Monday, June 22, 2009

CABARET by Atlanta's Lyric Theatre: Still Fresh

(a reflection on the production of CABARET, book by Joe Masteroff, music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, original production directed by Harold Prince.)

Seeing CABARET for the first time in thirty years, I was struck as I had not been before by the power of the "book" songs.

The show is famous for its creators' new approach to musical theatre, using the songs of performers in the "Kit Kat Club" to comment on developments in the story. The creepiest example is the song that follows a heart - breaking scene in which a German woman rejects her beloved Jewish suitor because of the Nazis' growing influence. That's the cue for the Emcee to dance with a gorilla (it's in a tutu) while singing, "When we go walking together, I hear society moan / But if they could see her through my eyes, / Maybe they'd leave us alone." The title number is ironic, sung by a woman deluded in thinking that she has a future as a singer in Berlin, singing "No sense permitting some prophet of doom / to wipe happy smiles away! / Come to the Cabaret!"

But there are songs for other characters that express the same attitude. The aged landlady sings a good - natured song about why she'll take in an impecunious young American for half the usual rent, "The sun will rise, and the moon will set / And you learn how to settle for what you get... " This song, like many of the others, employs a dissonant interval (here, a rising major 7th) that alerts the audience to danger in a conventional attitude.

Another example is the young man's haunting song to the cabaret girl Sally: "Why should I wake up? This dream is going so well!" But the storyline is telling him to wake up. He and the other characters dismiss the rise of the Nazis as "politics," irrelevant to their daily concerns.

Near the end, the elderly woman confronts the young man. He has told her that she "can't" let other peoples' prejudice stop the marriage. She tells him that she's near the end of her life, and all she wants is to live peacefully, and she stands to lose everything if she associates with a Jew in the new political climate. "Go on tell me," she sings, "I will listen, what would you do if you were me?" The tune drops by the interval of a major 7th, the same distinctive interval by which her first song rose. That's got to be a musical metaphor to mirror the way that she has now progressed from insouciant apathy in her first song to bitter resignation in her last.

Bob Fosse's movie of CABARET escapes the back - and -forth, real life v. cabaret pattern that grows tiresome in the Broadway show. But Fosse jettisoned most of the "book" songs to do it, and they are underrated treasures.

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