Right this way, your table’s waiting

MATT NEWBURY LOOKS AT THE EXTRAORDINARY STORY BEHIND THE MUSICAL CABARET, A TALE OF HEDONISTIC EXCESS AT A TIME OF OMINOUS POLITICAL UPHEAVAL 

Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome. Without doubt the hottest tickets in town at the moment are for the new immersive production of Cabaret at the Playhouse Theatre in London. The capacity has been greatly reduced to just 650 guests and the theatre heavily modified to become the legendary Kit Kat Klub. With Oscar-winning actor Eddie Redmayne as the gender-bending Emcee at the anything-goes palace of decadence and the remarkably talented Jessie Buckley as the divinely decadent Sally Bowles, you know you are going to be in for a wild ride.

The story of Cabaret itself spans some 90 years, starting when author Christopher Isherwood travelled to Germany in 1929 to be with his friend, the poet WH Auden. The two gay men were both seeking intellectual stimulus and physical distractions and they certainly found that in an interwar Berlin, when the city was transitioning from being a hotbed of underground cultural debauchery to a totalitarian regime under Hitler’s Nazi Party. Auden was to return home, but Isherwood stayed for another four years, planning to write an epic novel about Berlin Life called The Lost. 

The planned book was never finished, but he did complete two short works based on his adventures in Berlin during the fading days of the Weimar Republic. Mr Norris Changes Trains was published in 1935 and then Goodbye to Berlin in 1939. Both have come to define a remarkable era of liberated underground clubs and the fascinating and carefree characters who inhabited them. Pleasure-seekers who were choosing to ignore of the horrors waiting just around the corner. The semi-autobiographical tales feature some of the finest prose you are ever likely to read, laced with empathy, wit and insight. 

Being the 1930s, Isherwood was unable to write openly about his homosexuality, although he is far more candid about his hedonistic Berlin sojourn in his later 1976 memoir, Christopher and His Kind. In Goodbye to Berlin, the author takes us on a famously detached tour of the city, introducing us to the colourful characters but revealing very little about himself along the way. In the book he famously writes, “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.”

The book introduces us to an English cabaret singer called Sally Bowles, who has a talent for ensnaring older, wealthy men. Based on Jean Ross, a real person who Isherwood befriended, the book goes on to reveal that underneath her flamboyant and nonchalant surface is a vulnerable and fractured child who is as out of control as everyone else amongst the bleak nihilism of the city. “You’re about as fatale as an after-dinner mint,” shouts one of her older suitors during an argument.

The book became the source material for a play called I Am a Camera by John Van Druten, which opened on Broadway in 1951. Critically acclaimed, it went on to win Julie Harris five Tony Awards as Sally Bowles, although not everyone liked it. In one of the shortest reviews in history, Walter Kerr from the New York Herald Tribune famously wrote “Me no Leica.” 

The play also erased any hint of Christopher Isherwood’s homosexuality, with his character having a relationship with Sally Bowles. The play was turned into a 1955 British comedy-drama which saw Julie Harris reviving her role as Sally. The X-rated film was both a mess and a critical flop, with Isherwood describing it as “disgusting ooh-la-la, near pornographic trash – a shameful exhibition.”

A musical based on I Am a Camera was first discussed around 1963, with Julie Andrews envisioned as Sally Bowles. Fortunately, her manager refused to let her get involved due to the immorality of the character. Three years later, producer Hal Prince gained control of the rights and brought in playwright Joe Masteroff to fashion a new script. He adapted the original stories still further, setting much of the story in the Kit Kat Klub (based on a real Berlin nightclub in the 1920s) and the lives of some of the characters outside of the club’s setting. The song writing team of John Kander and Fred Ebb created the unique score that includes songs like Willkommen, Tomorrow Belongs to Me, Maybe This Time and Cabaret.”

Opening on Broadway in 1966, Cabaret starred British actress Jill Haworth in the role of Sally Bowles and Joel Grey (father of Jennifer Grey) in the role of Emcee. The character of Christopher Isherwood was transformed into that of a heterosexual American writer called Clifford Bradshaw. With scantily clad Kit Kat Girls and a plot that dealt with both anti-Semitism and abortion, the musical was a far cry from The Sound of Music. The staging was also unusual, with no curtain as theatregoers arrived, just an empty stage with a large mirror reflecting back on the audience themselves. A drum roll and a cymbal crash then led into the opening number, Willkommen. 

