Gritty national tour of ‘Cabaret’ comes to Peace Center
Paul Hyde, [email protected] 12:21 p.m. EST March 10, 2016
The creators of “Cabaret” knew they had a bombshell on their hands.
The time was 1966. Their new musical, unlike anything seen before, was set in a tawdry 1930s Berlin nightclub and included Nazis, an abortion and themes of antisemitism.
“We were always worried,” said the 96-year-old Joe Masteroff, who wrote the book for “Cabaret.”
“We were not sure audiences would accept the show because there had never been anything quite like it,” he said. “It was daring — the words we used, the things we talked about. We didn’t know if we’d get away with it.”
But audiences flocked to the show — then, as they do now.
The Roundabout Theatre Company’s national tour of “Cabaret” arrives at the Peace Center on Tuesday following a successful Broadway run and raves along the road.
The Tony Award-winning musical centers on a 19-year-old English cabaret performer, Sally Bowles, and her relationship with the young American writer Cliff Bradshaw.
Most of the story is set in the seedy Kit Kat Klub, overseen by a wickedly funny emcee.
The score by John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics) features several songs and showstoppers that became hits: “Maybe This Time,” “Money,” “Mein Herr,” “Willkommen” and, of course, the title song.
Despite the worries of its creators, the original Broadway “Cabaret” and its subsequent revivals were showered with awards.
“We took a helluva chance and we won,” Masteroff said, speaking by phone from his home on 57th Street in New York City.
“Audiences seem to love it, and God bless ’em,” he said.
The original 1966 Broadway show won eight Tony Awards, including for Best Musical.
The version coming to Greenville for eight performances through Sunday is based on the gritty 1998 Broadway revival, which won four Tony Awards, including for Best Revival.
Decadent fun and menace
Actor Randy Harrison, perhaps best known as Justin Taylor in the Showtime drama “Queer as Folk,” was a theater student when he saw the 1998 Broadway revival.
Now, he’s playing the emcee on the national tour.
“When I first saw the show, it blew my mind,” Harrison said. “It does a remarkable job of making 1931 Berlin so current — the cabaret scene, the political turmoil, and the economic desperation and uncertainty. It makes you feel like you’re living there, too.”
Harrison’s emcee strives to make the audience in a large hall like the Peace Center feel like everyone is in an intimate cabaret.
In theater parlance, Harrison “breaks the fourth wall,” interacting with audience members and even bringing a few people on stage for a dance.
“Cabaret” opens in an atmosphere of decadent fun. It’s only later that the full extent of the Nazi menace becomes apparent, and it’s signaled in part by the growing desperation of some characters.
“I’m the fun, crazy nice guy in the beginning,” Harrison said, speaking by phone from a tour stop in Des Moines. “Suddenly, I become upset and angry as the tone of the political climate changes in Berlin.”
The story’s gradual progression from joy to fear and anxiety may have been a canny theatrical stroke, but it wasn’t necessarily planned, Masteroff said.
“When you’re writing something, things just happen,” he said. “After it was written, you think, Oh, that was a great idea! Or, Oh, that was a bomb!”
Though “Cabaret” is set in Nazi-era Germany, its concerns about hatred and bigotry resonate strongly today, Harrison said.
“The show was written in response to the civil rights movement, specifically race riots in the South,” said Harrison, a native of Atlanta. “The writers saw the parallels between the hatred and bigotry then and antisemitism and hatred in the Third Reich. I think the show is always relevant, especially during an election year when hatred and bigotry are used to motivate a voting populace.”
He added, “The show feels important. There’s nothing as satisfying as when you’re doing something that can change minds or make people think in a different way. That’s thrilling.”
A charmed life
“Cabaret” was adapted into a 1972 film, starring Liza Minnelli. It was a hit, though Masteroff is no fan.
The movie downplayed the show’s provocative elements, including antisemitism.
“It weakened the show enormously,” Masteroff said. “The director of the movie version (Bob Fosse) said he didn’t think a musical should have anything serious.”
The movie also reduced the role of one of Masteroff's favorite characters, Fraulein Schneider, who represents the Germans who resisted Hitler.
“I specifically wrote scenes in which you saw German people who hated Hitler,” he said. “You can’t judge a whole people by what some did.”
Masteroff was asked to write the book of “Cabaret” by the director Hal Prince, who had worked with Masteroff on another musical, "She Loves Me."
“Cabaret” is based on John Van Druten’s 1951 play “I Am a Camera," which in turn was adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s short 1939 novel “Goodbye to Berlin.”
Born in Philadelphia in 1919, Masteroff got his start in the theater in 1949 by attending classes for World War II veterans given by the American Theatre Wing.
“They were having classes in theater if you wanted to be an actor or a playwright or design scenery,” Masteroff said. “They had some very good teachers. I applied for it and got in. That was the beginning of my career and it was so easy. People spend years running around to agents and producers and I didn’t have to do that. They came to me.”
Masteroff, also known for the play “The Warm Peninsula," said he’s lived a charmed life.
“I have been lucky all my life,” he added. “Wonderful things have happened to me. They just came to me on a silver platter. I always wanted to be a playwright as a very young child, and that’s what I got to be.”
Masteroff is no longer writing shows but he’s resisted any temptation to exit the theater completely and retire to the suburbs.
“I never officially retired,” he said. “Age sneaked up on me but only about a year ago. People started saying, ‘Your 95th birthday is coming up.’ I started getting warm wishes and gifts from people. That’s when I figured out that this is a significant thing — being 95. I got a little old to start a big show. But it’s fun living in the world of the theater. I’m on the 39th floor, facing New York and Central Park, and it’s an inspiring sight.”
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