A Life in the Theatre: Joe Masteroff On How Julie Harris Changed His Life

Meet Joe Masteroff, librettist for Cabaret, She Loves Me and more.

Joe Masteroff
Joe Masteroff (Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN)

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"I don't recall a time when I didn't know I wanted to write plays," Joe Masteroff says. "I think it was the first thing I said when I was born."

That desire enshrined Masteroff in Broadway history as the librettist of the ground-breaking and now classic Cabaret, which won the Tony Award in 1967 as Best Musical and in 1998 as Best Musical Revival. A reproduction of that 1998 reimagined version, with Alan Cumming reprising his Tony-winning role as the Emcee, is at Roundabout Theatre Com­pany's Studio 54. Sam Mendes again directs; Rob Marshall again co-directs and choreographs.

Masteroff, 94, was born in Philadelphia, "into a very lucky family for someone who wanted to write plays—my parents went to theatre and opera." In World War II, he served in the Army Air Corps.

In the late 1940s, "when I finally decided it was time to come to New York and start my career, I knew nobody. Just by chance the American Theatre Wing was starting a school for Army veterans. One course was playwriting. It was like they'd been waiting for me."

A decade later, he had his first Broadway play, The Warm Peninsula, a 1959 comedy starring Julie Harris. "I had been writing plays for a fairly long time, with no money but a lot of encouragement. One day my agent called and said 'Joe, I've got wonderful news. Julie Harris wants to do your play.' I said, 'Which play?' He told me and said, 'Not only that, she wants to tour for a year throughout the United States and then bring it to New York.' That day my life changed."

After the tour the play lasted 86 Broadway performances, "and it closed not too successfully." But then he got a phone call asking if he'd be interested in writing the book for a musical that Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (Pulitzer Prize and Tony winners for Fiorello!) were doing.

"I said I'd never written a book for a musical, and [the caller] said, 'But somebody who saw The Warm Peninsula thinks you're the person for this show.'" The show was She Loves Me, and Masteroff was nominated for a Tony.

The producer and director was Harold Prince, whose producing credits include West Side Story, The Pajama Game, and Fiorello! He soon after asked Masteroff to write the book to a musical version of John van Druten's 1951 play I Am a Camera. The musical was Cabaret, the story of singer Sally Bowles, the disintegrating world of pre-Nazi Berlin, and a master of ceremonies — played originally by Joel Grey — at a Berlin nightclub where the internal doings mirror the external decay. Prince would produce and direct; the composer and lyricist were John Kander and Fred Ebb.

"We knew we were doing a show with terribly dangerous things" for Broadway in the 1960s, Masteroff says. "Musicals about abortions and Nazis were not particularly popular in those days." Some theatre people, he says, "said they could never sell a ticket because people would be shocked if we tried anything that vulgar onstage. We went right ahead, thanks largely to Hal Prince, who was young and very brave." Masteroff shared the Best Musical Tony.

Changes in the show over the years, Masteroff says, are due in part to contributions by Cumming, who "loves to write" and whose work has substantially increased the Emcee's role. "I've told him that a lot of what he writes is better than mine."

As for work these days, Masteroff says with a laugh, "I look ahead to the fact that nobody gets very far past 94."