It was all a huge risk but one that paid off. The show won eight Tony Awards, including best musical, score, director, choreographer and featured actor awards for Joel Grey and Peg Murray (Fräulein Kost). It ran for 1,165 performances in New York, with a West End production premiering in the West End in 1968. It starred Judi Dench in the role of Sally, with critic Ken Mandelbaum declaring that “Judi Dench was the finest of all the Sallys that appeared in Hal Prince’s original staging, and if she’s obviously not much of a singer, her Sally is a perfect example of how one can give a thrilling musical theatre performance without a great singing voice.”

“Cabaret became the first ever film musical to get an X Certificate”

The next incarnation of Isherwood’s Berlin memoirs was to be the film version that introduced most of us to the world of the Kit Kat Klub. Director and choreographer Bob Fosse encouraged the writers (Jay Allen and Hugh Wheeler) to go back to the source material. Cliff Bradshaw became Brian Roberts in the film version and went from heterosexual to bisexual. Another major change was that all but one of the songs in the film takes place in the club itself, as a metaphor for the decadence in 1930’s Berlin. 

Remarkably, Liza Minnelli had auditioned to play Sally Bowles in the original Broadway production but was deemed too inexperienced at the time. Michael York was to come onboard as her bisexual love interest Brian, while Joel Grey reprised his stage role as the Master of Ceremonies. 

Minnelli was to reinterpret the character of Sally, imitating film actress Louise Brooks, (who was a flapper dancer and sex symbol of the Jazz Age) at the suggestion of her stage director father. She also copied the spidery lashes, make-up and helmet-like hairstyle of Brooks’ character Lulu in the silent film, Pandora’s Box. Throw in a penchant for wearing bowler hats and underwear as outerwear, and you have one of the most outlandish gay icons in film history.

With its depiction of hedonistic club life and sexual innuendo, as well as an abortion, Cabaret became the first ever film musical to get an X Certificate (later rerated as 15). It was also a huge critical and commercial success, being nominated for 10 Academy Awards and winning eight of them including Best Director (Bob Fosse), Best Actress (Liza Minnelli), Best Supporting Actor (Joel Grey), Best Score and Best Screenplay. Famously, the film holds the record for the most Academy Awards for a film that didn’t win Best Picture. 

The musical theatre version of Cabaret has been revived a number of times over the years, including the 1993 London production directed by Sam Mendes. Starring Jane Horrocks as Sally, Adam Godley as Cliff and Alan Cumming as the Emcee, the production was queerer than any previous staging of the musical. While Joel Grey had always portrayed the Emcee role as fairly asexual, Cumming’s interpretation was a lot more sexualised, with red paint on his nipples and suspenders around his crotch. In the final scene, the Emcee removes his outer suit to reveal one resembling the ones worn by prisoners in a concentration camp. On it are pinned a yellow badge identifying Jews, a red star for Communists and a pink triangle signifying homosexuals. 

In 1998, the Sam Mendes production was revived on Broadway. Initially starring Natasha Richardson and Alan Cumming (who both won Tony Awards), it ran for incredible 2,377 performances. 

Over recent years the likes of Will Young and John Partridge have played Emcee in the UK, while in the States the role will always be synonymous with Alan Cumming. In 2013 the Sam Mendes production was revived for a final time at Studio 54 in New York. It was at this time that Alan Cumming converted his dressing room into a makeshift nightclub called Club Cumming (don’t Google that at work…) for after-show parties.  

After hosting more pop-up versions of the club in New York, LA, New Orleans and Edinburgh, Club Cumming has since become a physical nightclub on the Lower East Side. As you’d expect from the man who bought you Cumming the Fragrance(do check out the parody aftershave adverts online) the venue is suitably lavish, with velvet drapes, chandeliers and murals painted by his husband. Cumming has said he wants the club to be “a home for everyone of all ages, all genders, all sexualities, who enjoy letting go and making some mischief. No judgements, not attitude, no rules, except kindness, acceptance and fun.” 

Which takes us back to the back to the latest incarnation of the Kit Kat Klub in London and at a time when the world seems to be spinning just as out of control as ever. It’s lazy to say that the new production is “timely” and “vital,” as there have always been misfits and oddballs, eccentrics and queers who are just looking for a safe place to switch off, have fun and leave their troubles outside for a few hours. When you arrive at the Kit Kat Klub ahead of the performance to explore the club and enjoy some pre-show entertainment, you are given some simple instructions. “Relax, Loosen up. Be yourself. It’s 1930s Berlin. It’s 2020s London. It’s Then, it’s Now. Who knows how long it will reside here. For now, we’re enjoying the party. The party at the end of the world.”

Cabaret is on at The Playhouse Theatre, London, visit kitkat.club 

Pictures Marc Brenner