Smorgasbord Writer in Residence – Back by Popular Request – The Party’s Over – Cabaret : the Evolution of a Musical by Paul Andruss

Paul Andruss was unable to join in with his usual amazing posts over the End of Summer Party, but he has written an exclusive piece to end the party week with a flourish… Thanks Paul…you are a star…

Most of us are familiar with the musical Cabaret, but Paul goes into the background and the real life characters that morphed into Sally Bowles and the rest of the cast.

Cabaret: the Evolution of a Musical by Paul Andruss

In 1931 Christopher Isherwood moved to Berlin, aged 26. At the time Christopher said he moved to escape the stifling confines of upper middle class England. He did, but later admitted the main attraction was the laissez-faire attitude of Berlin’s working class young men inhabiting the sexual underworld.

These young men were happy be available to comparatively wealthy foreigners, not in a professional capacity, more as ‘young brothers’. They received accommodation, meals, drinks, clothes and gifts; borrowed money they never intended to pay back, to ultimately squander on the female prostitutes they became infatuated with. It is a mistake to see them as victims. Consider them as business men wheeling and dealing in what they had to hand, so to speak.

Paris had long been the city for lovers. Not to be out done by its rival, between the wars Berlin reinvented itself as the city of eroticism and decadence, as Amsterdam would do in the late 60s. The 1930s saw a world-wide depression. In 1932 a third of all working men in Germany’s Weimar Republic were unemployed.

Berlin fascinated the world. Many saw the city as a microcosm of the future in Europe and North America. Bloody street battles between the partisans of international communism and nationalist fascism were already playing out not only in Berlin and Paris but across Spain and Italy. In America and Britain there was a sense of impending revolution. Although critics vainly pointed out, there was little to choose between Communism and Fascism, the only thing that concerned most people was which side would win.

Isherwood wrote a best-selling novel and a short story collection about his time in Berlin. The most famous was Sally Bowles. Allied victory in the Second World War increased the public’s fascination with Isherwood’s account of the rise of Nazism. The other way round, his books would have been proscribed and burned.

In 1951 John Van Druten wrote a Broadway play based on the Berlin stories, focusing on Isherwood and Sally Bowles’ platonic friendship, explained in the play by presenting Isherwood as a driven writer and Sally’s fear of destroying their friendship with a sexual dalliance. Van Druten took his title from Goodbye to Berlin’s opening line: ‘I am a camera’.

In the play Sally and Christopher are English, as they were in life. Christopher is drawn to the bright brittle Sally, who has a habit of choosing the wrong men. Sally is pretty but talentless; singing in a rundown cabaret club while waiting to become a movie star.

The crisis comes when a wealthy American playboy gets Christopher and Sally to show him around Berlin. By the time he leaves Sally is pregnant. Gentlemanly Christopher, now in love, offers to marry Sally.

Sally cannot renounce her chaotic bohemian existence for respectability. She has an abortion and blithely talks about going to Paris with another man she has just met to become a movie star. Christopher returns to England alone.

The musical Cabaret followed in 1966. Originally it was conceived as a straight play prefaced by a number of songs sung in the seedy Kit Kat Cabaret club where Sally worked. The play quickly transformed into standard musical format, featuring the cast singing about their emotions, while keeping the cabaret-stage songs to comment on the social changes during the Nazis rise to power.

One such song If You Could See Her Through My Eyes is sung by the MC about his love for a female gorilla. It ends with the line: ‘If you could see her through my eyes she wouldn’t look Jewish at all’. Meant as a condemnation of the German people’s attitude change that dehumanised fellow Jewish citizens, it worked too well on the stage. It so outraged American Jewish groups the last line was changed to a Yiddish word meaning different. The original lyrics were reinserted in the 1972 film of the musical.

The musical’s plot was simple. A love story between American Cliff Bradshaw (Bradshaw was Isherwood’s mother’s maiden name) an innocent abroad in Berlin looking for inspiration for his great novel, and the unchanged Sally Bowles.

Out went the play’s secondary characters and in came the doomed courtship of the boarding house landlady by a Jewish grocer. She abandons him initially because of fear and finally because her attitude hardens against the Jews.

The main action takes place in the Kit Kat Cabaret club. The ending remains the same. Pregnant Sally has an abortion and returns to her old job as a cabaret singer where she sings the title song: a paean to recklessly seizing the day.

When Bob Fosse made a film in 1972, Sally (Liza Minelli) became American and Cliff, renamed Brian, was a stuffy closeted homosexual Englishman. Fosse returned to the original idea of a play with music, keeping almost all the songs to stage numbers in the club. The exceptions were Tomorrow Belongs to Me and Married (Hieraten).

Tomorrow Belongs to Me originally sung by the club’s pro-nazi waiters, was given to a young boy in the Hitler Youth. Originally sung by the landlady Hieraten appears as a German gramophone record Sally plays.

Around 20 show numbers were cut and two new numbers added: Sally’s Maybe this Time and The Money Song (replacing a similar themed-song Sitting Pretty). Fosse reintroduced elements from the play in favour of the musical such as the love story between gigilo Fritz and the wealth Jewish heiress Natalia Landauer. He also reintroduced the playboy who knocks up Sally in the form of a wealthy German aristocrat.

By 1972 women’s liberation and sexual liberation were powerful voices. Fosse used both elements to make the film relevant. Brian was explicitly gay, although he falls for, and has sex with, Sally. The aristocratic playboy was a bisexual who in the words of the script…

Brian: ‘Screw Max.’

