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Sandy Wilson, who had achieved success with The Boy Friend in the 1950s, had completed the book and most of the score for Goodbye to Berlin, his adaptation of I Am a Camera, when he discovered that producer David Black’s option on both the 1951 Van Druten play and its source material by Christopher Isherwood had lapsed and been acquired by Harold Prince. Prince commissioned Joe Masteroff to work on the book. When Prince and Masteroff agreed Wilson’s score failed to capture the essence of late-1920s Berlin, John Kander and Fred Ebb were invited to join the project.
The new version was initially a dramatic play preceded by a prologue of songs describing the Berlin atmosphere from various points of view. As the composers began to distribute the songs between scenes, they realized the story could be told in the structure of a more traditional book musical, and they replaced some of the songs with tunes more relevant to the plot. Isherwood’s original characters were changed as well. The male lead became an American writer who teaches English; the anti-Semitic landlady was transformed into a tolerant woman with a Jewish beau, Herr Schultz, who owned a fruit store; two language students were eliminated; and two loathsome but integral characters—prostitute Fräulein Kost and Nazi Ernst Ludwig—were added to the mix. The musical ultimately expressed two stories in one: the first a revue centered on the decadence of the seedy Kit Kat Klub; the second a story set in the society of the club.
After seeing one of the last rehearsals before the company headed to Boston for the pre-Broadway run, Jerome Robbins suggested the musical sequences outside the cabaret be eliminated. Prince ignored his advice. In Boston, Jill Haworth struggled with her characterization of cabaret performer Sally Bowles. Critics thought the blonde dressed in a white dress suggested senior prom more than tawdry nightclub.
Prince’s staging was unusual for the time. As the audience filled the theater, the curtain was already up, revealing a stage containing nothing but a large mirror reflecting the auditorium. There was no overture; instead, a drum roll and cymbal crash led into the opening number. The juxtaposition of dialogue scenes with songs used as exposition and separate cabaret numbers providing social commentary was a novel concept that initially startled the audience, but as they gradually came to understand the difference between the two, they were able to accept the reasoning behind them.
The musical opened on Broadway on November 20, 1966, at the Broadhurst Theatre, transferred to the Imperial Theatre and then the Broadway Theatre before closing on September 6, 1969 after 1,165-performances and 21 previews. Directed by Harold Prince and choreographed by Ron Field, the cast featured Jill Haworth as Sally, Bert Convy as Cliff, Lotte Lenya as Fräulein Schneider, Jack Gilford as Herr Schultz, Joel Grey as the Master of Ceremonies (Emcee), Edward Winter as Ernst and Peg Murray as Fräulein Kost. Replacements later in the run included Anita Gillette and Melissa Hart as Sally, Ken Kercheval and Larry Kert as Cliff, and Martin Ross as the Emcee.
The 1967-1968 US national tour featured Melissa Hart (Sally), Signe Hasso (Fräulein Schneider) and Leo Fuchs (Herr Schultz). The tour included the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut in December 1967; the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles; Cleveland, Ohio; Baltimore, Maryland; and Atlanta, Georgia.
The first West End production opened on February 28, 1968 at the Palace Theatre with Judi Dench as Sally, Kevin Colson as Cliff, Barry Dennen as the Emcee, Lila Kedrova as Fräulein Schneider and Peter Sallis as Herr Schultz. It ran for 336 performances.
In 1986, the show was revived in London at the Strand Theatre starring Kelly Hunter as Sally, Peter Land as Cliff and Wayne Sleep as the Emcee, directed and choreographed by Gillian Lynne.
The first Broadway revival opened on October 22, 1987, with direction and choreography by Prince and Field. The revival opened at the Imperial Theatre, eventually transferring to the Minskoff to complete its 261-performance run. Joel Grey received star billing as the Emcee, with Alyson Reed as Sally, Gregg Edelman as Cliff, Regina Resnik as Fräulein Schneider, Werner Klemperer as Herr Schultz, and David Staller as Ernst Ludwig. The song “Don’t Go” was added for Cliff’s character.
In 1993, Sam Mendes directed a new production of the show for the Donmar Warehouse in London’s West End. It starred Jane Horrocks as Sally, Adam Godley as Cliff, Alan Cumming as the Emcee and Sara Kestelman as Fräulein Schneider. Cumming received an Olivier Award nomination for his performance and Kestelman won the Olivier for Best Supporting Performance in a Musical. Mendes’ conception was very different from either the original production or the conventional first revival.
The most significant change was the character of the Emcee. The role, as played by Joel Grey in both prior incarnations, was an asexual, edgy character dressed in a tuxedo with rouged cheeks. Alan Cumming’s portrayal was highly sexualized, as he wore suspenders (i.e. braces) around his crotch and red paint on his nipples.
