When the musical “Cabaret” opened in 1966, Fred Ebb, who wrote the lyrics to John Kander’s music, said that the play is about “The act of being committed.” The Kit Kat Club, the setting for the play, is a place of escape (even denial) from the political realities of early 1930s Berlin, where the Nazi party is muscling its way to power in an economy devastated by hyper inflation.
“No use permitting some prophet of doom / To wipe every smile away,” sings Sally Bowles, the cabaret star who is at the center of the play, and who says of the events happening outside the club, “It’s only politics, and what’s that got to do with us?”
Many viewers are familiar with the 1972 movie adaptation that starred Liza Minnelli as Bowles and Michael York as American writer Cliff Bradshaw (renamed Brian Roberts in the film version). For Joseph Haj, who is directing PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of the musical that opens this weekend, the play “has as much to tell our world today as it did in the late 1960s.” Haj and company have worked to create a production that reflects that continuing relevance, and that puts PlayMakers’ stamp on the production.
Since it was introduced, “Cabaret” has never fallen out of favor as a play, leaving a lot of precedent for staging. “I very consciously chose collaborators who I thought would have the courage and the inclination” not to follow precedent, Haj said.
One of those many collaborators is Lisa Brescia, who plays Bowles. One of her challenges has been to put aside Minnelli or any previous stage production of “Cabaret.” The process wasn’t so hard because “our director [gave us] total permission to treat this play as if it was brand new and no one had played this part before,” Brescia said. She and other actors and artistic staff have been able to explore the possibilities in the story because of PlayMakers’ “slow luxurious process of rehearsal,” she said. “We’ve had that amount of time to build that stamina methodically and thoroughly and not feel rushed.”
Another collaborator is Jennifer Caprio, who designed the costumes. For “The Money Song,” Caprio designed a fabric for The Kit Kat girls and the Emcee with a pattern made of Deutschmarks. Another print designed for a dress for Bowles has images of giant zeppelins. (The PlayMakers blog site discusses the process of creating both fabrics using digital imaging.)
The challenge of designing this play is being true to 1930s Berlin while giving the audience a vehicle to understand the politics of the time, Caprio said. The fabric prints of Deutschmarks and the zeppelins allow the production “a way to make a political commentary” on what is happening in the play, she said.
Caprio has worked on numerous new musicals, which present the challenge of having to create everything during the process. With “Cabaret,” the characters are “so beautifully written” and offer a designer many possibilities. “It’s actually one of my favorite pieces I’ve worked on in a long time because it’s so creative, and [Haj] is the kind of director who lets his designers have an immense amount of freedom,” she said.
That freedom flows logically from a play that Haj said broke new ground in the American musical theater. Part of that breakthrough is the way the book, written by Joe Masterhoff (and based in part on the stories of Christopher Isherwood) and the music are related. In many American musicals, songs arise from some moment of realization, or contemplation, but in “Cabaret,” every song flows logically from a scene in which music and performance would happen organically, Haj said.
“Cabaret” also blended music, much of it satirical, with what was still for many a fresh wound. “The first songs for this play were copyrighted in 1962, so you’re not even 20 years away from the horrors” of the Holocaust, Haj said. “The creators grew up in World War II, so they are really wrestling with a society that lost its moral conscience. … To this date, it provides a brilliant snapshot of Berlin in the days before Hitler.”
In “Cabaret,” Bowles has an affair with Cliff Bradshaw (played by John Dreher), who slowly comes to realize the nature of the smuggling he does for Ernst Ludwig (played by Brett Bolton). One central story of the stage play that is not developed in the movie is the doomed love affair between Herr Schultz (played by Jeffrey Blair Cornell), a Jew, and Fraulein Schneider (played by Julie Fishell). The Emcee, played by Taylor Mac, has been allowed to ad-lib at times and has brought to the production “a sense of spontaneity which we are marveling in each day,” Brescia said. “Hopefully the audience will see a ‘Cabaret’ that they will not have seen before.”