‘Cabaret’: The Menace is Fading Because Berlin’s So Cool Now

Sally is Under There: Nollendorfplatz, Shöneberg, Berlin, in 1946

Sally is Under There: Nollendorfplatz, Shöneberg, Berlin, in 1946

The current revival of Cabaret on Broadway is a perfect copy of the revival that opened in 1998. Back then, a mostly unknown actor named Alan Cumming instantly made his career by emerging from darkness to play the Emcee, and Natasha Richardson was his Sally Bowles. The show played in a ruined theatre, the Henry Miller’s, and as directed by Sam Mendes, was suffused with the sleazy, perverted atmosphere of a country slumming before the dawn of certain destruction.

Now it’s back. Same old sleaze, same old impending doom. Alan Cumming seems not to have gained a pound in 16 years. The script is still brilliant, the songs unimpeachable.

If you had hit me on the head during intermission in March, 1998, and I had woken up for the second act last week, I may not have noticed the difference.

Yet the way we receive the show in 2015 is completely different. Because Berlin is different. We are different.

Cabaret is basically a two-and-a-half-hour suicide note by its characters. Sally Bowles would rather dissolve in gin, Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz want to hide. Fraulein Kost wants to screw and salute her captors. The Emcee wants to get high and hump things. In a subtle bit of cultural arrogance, only the American seems to see the truth. Like him, the audience knows they’re doomed because we knew Berlin was doomed.

At least, audiences used to know that. No one under 30 remembers the Berlin Wall when it stood. In fact, no one under 30 thinks Berlin is a bad place to be anymore. No use mourning Berlin when you’d love to live there yourself.

A while ago, I wrote about how audiences of 1949 interpreted South Pacific in a different way than we do today because they perceived so many things that were going unsaid. Cabaret is the same way.

Cabaret was devastating when it premiered in 1966. The Wall was just a few years old and the city was known for its ignoble rubble and for being the nerve center for Hell. It was interminably lost. That original production catered to post-Eisenhower sensibilities—the hairstyles were kewpie beehive, the sexuality muffled, the menace of racism flattened into innuendo—but for people who had lived through the cataclysm, it was horrifying to watch characters blithely booze and drink as the architects of the Final Solution crept in.

She's really good. Like spectacular good. The show's former star, Berlin, must be jealous.

She’s really good. Like spectacular good. But ‘Cabaret’ is now more about the changing stars, and the original star used to be that faded starlet Berlin

Cabaret‘s main characters live on Nollendorfplatz. They talk about it throughout the show. Past audiences would have known that by 1945, Nollendorfplatz would be blasted to oblivion, so when Fraulein Schenider says she’s going to hang on to her boarding house for security, the audience of years past knew she’d be a refugee very soon. Today, Nollendorfplatz just a name. In Berlin, it’s wholly rebuilt, trendy, and a center of Berlin’s all-night gay culture.

When we sat in the theatre watching Cabaret in 1998, we had a faint sense of all that had been lost, though not nearly as much as our parents did in 1966. In 1998, the Wall was only 9 years down. There was still a sense of wasted decades, of a teetering security, of an unknown future. Berlin wasn’t a sure thing.

Today, though, although the show is identical, this generation doesn’t see Berlin’s position in the world as worth a kyrie. It’s the party center of Europe, the place everyone wants to be, where art and sex are embraced and understood. In fact, it’s a lot like Berlin in the 1920s again. Why cry? Things bounce back. Life really is a you-know-what.

Even Berlin has erased what was so terrifying about Berlin, as I discovered when I tried to find remnants of its Wall on a recent trip.

Cabaret is now mostly about something else. It’s about celebrity. The Emcee was once a sinewy, shadowy figure, a slithering androgynous question mark who seduced those around him into a vortex of capitulation.

Now he’s a rascal! Alan Cumming is an eccentric pro, like Zero Mostel with a meth look. His appearances on the stage elicit not malaise borne of historical context but appreciative giggles. At one point, he asks an audience member what they think of his “1920s spaceman costume.” He’s less Emcee than Puck, a goth drinking buddy, a Will Rogers with glittery nipples. His Sally Bowles is filled by a rotating roster of capable young movie actresses testing their mettle, and people come to see how well they handle the songs. With the specter of a raped Berlin no longer the ghost in the room, Cabaret is now as much about modern American box office stars as it is about the warnings of societal complacency.

That’s how it goes. The show has always been a starmaker. Joel Grey was a nobody, too, when he created the Emcee. He became a star, too, playing him for two decades, but I’ll bet he didn’t give the ball game scores to the audience in between numbers, as I half expected Cumming to do.

Life is a you-know-what, old chum

Life is a you-know-what, old chum

You could argue that the Cabaret of today still presents stronger stakes for its Jewish character, Herr Schultz (Danny Burstein) than it does for its Christian and heterosexual characters. Many of us have forgotten about Berlin The Lost City, but few of us forget what happened to the Jews.

When, at the end, director Sam Mendes visually references the Holocaust, the audience sobers up a little, but that’s a modern embellishment, a dutiful coda. It’s worth noting that Joe Masteroff’s book never mentions the Holocaust. Instead, it runs on foreboding and depends on us to supply the context. Which may be why Mendes needed to remind us of the Holocaust at all—Berlin’s too cool to feel sorry for anymore.

This revival of Cabaret is closing after a year. The prior revival lasted nearly six years. Alan Cumming can be seen each week on The Good Wife. There’s a deeper, more worrying point to make about our memory of history, but I won’t make it. Berlin’s a blast. Why cry?