CABARET: A MIRROR OF ITS TIMES
American musicals hold a mirror up to our culture, hoping to reflect the issues of their day and the concerns of Americans. As a product of the tumultuous 1960s, the original Cabaret seduced and entertained while commenting on social issues and showing a frightening vision of our darkest potential.
The generation reared in the conservative 1950s became the counterculture youth of the ‘60s, and American society was divided by volatile conflicts. The African-American civil rights movement that began in the ‘50s was growing to involve large-scale nonviolent protests and civil disobedience. The National Organization for Women (NOW) was formed in 1966 in order to help gain full participation for American women in mainstream society and gain the same freedoms and privileges as American men of that time. President Lyndon B. Johnson promoted reforms to extend human rights, education, economic opportunities, and health care. Not all Americans supported these reforms, and some reacted with alarming violence. A rise of Klu Klux Klan activity in the south instigated beatings, shootings, and lynchings of activists.
Broadway was not immune to the cultural shocks of the era. The Broadway and Times Square district saw a rise in prostitution, adult shops, and derelicts (someone lacking personal possessions), which created a dangerous environment for theatregoing. Production costs were rising, and Broadway producers had to raise ticket prices: a top price of $12 in 1966 was the equivalent of $86 today. Prior to the rise of rock-and-roll in the mid-‘50s, show tunes were considered popular music—what played on Broadway played on the radio. By the ‘60s, an entire generation was listening to rock and pop instead of show music.
Broadway needed to reinvent itself and find a new relevance, and visionary directors like Bob Fosse, Gower Champion, and the emerging Harold Prince became more prominent and, sometimes, more identified with shows than the songwriters. With the rise of the director came the “concept musical,” described by critic Martin Gottfried as a show whose music, lyrics, choreography, and scenes are woven together to create “a tapestry-like theme” or central metaphor, more important than plot. Gottfried identified 2015 Broadway cast of CABARET. West Side Story (1957), Gypsy (1959), and Fiddler on the Roof (1964), as the first important concept musicals, and Cabaret is an important title in this genre.
By the early 1960s Harold Prince had a proven reputation as a producer and was emerging as a formidable director. At this time Prince was taking on the challenge of turning the play “I am a Camera” into a musical, but it was not until Prince received the first draft of the libretto from Joe Masteroff that he realized this was an opportunity to tell the story parallel to contemporary problems. Prince saw an opportunity to show these ties between racism in the U.S. and the rise of Nazism in the early 1930s through Cabaret. Prince brought on writing team John Kander (composer) and Fred Ebb (lyricist), whose first show, Flora the Red Menace, had premiered the year before. The team set out to create a show about civil rights and tell audiences that what happened in Germany could happen here. At his first rehearsal, Prince showed the cast a photograph of a group of angry young white men taunting a crowd off-camera. The cast assumed that it was a picture of Nazi youth harassing Jews; in fact, the picture was taken that year in Chicago, and the men were taunting black tenants of an integrated housing project. For a short time, Prince thought about ending the show with a film of the march on Selma, Alabama, though he abandoned that idea.
The original idea for the show was to begin with a prologue of cabaret-style songs to set the tone of Weimar Germany and then move into a straight play, but the team found that the songs worked better when distributed throughout the evening. As the show took shape as a more traditional musical, with some songs within book scenes, the cabaret world emerged as a central metaphor. The Brechtian device of songs that comment on the action rather than tell a story gave a central function to the Emcee character. Designer Boris Aronson conceived the production’s penultimate metaphor: a giant mirror center stage reflected the audience and reinforced the message that “it could happen here.”
After previewing in Boston, the play opened in November 1966 to great acclaim. Cabaret won 8 Tony Awards®, including Best New Musical, Best Direction, Best Score, and Best Featured Actor for Joel Grey as the Emcee. The production ran nearly three years, for a total of 1165 performances, followed by international productions, a national tour, an Academy Award®-winning film, and Roundabout’s breakthrough revival in 1998. In its own day, and almost 50 years later, Cabaret validates the power of musical theatre to reflect a complicated world and the willingness of audiences to see ourselves in its mirror.
Join us for CABARET at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre from June 21 through July 17. Get your tickets today at shnsf.com!