For more than 30 years, Sally Bowles has sung out to the world that "life is a cabaret." Well, now Cabaret is a cabaret.
The Tony Award-winning 1966 Kander and Ebb musical set in Germany just before the rise of Hitler is being revived at the former Club Expo in the old Henry Miller's Theatre on W. 43rd St. Club Expo has been renamed and transformed into the Kit Kat Klub, the cabaret of Cabaret, complete with bar, tables, banquettes, food and drink. And when the show's leering devil-doll of an emcee cries "Wilkommen!" to the denizens of that quintessentially decadent nightspot, those inhabitants include the audience.
"It's rough, it's dirty, it's in your face," says Sam Mendes, the revival's director, whose critically acclaimed staging of the musical at London's Donmar Warehouse in 1993 was the seed for the current, newly revised Roundabout Theatre Company production. "It's an accurate re-creation of a club in Weimar Berlin in the thirties. It's mischievous. It's fun. It's unexpected. You've got a drink in your hand. The actors are not always where you think they're going to be. The music is played by the cast, not by a conventional band. When you walk in the front door, you walk into their world, not into a conventional theatre. The rules are different. It's a 360-degree experience."
The musical is based on Christopher Isherwood's The Berlin Stories and the 1952 John Van Druten play I Am a Camera. The 1966 production, with book by Joe Masteroff, won eight Tony Awards, including ones for its director, Harold Prince, and for Best Featured Actor, Joel Grey, as the emcee; the 1972 Bob Fosse movie garnered Oscars for Grey and for Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles. The 1998 version, which incorporates songs written for the movie and has a revised book by Masteroff, stars Natasha Richardson as Sally, the bohemian night-club performer; Alan Cumming as the emcee; and Ron Rifkin as Herr Shultz. Rob Marshall is co-director and choreographer.
"It's really about the central mystery of the 20th century how Hitler could have happened," says Mendes, 32, who has staged productions for the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre and the Donmar, which he has headed for the last six years. "And it's important that we go on asking the question whether or not we can find some sort of answer. Cabaret uses the
entertainment, the atmosphere, the lure and the allure of the club to pull the audience in and show them what they have become a part of by sitting and watching it. And that central metaphor is the reason for setting the show in the club. It turns out to be the club that puts on the story rather than a story that contains within it a club." For Natasha Richardson, known for her roles in the films Nell and The Handmaid's Tale and for her stirring Anna Christie at the Roundabout in 1993, taking on the part of Sally was a multiple challenge. Sally, Richardson says, "is eccentric and vulnerable and strange and extraordinary. She's like a lot of girls around today people who want the life but don't really understand about putting in the work. I love what Christopher Isherwood said about her: 'She was lovable in a way that no human could ever quite be, since, being a creature of art, she had been created out of pure love.' I think that's true. She can be so spoiled and myopic and selfish, but you can't help adoring her."
For Ron Rifkin familiar to theatregoers for The Substance of Fire and Three Hotels and to moviegoers as the district attorney in L.A. Confidential the role of the romantic widower Shultz is a way of returning to his first love, singing.
"I grew up in Brooklyn and trained to be a cantor," Rifkin says. "And my first jobs as a kid were in musicals. But then my career went elsewhere. I've been wanting to do a musical for a long time."
Rifkin says that Shultz, who falls in love with Fraulein Schneider (Mary Louise Wilson) only to get caught up in the terrible changes happening in his native country, "is a beautiful character. He very much loves this woman. But he's one of those Germans who didn't really believe he would ever not be a German, one of those Jews who just didn't see it happening. And I know from my own experience about German Jews who got out in time, and I've heard the stories about those who didn't because they didn't believe it was going to happen."
The pivotal role of the emcee, long Joel Grey's trademark, is the purview of Alan Cumming the only Donmar veteran in the current cast a 32-year-old Scotsman who was nominated for an Olivier Award in London for the 1993 production.
"The emcee in this production is the overseer of the whole show and not just the club," Cumming says. "The atmosphere of the evening is very much of his making. He's down and dirty. He's come up from the streets, and he brings the streets with him. My take is that he's a drug addict. You can see the track marks on his body from the drugs. And as the play progresses, with the rise of fascism, the emcee gets more and more debauched."
A crucial part of the evening's atmosphere is the dancing, provided in the original by Ron Field and this year by Rob Marshall, whose credits include Victor/Victoria. Marshall says his main goal was to make the dance sequences "more expressionistic or angular, more connected to the rest of the musical. There'll be moments when something looks too slick, too good. I have to go back and distort it, rip it apart, make it look like it's actually happening, not even in a second-rate cabaret but almost a third-rate cabaret, so it connects with the broken light bulbs and the runs in the stockings and the track marks on the arms."
Cabaret, says Mendes, is a musical that is meant to disturb the audience. "And yet," he says, "you want to go back and see it again. It upsets you, and yet it is truly entertaining. It holds within itself all those polarities. And that to me is what makes a great work of art."