1. Cabaret is a landmark. When it opened in 1967 it was arguably the first Broadway hit to deal with subject matter that had been repressed, or at least buried, by the trauma of World War II and the Holocaust.
2. Cabaret is a very odd show. It’s a fragmented one too. I like its oddity and fragmentation, sometimes—I think they’re part of the show’s appeal.
3. Cabaret is both a musical revue and a traditional book musical. This hybrid mirrors the duality of the show’s setting: life in Berlin just before Hitler comes to power, and life in the Weimar-era cabarets.
4. This duality extends to the tone of Cabaret, which is split. The scenes in the cabaret are strong, vulgar, primal, and gloriously immoral (or at least amoral). As recounted by the narrator, the scenes of daily life in Berlin—adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s mild, punch-pulling, autobiographical Berlin Stories—are soft, tentative, very traditional, and at times forgettable in their blandness. The music is sweet, though some songs are sentimental (and empty) in a very old-Broadway kind of way.
5. The show needs the chaotic, sexy, self-destructive Sally Bowles. She is Cabaret‘s Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Or rather, its Manic Pixie Nightmare Girlfriend. Without her the narrator-protagonist would be just a depressed and depressing cipher sitting alone in his room, typing out a novel no one will ever read.
6. The chaotic, evil world of the Kit Kat Klub is much more interesting and resonant than the plot of the scenes outside the club (twin love stories, both of which have sad, predictable endings).
7. As for John Kander and Fred Ebb’s songs, in both Cabaret and their subsequent work (Chicago; the theme song to New York, New York; The Visit), the duo are at their best when musicalizing chaotic, morally ambivalent, unresolved, or unresolvable situations (like the dark world of the Kit Kat Klub). They’re not as good at handling lighter, more conventional songs, the kind associated with traditionally well-crafted book musicals. These two may have made a fortune off the tiresome ode they wrote for Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, but a close listen to that brash, irredeemably phony hit reveals every flaw of their less successful work: the timid echoes of other, older musical-theater songs and styles, the cliches and worn ideas of the lyrics (“I want to wake up in a city / That never sleeps / And find I’m a number one / Top of the list / King of the hill”).
8. Concordantly, there’s a seemingly paradoxical struggle in Kander and Ebb’s work between an attraction to primal, unrestrained, bohemian communities and a yearning for the conventional and “normal” world envisioned by pre-Stonewall, mainstream WASP America.
9. Bob Fosse—who directed both the movie version of Cabaret and the first stage version of Chicago—mocks this conventionality in his autobiographical 1979 movie All That Jazz. In one of the film’s pivotal scenes, theater director-choreographer Joe Gideon has turned a minor show tune into a groundbreaking, dark, hypersexual (of course) dance sequence. Everyone who sees it in rehearsal is stunned by the brilliant choreography—everyone, that is, except the show’s whiny songwriter, who crumbles into tears, moaning that now Sinatra will never record it. I’d argue the songwriter is meant to be a stand-in for Kander and Ebb. (In fact, All That Jazz is a fictional account of Fosse’s attempt to direct the premiere of Chicago at the same time he was editing the movie Lenny.)
10. Cabaret works as a show because, like Germany in the pre-Nazi era, it is at war with itself. The musical has no heroes. The audience is torn between loving and hating everyone in the story: the narrator because he is passive and gutless and disconnected from essential parts of himself; Sally Bowles because, while glorious, she’s such a mess; Frau Schneider; the Emcee. In the end, our conflicted feelings extend to the Kit Kat Klub, Berlin, and all of Germany.