From "Goodbye to Berlin" to I Am a Camera, A History of Cabaret's Journey to the Stage

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11 Apr 2014

Christopher Isherwood
Christopher Isherwood

John Kander and Joe Masteroff discuss the history of Cabaret and the process of collaborating with Harold Prince while adapting the novel and play into a musical.


Little did novelist Christopher Isherwood know when he published his 1939 novella "Goodbye to Berlin" — a semi-autobiographical account of his own time in Berlin in the 1930s — what an afterlife the book would have.

Well, not the book itself, exactly, though "Goodbye to Berlin" remains in print and is certainly still read. But the characters he created, including the English #cabaret singer Sally Bowles (the surname was borrowed from novelist Paul Bowles), have had a much more vibrant and public life on stage than they have on the page.

The novel was first adapted for the stage by British playwright John Van Druten. He called it I Am a Camera and focused on the character of Sally, just one of many figures in Isherwood's stories. The title is taken from the opening line of the novel, which runs, "I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking." When it bowed on Broadway, it was one of Van Druten's biggest successes and helped make its Sally Bowles, Julie Harris, a star.

Isherwood himself was impressed by the actress. "Miss Harris was more essentially Sally Bowles than the Sally of my book," he said, "and much more like Sally than the real girl who long ago gave me the idea for my character." Four years later it was made into a film, again starring Harris, which was not a success.

That might have been stage triumph enough for any literary work. But 15 years after I Am a Camera debuted, director-producer Harold Prince saw something more in the story. He acquired the rights to both the Van Druten and Isherwood material, and drafted librettist Joe Masteroff (with whom he had worked on She Loves Me, and who had worked with Harris on his own play The Warm Peninsula) and the relatively unknown composers John Kander and Fred Ebb to create a musical around the story.

Prince, Kander recalled, was very much in charge of the show's vision. "Hal invented this piece, you have to understand, and we were thrilled to be asked to be a part of it," Kander told "The show was developed in Hal's living room. We met over and over and over, talking about what if this happened, what if that happened. Out of all of that talking, music came, narrative came. It all seemed to grow on the same tree. Hal had a lot of physical vision of how he wanted the show to look like. Those meetings were very rich. He had certain things he wanted to do that he told us about."

Kander, Ebb and Prince were certain they had hatched a golden idea for a musical. Others, however, were not so sure. "A lot of people said to us afterwards, 'What on earth are you doing?'," remembered Kander. "But it seemed obvious to us that it was a great idea."


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