Subscribe to my full feed.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Heil Berlin Burlesque!

Berlin BurlesqueThe first of the big touring musicals in the Theatre Royal's new season is Cabaret.

Winning a staggering number of stage and screen awards, it was premiered on Broadway as long ago as 1966, but before that the character Sally Bowles had a noted literary and stage history. It all began with stories written by Christopher Isherwood, an Englishman who in 1930 abandoned his medical studies and went to Berlin to teach English. He left Germany three years later, when Hitler came to power, but in that short period he had amassed enough material for successful novels and short stories, with his most famous character, Sally Bowles, appearing in 1937.

In 1951 a number of his stories were adapted by dramatist John Van Druten into the successful play I am A Camera, which was later filmed. The plot, to a large degree based on Isherwood's own experiences, concerned the platonic relationship between a young English man and a wanton English girl in Berlin in the early 1930s. While Isherwood's stories were more concerned with the characters, and used the historical events largely as a background, van Druten's play notably captured the sense of increasingly suffocating evil of the swastika and the jackboot.

Wishing to encourage a new kind of socially responsible musical theatre, and gripped by the drama, eminent American director/producer Harold Prince had long cherished a wish to make it into a musical, though nobody else believed that Isherwood's novella about Sally Bowles would ever make it to Broadway. How could they, if the leading character was a second-rate entertainer in a seedy nightclub, a far cry from Liza Minnelli's Americanised Sally in the movie? Prince pressed on. Because of his hit 1920s pastiche musical The Boy Friend, Sandy Wilson was invited to compose the score, but with two-thirds of it completed Prince decided that Wilson's music lacked the hard edge he wanted, which was something more akin to Kurt Weill's compositions with Brecht. They parted amicably, and Prince turned to the young Broadway team of composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb. It was a marriage made in theatrical heaven. The cabaret of the title is both a venue, the sleazy Kit Kat Klub where much of the action unfolds, and a reflection of society in 1930s Berlin.

Cannily, Prince never forgets that he is creating an entertainment, and avoids stressing the Nazi element. He based the idea for the cabaret itself on Maxim's, an infamous club in an old church basement he knew in Stuttgart when doing his military service in the United States army. The club had a midget Master of Ceremonies with a white face and bright red lips, who became the Emcee in the musical.

The narrative opens on New Year's Eve, 1930, when German politics were in turmoil, her economy in a parlous state, and for relief people frequented the many night bars which catered for every taste. Sally sings at one such club, and soon moves in with young writer Clifford. Their relationship develops as the political mood darkens with the rise of Nazism. Clifford leaves the increasingly dangerous Berlin, but Sally stays, taking her chances under the new regime.

The production runs at the Theatre Royal from Monday to Saturday, February 2 to 7.

No comments: