This show is mostly known for being an amazing vehicle for brilliant high-concept direction, with Harold Prince’s original production, Bob Fosse’s film version, and Sam Mendes’ revival in the Nineties featuring some of the most groundbreaking and shockingly original staging and presentation in Broadway history. But it’s also interesting to examine the show purely as a composition, because almost no other book and score could have provided the opportunity for such unique and subversive stage magic.
The show’s book varies a good bit from production to production, and the movie version uses a totally different side story taken from the original source material, but in any version, it is one of theater’s most tense, penetrating and tragic, one of those rare musicals librettos that would be masterpieces even without the songs. It deals quite honestly with the blind, desperate hedonism of the titular club, the dilemma of dealing with the choice between sacrificing yourself to oppose a tyrannical regime or acquiescing and surviving, and the seductive power that none of us want to believe Nazi ideology really had on people not all that different from you and me.
The score is also outstanding. The most famous numbers are the utterly riveting opener “Willkommen”, and the hit title-song, which is often presented as a carpe diem anthem, but when heard in the context of the show, reveals itself to be an emotionally desperate attempt to force happiness from out of the depths of misery. But everything in the score is excellent, which is particularly impressive since, like Show Boat, Candide or Jekyll and Hyde, this is one of those scores that consists of a huge body of songs that each revival can pick and choose from, because they could never possibly all fit into the same production at once.
The score is divided into traditional musical-theater songs that spring directly from the action, and surreal nightclub numbers that comment sardonically on the action. The latter are definitely the more iconic half of the score, with gems like the deliciously naughty “Don’t Tell Mama”, the mock-sentimental “If You Could See Her” with its shocking final line, and two alternate attempts at a brutal satire of wealth and poverty, “Sitting Pretty” and “Money, Money”.
With so much attention paid to the Kit Kat Club numbers, the more traditional half of the score often gets neglected (Fosse’s film simply deleted it entirely) , which is a shame, as it is, if not quite as unique as the onstage numbers, an extremely well-executed musicalization of this story. For aging landlady Fraulein Schneider, it indulges in some rather appropriate, given the time period and setting, Brecht-Weill pastiche in the world-weary “So What?” and the painfully honest “What Would You Do?” (it probably didn’t hurt that the original performer in the part was Lotte Lenya herself). And if the charm songs she shares with her Jewish beau Herr Schultz, like “It Couldn’t Please Me More” and “Married”, may seem a little out of place in this dark, gritty piece, their blissful sweetness only makes it all the more devastating when the rise of the Nazis forces them to separate.
But perhaps the brightest gem of all in the score is the fictional Nazi anthem “Tomorrow Belongs To Me”, one of Broadway’s greatest villain songs, precisely because it doesn’t sound like a villain song. By giving this amazingly pretty and stirring tune to some of history’s greatest monsters, they offer a horrifying demonstration of how seemingly decent people could be sucked in by this hateful ideology.
This is one of the most powerful and disturbing works in Broadway history, and it’s really amazing how many different interpretations the material has allowed for. Prince’s original production set the template, of course, and while some of his successors have shortsightedly accused him of being too tame in his treatment of the material, everything done with the show later is a result of his conception of what was, at the time, a whole new kind of theater. Joel Grey gave one of Broadway’s greatest performances as the mocking, inscrutable Emcee, and while the original Sally, Jill Haworth, was a bit underwhelming, the London version of this production featured a titanic performance by the great Judy Dench herself.
Fosse, with his ultra-realistic, non-musical outside world creating a striking contrast with the merrily twisted Bacchanalia in the club, kept Grey but cast the legendary Liza Minnelli as Sally. Many have complained about this, since Sally is supposed to be a no-talent fraud and is usually cast with an actress who can just barely sing, but in effect on film is to heighten the impression that these musical numbers are not actually happening in a literal sense, and to strengthen Sally’s dependence on the club because it seems only there is she really someone special.
And Sam Mendes’ revised productions in the Nineties managed to make the show shocking again without losing its intelligence or sophistication. Alan Cumming managed to find a way to play the Emcee that was completely and utterly different from Joel Grey’s, a near-impossible feat when following such an iconic performance, and the darkness and decadence of the show was upped to almost nightmarish levels, resulting in one of the most stunning and disturbing, yet still fantastically entertaining, theater experiences of all time. And who knows? Maybe in another twenty years some other theatrical visionary will come along and find more possibilities in this incredibly complex and utterly unique work and make it dazzle the world with its innovations yet again.