Staging details differed as well; instead of “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” being performed by a male choir, the Emcee plays a recording of a boy soprano singing it. In the final scene, the Emcee removes his outer clothes to reveal a striped suit of the type worn by the internees in concentration camps; on it are pinned a yellow badge (identifying Jews) and a pink triangle (denoting homosexuals). Other changes included added references to Cliff’s bisexuality, including a brief scene where he kisses one of the Cabaret boys. “I Don’t Care Much”, which was cut from the original production, was reinstated, and “Mein Herr” was added from the film.
The second Broadway revival was based on the 1993 Mendes-Donmar Warehouse production. For the Broadway transfer, Rob Marshall was brought on board as co-director and choreographer. The production opened after 37 previews on March 19, 1998 at the Kit Kat Klub, housed in what previously had been known as Henry Miller’s Theatre. Later that year it transferred to Studio 54, where it remained for the rest of its 2,377-performance run, becoming the third longest-running revival in Broadway musical history, third only to Oh! Calcutta! and Chicago. For the Broadway production, Cumming reprised his role as the Emcee, opposite newcomers Natasha Richardson as Sally, John Benjamin Hickey as Cliff, Ron Rifkin as Herr Schultz, Denis O’Hare as Ernst Ludwig, Michele Pawk as Fräulein Kost, and Mary Louise Wilson as Fräulein Schneider, along with Joyce Chittick, Leenya Rideout, Erin Hill, Christina Pawl, Kristen Olness, Michael O’Donnell, Bill Szobody and Fred Rose. The Broadway production was nominated for ten Tony Awards, winning four for Cumming, Richardson and Rifkin, as well as the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical. This production featured a number of notable replacements later in the run: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Susan Egan, Joely Fisher, Gina Gershon, Deborah Gibson, Teri Hatcher, Melina Kanakaredes, Jane Leeves, Molly Ringwald, Brooke Shields, and Lea Thompson as Sally; Michael C. Hall, Raúl Esparza, Neil Patrick Harris, Adam Pascal, Jon Secada, Norbert Leo Butz and John Stamos as the Emcee; Boyd Gaines and Michael Hayden as Cliff; Tom Bosley, Dick Latessa, Hal Linden, Laurence Luckinbill, and Tony Roberts as Herr Schultz; and Blair Brown, Polly Bergen, Mariette Hartley and Carole Shelley as Fräulein Schneider.
There were a number of changes made between the 1993 and 1998 revivals, despite the similarities in creative team. The cabaret number “Two Ladies” was staged with the Emcee, a cabaret girl, and a cabaret boy in drag and included a shadow play simulating various sexual positions. The score was entirely re-orchestrated, using synthesizer effects and expanding the stage band, with all the instruments now being played by the cabaret girls and boys. The brutally satiric “Sitting Pretty”, with its mocking references to deprivation, despair and hunger, was eliminated entirely, as it had been in the film version, and where in the ’93 revival it had been combined with “Money” (as it had been in ’87 London production), “Money” was now performed on its own. “Maybe This Time”, from the film adaptation, was added to the score.
In September 2006, a new production of the show opened at the Lyric Theatre, directed by Rufus Norris, and starring Anna Maxwell Martin as Sally, James Dreyfus as the Emcee, Harriet Thorpe as Fräulein Kost and Sheila Hancock as Fräulein Schneider. Hancock won the Olivier Award for Best Supporting Performance in a Musical. Replacements later in the run included Kim Medcalf and Amy Nuttall as Sally, Honor Blackman and Angela Richards as Fräulein Schneider, and Julian Clary and Alistair McGowan as the Emcee. This production closed in June 2008 and toured nationally for two years with a cast that included Wayne Sleep as the Emcee and Samantha Barks and Siobhan Dillon as Sally.
A revival opened in the West End at the Savoy Theatre on 3 October 2012, following a four-week tour of the UK, including Bromley, Southampton, Nottingham, Norwich and Salford. Will Young plays the Emcee and Michelle Ryan portrays Sally Bowles. It was announced on 10 August 2012 that Siân Phillips, Harriet Thorpe and Matt Rawle would also be joining the cast. The production was made by the creative team behind the 2006 London revival, but they had created a different set, lighting, costumes, choreography and direction. The 2012 revival focuses more on comic aspects, but still expresses the harshness of 1931 Germany. In August 2013 the show went on tour, again with Young as The Emcee, Siobhan Dillon reprising her role of Sally and Lyn Paul joining the cast as Fraulein Schneider.
In September 2013 Roundabout Theatre Company announced plans to return the company’s acclaimed 1998 production to Studio 54 in New York. For this, the show’s third Broadway revival, Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall reprised their respective roles as director and co-director/choreographer to recreate their work from the earlier production. Alan Cumming starred again as the Emcee while Academy Award-nominee Michelle Williams made her Broadway debut as Sally Bowles. On October 7, 2013, Tony Award nominees Danny Burstein and Linda Emond joined the cast as Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider. The production began a 24-week limited engagement with previews from March 21, 2014 with opening night on April 24, 2014. This engagement was later extended to a 36-week run concluding on January 4, 2015.
