimes says.

He describes the production as an “artistic quest” that had “nothing to do with money,” and that was good because despite its popularity the show was “negative money,” he says. Running it in a 500-seat theater was simply not penciling out.

Then, by sheer coincidence, Studio 54 became available for rent.

“Cabaret” transferred to Studio 54 and played there for five years; Roundabout used the proceeds to buy the former disco, now one of five stages the company owns. Roundabout grew into the largest not-for-profit theater in the country. Cumming rocketed to stardom. Mendes and Marshall went on to direct movies and win Oscars — Mendes for “American Beauty,” Marshall for “Chicago” — and they haven’t stopped working since. 

So there’s the happy ending, but not quite. It turns out that Haimes wasn’t ready to say goodbye to “Cabaret.” In 2014, he persuaded Cumming to reprise his turn as the Emcee nearly 20 years after winning the Tony for the role. Haimes also lured Mendes and Marshall back to the helm as co-directors. Roundabout remounted the 1998 production all over again at Studio 54.

Why a remount? Why not start afresh, with a new interpretation for this new generation?

“I thought Alan Cumming’s performance was one of the greatest, most seminal performances of all times,” Haimes says. “I really thought that another generation should see it. I thought it was like … I don’t know what the best example would be. Maybe Yul Brenner in ‘The King and I’? I thought it was a performance that should be seen again.”

Ticket sales were brisk for the yearlong revival; critical reception proved slightly cooler the second time around. The national tour has also provoked some cynical mutterings. It’s billed as the Mendes and Marshall production, although B.T. McNicholl has taken over the direction. And it has some significant omissions: Studio 54 and Cumming. Like many of the theaters where the tour is stopping, the Pantages isn’t a nightclub setting but a large, traditional proscenium house. Randy Harrison (best known for TV’s “Queer as Folk”) is playing the Emcee. 

But the consensus among the creators remains positive. “I’m shockingly happy with it,” Haimes says. “The young guy playing the Emcee is fantastic.”

Harrison, speaking from San Francisco before traveling to L.A., says his job would be easier in a smaller space, “in that so much of what we’re trying to do is break down the fourth wall and make the audience feel like they’re not at a theater but they’re in a cabaret, that we’re sort of enmeshed with them, that they are us and we are them.”

But he still goes out into the audience every night to banter and dance with theatergoers.

“I saw Alan [Cumming] recently. He was like, ‘Are you getting bored with it yet?’ I said, ‘No,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I never got bored with it either, because the audience is your scene partner, and it’s always different.’”

Theatrical devices inevitably pall, but a powerful message ensures longevity. Though the history of “Cabaret” indicates some progress toward understanding and acceptance, the musical’s warning about the temptations of fascism, nationalism and prejudice — the way they can sneak up on you when you’re having fun — has never seemed dated or irrelevant.

“It’s such an important piece, in what it says about the world, how quickly it can change,” Marshall says. “It’s kind of a warning, and a wake-up call, that things can change so quickly without you knowing, and then all of a sudden you’re in a scary world.”

Says Andrea Goss, who stars in the national tour as Sally: “Sadly, it’s still extremely relevant. I think the younger generation can relate to it because of what is happening in our world today. Young people especially nowadays need to see pieces of theater like this, because it’s going to be their job to change what is happening, so that someday maybe pieces like this won’t be so relevant.”

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Fifty years of “Cabaret”: Some milestones

1945: Christopher Isherwood publishes “The Berlin Stories,” writings inspired by his life in Berlin in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

1951: The play “I Am a Camera,” John Van Druten’s adaptation of Isherwood’s work, opens at Broadway’s Empire Theatre starring Julie Harris as Sally and William Prince as Isherwood. “Me no Leica,” quips critic Walter Kerr in one of history’s shortest reviews. But Harris’ career takes off.

1966: “Cabaret,” a musical loosely based on “I Am a Camera” and “The Berlin Stories,” opens at the Broadhurst Theatre, directed by Harold Prince with a book by Joe Masteroff, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb. The romance between American expatriate Cliff Bradshaw (Bert Convy) and the cabaret singer Sally Bowles (Jill Haworth) is contrasted with the equally doomed affair of their landlady, Frau Schneider (Lotte Lenya), and a Jewish fruit peddler, Herr Schultz (Jack Gilford). Both stories are intercut with scenes at the seedy Kit Kat Klub where Sally performs. Its host is an androgynous Emcee (Joel Grey) who welcomes viewers to enjoy the show’s risqué choreography (by Ronald Field) and lurid costumes (by Patricia Zipprodt). The production wins eight Tony Awards.

1972: A film adaptation of “Cabaret,” directed by Bob Fosse, wins eight Academy Awards, including director, lead actress (Liza Minnelli) and supporting actor (Grey). 

1987: The first Broadway revival, produced by Prince and choreographed by Field, gives Grey’s Emcee an even more central role and presents Cliff’s bisexuality more directly.

1993: The director Sam Mendes revives “Cabaret” at London’s Donmar Warehouse. The production captures critical interest with its bold choices, including a startling new take on the Emcee by Alan Cumming.

1998: Roundabout Theater Company opens “Cabaret,” co-directed by Mendes and Rob Marshall, choreographed by Marshall and starring Cumming and Natasha Richardson. It plays in the former Henry Miller’s Theatre on 43rd Street, sharing the space with a working nightclub called Club Expo. A few months later it transfers to Studio 54. It later wins the Tony Awards for revival of a musical as well as Tonys for Cumming, Richardson and Ron Rifkin. It runs for five and a half years. Emcees include Neil Patrick Harris, Raul Esparza and Michael C. Hall. 

2014: Roundabout revives its 1998 production of “Cabaret” at Studio 54, enticing Cumming to reprise his role opposite a series of Sallys: Michelle Williams, Emma Stone and Sienna Miller. Mendes and Marshall co-direct once again. 

2016: Roundabout launches a national “Cabaret” tour, with B.T. McNicholl re-creating Mendes and Marshall’s direction for the road.

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“Cabaret”

In Hollywood: Through Aug. 7 at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. Tickets from $29. (800) 982-2787, hollywoodpantages.com

In Costa Mesa: Aug. 9-21 at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive. Tickets from $29. (714) 556-2787, www.scfta.org

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission)

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