Sally: ‘I do.’

Brian: ‘So do I.’

Sally was less of a victim and genuinely talented as befitted Liza with a Z. Although Brian offers to marry her and make her respectable, she fears their love will become eroded by his homosexual slips and her penchant for booze and the odd casual screw. She has the abortion and returns to the Cabaret as a single independent woman. When she sings Cabaret it is a fierce declaration of independence and a rejection of the bourgeois values.

Both points resonated with the audience.

The film ends in the same way as the musical with the MC, reprising the opening song that welcomed the audience and invited them to forget their troubles. Now the MC hopes their troubles are forgotten and wishes them Auf Wiedersehen, A bientot, but not Goodbye. In the distorted mirror over hanging the stage is reflected an audience wearing the brown shirts of Hitler’s SA, later replaced by the SS.

The film’s portrayal of controversial issues earned it an Adults Only certificate: the first time one was given to a musical. I saw it when I was 15 with my 11 year old brother. Heaven knows how we got into the cinema. I don’t think they really cared. My brother hated it, whereas I, at threshold of adulthood, was enthralled. I have always cherished two of film’s ideas incorporating them into my personal mantra for life.

From The Money Song:

Money makes the world go round, of that we both are sure. Pfffit on being POOR!

From the song Two Ladies:

Twoseees beats onesees, but nothing beats threes

When the stage musical of Cabaret was revived in 1993 London, times had changed. The director Sam Mendes could not in all justice ignore the iconic film. He not only included the two songs written for the film but also kept the frank adult themes while keeping to the original musical book and score. American Cliff kisses one of the boys in the Kit Kat Club.

At the end of the musical when the MC is singing Auf Wiedersehen, A bientot, he takes off his coat to show his concentration camp uniform: striped pyjamas sewn with the yellow star of the Jew and the pink triangle of the homosexual. Reminding us how the Nazis dealt with those they considered sub-human and degenerate.

For his star, Mendes chose 29 year old Jane Horrocks as Sally Bowles. Little Voice, a play and later a film, was written to show off Horrocks incredible vocal range, control and talent for mimicry. It was about a reclusive young woman pushed into the limelight through her talent to mimic distinctive singers such as Shirley Bassey, Judy Garland and Gracie Fields.

So I leave you with Jane Horrocks as Sally Bowles.

Sally has had the abortion. She wants to continue with her career. She and Cliff argue. He says she has no talent and the only way she ever gets a job is by sleeping with the club owner.

Watching Horrocks sing Cabaret is probably one of the most chilling things you will ever see: a complete mental breakdown in 4 minutes flat. It is the perfect metaphor for a country living on its nerves, that is about to consign itself, and the world, to flames.

Everyone who wants to write should read Isherwood. His prose is stark, elegant, clear, erudite, multi-layered and devastatingly witty. No wonder he was considered one of the most gifted novelists of his generation.

I have finished re-reading Christopher and his Kind after a 30 year gap. He is a joy to read. If you want to learn more about Isherwood’s time in Berlin in the 1930s try watching the no-holds-barred BBC production of the book. Matt Smith looks uncannily like a young Isherwood. You can watch the video here:

The portrayal of Sally Bowles in the novella and subsequently in the play, musical and film infuriated Sally’s real-life inspiration Jean Ross. Intelligent and serious, Jean was a lifelong communist. She died of cervical cancer in 1973 after meeting up, and making up, with Christopher Isherwood three years earlier.

Jean Ross: the original Sally Bowles (Wikipedia)

©Paul Andruss 2018

About Paul Andruss

Paul Andruss is a writer whose primary focus is to take a subject, research every element thoroughly and then bring the pieces back together in a unique and thought provoking way. His desire to understand the origins of man, history, religion, politics and the minds of legends who rocked the world is inspiring. He does not hesitate to question, refute or make you rethink your own belief system and his work is always interesting and entertaining. Whilst is reluctant to talk about his own achievements he offers a warm and generous support and friendship to those he comes into contact with.

Paul Andruss is the author of 2 contrasting fantasy novels

Thomas the Rhymer

Thomas the Rhymer – a magical fantasy for ages 11 to adult about a boy attempting to save fairy Thomas the Rhymer, while trying to rescue his brother from a selfish fairy queen.

Finn Mac Cool

Finn Mac Cool – rude, crude and funny, explicitly sexual and disturbingly violent, Finn Mac Cool is strictly for adults only.

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Thank you for dropping by today and please feel free to share the post on your own blog and networks. Thanks Sally

47 thoughts on “Smorgasbord Writer in Residence – Back by Popular Request – The Party’s Over – Cabaret : the Evolution of a Musical by Paul Andruss

  1. HI Sally/Paul
    I knew the history behind the musical but had forgotten most of it. Thanks for bringing it back. I had also forgotten that they changed several of the songs when they made the movie. Years ago there was a play touring call “The Pink Triangle” It was very disturbing to me because I was in the process of coming out. Then I went to see the movie “Making Love” and I knew my decision to accept myself was the right decision. Great post. HUGS

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Pingback: Smorgasbord Blog Magazine – Weekly Round Up – “Life is a Cabaret” of music, fantastic food, laughter and good health.. and great guests. | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

  3. Pingback: Smorgasbord Writer in Residence – Back by Popular Request – The Party’s Over – Cabaret : the Evolution of a Musical – K. DeMers Dowdall

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