Nobody ruins a party like a Nazi.
Just ask a Berliner from the 1920s and 1930s.
Between the havoc of the First World War and the ascendency of Nazism in 1933, the golden era of the Weimar Republic, or Second Reich, was a celebration doomed to fail.
The musical Cabaret is set in this time, when the collapsed German empire was still fresh on people’s minds and a coming political revolution was in the air.
The human spirit bloomed, not to mention the human body.
SDLqThere was a real sense of hedonism and perhaps an end-of-the-world mentality,” said Eric Epstein, director of the Guild’s production of Cabaret. “I think it was really about partying hard while you could.”
Berlin earned a reputation as sin city, attracting depraved pleasure-seekers the western world over. The decay of social order might not have lasted, but Cabaret uses this liberating sub-culture of sex and revelry to depict the plight of human needs in hard times.
While researching the social context of Cabaret, which open on April 2 and runs until April 18, Epstein discovered Berlin to be a bohemian romp-fest that took individual freedoms to their taboo-breaking limits.
One book, Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin, published by theatre professor Mel Gordon last year, provided a historical reference for Epstein’s production.
“(Voluptuous Panic) talks about the number of amateur prostitutes, which was huge,” said Epstein. “It talks about the prostitution that would take place at the end of the month when the rent came due.”
“Then there’s the different neighbourhoods in the city: the lesbian neighbourhood, the gay neighbourhood.”
This was the Berlin that Christopher Isherwood, who wrote The Berlin Stories, came looking for when he visited Berlin in 1929.
His book was transformed into the play I Am A Camera in 1951, and then subsequently turned into a musical by the popular Broadway composer duo, John Kander and Fred Ebb, in 1966.
Cabaret’s male protagonist, Cliff Bradshaw, is based on Isherwood.
“(Bradshaw) is our entry way into that world because he’s the one meeting the characters and he’s going to write about these characters eventually,” said Epstein. “We see (Berlin) through his eyes.”
Bradshaw, played by Tristin Hopper, has a liberal American sensibility, said Epstein. He’s a man who can’t help but see hope in the liberty of the Weimar Republic.
The chasm between other liberal democracies and Germany in the 1930s is made plainly clear by Bradshaw’s perspective. The political order that had established itself to varying degrees of success in other industrial western nations didn’t have any staying power in Germany.
Thinkers and politicians have long disagreed over why it turned out that way, some arguing that a liberal democracy inherently lacks any uniting or communal values, while others contend that the Second Reich failed because of the unfair 1919 Versailles Treaty.
“There’s a great scene where (Bradshaw) is trying to tell one character to step up to his ideals,” said Epstein.
“He’s really met by a tirade of ‘You don’t really know what you’re talking about because you haven’t lived through it.’”
No matter how free liberal democracies are, the golden era was constantly shadowed by a sense of its eventual end.
“That’s a really telling point because we see that (Bradshaw), who has his ideals, is really on the outside of it all and, in time, he can leave, whereas that’s not the situation for the other characters.
“They don’t have those choices.”
Sally Bowles is one of those people stuck, for better or worse, with the destiny of Berlin. British, seductive and wearing a bob, she’s a dancer at the unkempt Kit Kat Klub and Cliff’s eventual love interest.
Bowles, played by Shauna Jones, epitomizes the take-life-by-the-reigns attitude of the era.
“She’s living the party, living the hedonistic life as best as she can, enjoying the party of Berlin, trying to be the centre of attention in the midst of it,” said Epstein.
“The main story of the play is a human one,” said Epstein. “Sally Bowles is an apolitical figure who is not particularly tuned in to what is going on around her. The character based on Christopher Isherwood is very much politically astute and seeing what’s going on.
“(Bowles) is gradually unable to be unaffected by the events around her.”
Liza Minnelli made Bowles famous in the 1972 film version of Cabaret, where a dimly-lit Kit Kat Klub is meant to capture the seediness of pleasure-seeking in a chaotic time.
“The Kit Kat Klub is a place where things can be taken lightly and maybe politics don’t matter as much,” said Becky Reynolds, who choreographed Cabaret with Michelle Fisher in the Guild production.
Five Kit Kat girls perform Cabaret’s eight dance numbers, which slowly deviate from the let-loose debauchery of Willkommen to the goose-step inspired entr’acte.
The movements are meant to be a disjointed and displaced, evoking the grittiness of the Kit Kat underworld and its inhabitants, said Reynolds.
The melding of song and dance is what drew Epstein to Cabaret.
“(A musical) is among the most intense of theatrical experiences in the same way that opera is,” he said. “It combines dance. It combines music. It allows the audience to experience a heightened level of emotion that’s very hard to give in a straight drama.”
The singing and dancing provide an over-arching unity to the play, added Reynolds.
“The main focus of the play is Sally and Chris and their relationship,” she said. “The tone, the dancing, the emcee and the cabaret are supposed to be a counterpoint to what’s happening on stage.”
The emcee is played by Bronwyn Jones, who narrates the play from its humble beginning as a love story to the eventual intrusion of the Nazis.
“The play has a very interesting structure,” said Epstein. “It exists like two separate plays. One is a sort of straight kitchen-sink drama and comedy about the lives of the people that Cliff comes into contact with.”
“But the other side of the play is the content of what exists in the cabaret itself,” he said.
“As the play progresses, we find that the cabaret numbers themselves lose some of their sexual freedom and then Nazism and anti-Semitism become part of the material that is evoked in the cabaret.
“We see that the cabaret starts to take a Nazi point of view.”
The club that once served as a protective shell from the Nazis slowly becomes infiltrated by the outside world, a threat to Bowles’s blissful ignorance and Cliff’s optimistic idealism.
“It is a Broadway musical, but it’s one of the jewels of the musicals,” said Epstein. “And it’s a musical that’s got some hit, some bite, some edge to it. It’s certainly not a funny, happy musical.
tried to take the approach of making it appealing and appalling at the same time.”
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