On August 21, 2014 it was officially confirmed that Emma Stone would replace Michelle Williams as Sally until February 1, 2015 after Williams left the production on November 9, and Alan Cumming would continue in the role of “The Emcee” until the show’s closing date in March 2015. The Roundabout Theatre Company announced on January 5, 2015, that Stone would extend her run as Sally until February 15. On February 17, Sienna Miller replaced Stone as Sally through to the show’s closing on March 29, 2015.
A BBC Radio 2 radio broadcast in 1996 at the Golders Green Hippodrome starred Claire Burt (Sally Bowles), Steven Berkoff (Emcee), Alex Hanson (Clifford Bradshaw), Keith Michell (Herr Schultz), and Rosemary Leach (Fraulein Schneider).
Since 2003, there have been successful international stagings of the show (many of which have been influenced by Mendes’ concept), including productions in Texas (US), Colombia, Canada, Malaysia, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, Melbourne, Peru, France, Venezuela, Serbia, Spain, Argentina, Israel and Greece. In 2008, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival performed an extremely powerful production at the Avon Theatre designed by Douglas Paraschuk and directed by Amanda Dehnert, featuring Bruce Dow as the Emcee, Trish Lindström as Sally, Sean Arbuckle as Cliff, Nora McClellan as Fraulein Schneider and Frank Moore as Herr Schultz.
The Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada included Cabaret in its 2014 season. The production, which ran from April 10 – October 26, 2014 at the Festival Theatre, was directed by Peter Hinton (influenced by the Mendes production) with choreography by Denise Clarke and featured Juan Chioran as the Emcee, Deborah Hay as Sally, Gray Powell as Cliff, Benedict Campbell as Herr Schultz, Corrine Koslo as Fraulein Schneider and Jay Turvey as Ernst.
At the dawn of the 1930s in Berlin, the Nazi party is growing stronger. The Kit Kat Klub is a seedy cabaret, a place of decadent celebration. The Klub’s Master of Ceremonies, or Emcee, together with the cabaret girls and waiters, warm up the audience (“Willkommen”). In a train station, Cliff Bradshaw arrives, a young American writer coming to Berlin to work on his new novel. He meets Ernst Ludwig, a German who offers Cliff work and recommends a boardinghouse. At the boardinghouse, Fräulein Schneider offers Cliff a room for one hundred marks; he can only pay fifty. After a brief debate, she relents and lets Cliff live there for fifty marks. Fräulein Schneider observes that she has learned to take whatever life offers (“So What?”).
As Cliff visits the Kit Kat Klub, the Emcee introduces a British singer, Sally, who performs a racy, flirtatious number (“Don’t Tell Mama”). Afterward, she asks Cliff to recite poetry for her; he recites “Casey at the Bat”. Cliff offers to take Sally home, but she says that her boyfriend Max, the club’s owner, is too jealous. Sally performs her final number at the Kit Kat Club aided by the female ensemble (“Mein Herr”). The cabaret ensemble performs a song and dance, calling each other on inter-table phones and inviting each other for dances and drinks (“The Telephone Song”).
The next day, Cliff has just finished giving Ernst an English lesson when Sally arrives. Max has fired her and thrown her out, and now she has no place to live, and so she asks him if she can live in his room. At first he resists, but she convinces him (and Fräulein Schneider) to take her in (“Perfectly Marvelous”). The Emcee and two female companions sing a song (“Two Ladies”) that comments on Cliff and Sally’s unusual living conditions. Herr Schultz, an elderly Jewish fruit-shop owner who lives in her boardinghouse, has given Fräulein Schneider a pineapple as a gift (“It Couldn’t Please Me More”). In the Kit Kat Klub, a young waiter starts to sing a song—a patriotic anthem to the Fatherland that slowly descends into a darker, Nazi-inspired marching song—becoming the strident “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”. He initially sings a cappella, before the customers and the band join in. (In the 1998 and 2014 revivals, this is replaced by the Emcee playing a recording of a boy soprano)
Months later, Cliff and Sally are still living together and have fallen in love. Cliff knows that he is in a “dream,” but he enjoys living with Sally too much to come to his senses (“Why Should I Wake Up?”). Sally reveals that she is pregnant, but she does not know the father and reluctantly decides to get an abortion. Cliff reminds her that it could be his child, and seems to convince her to have the baby. Ernst enters and offers Cliff a job—picking up a suitcase in Paris and delivering it to his “client” in Berlin—easy money. The Emcee comments on this “Sitting Pretty”, or (in later versions) “Money”.