Why 'Cabaret' Packs a Harsh Political Punch

Enjoy the wonderful music and staging of Kander and Ebb’s classic musical for sure, but it is more potent for what it reveals about apathy and totalitarianism.

You have a few days left to see the Tony-winning Roundabout Theatre Company production of Cabaret, directed by Sam Mendes, at Manhattan’s Studio 54. (The final performance is on March 29.)

The acclaimed restaging of the 1998 revival saw the return of Alan Cumming reprising his role of the debauched-rock star Emcee—a role he completely reinvented decades after Joel Grey’s celebrated turn.

Over the past 12 months, Michelle Williams, Emma Stone, and Sienna Miller took their turns playing the part of English cabaret singer Sally Bowles, a tragic, unforgettable character.

The premise, if you don’t know it, of this classic musical is easy enough to follow. It starts off as pure boy-meets-girl. Aspiring novelist Clifford Bradshaw arrives in Berlin in the early 1930s with his typewriter and chronic writer’s block.

While taking in the sights at the scuzzy Kit Kat Klub—an emblem of the utter decadence of the era—he meets Sally. They fall madly in love and spend far too much time hopping from party to party, before various romantic and sexual complications begin to rain down.

The show, with a book by Joe Masteroff and music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, is packed with infectious and moving songs: “Willkommen,” “Perfectly Marvelous,” “Cabaret,” and “I Don’t Care Much,” to name a few.

Here’s Emma Stone performing the poignant “Maybe This Time” in the first act:

But for all the exuberant song and dance, the most powerful aspect of Cabaret, in all its various incarnations, is the political wallop that it delivers. At its core, Cabaret is a devastating critique of apathy, and a clever and terrifying look at totalitarianism.

The story takes place not too long before Hitler comes to power in Germany.

The horror gains momentum around them, as too many characters stay locked in denial or self-interest. “Politics? But what has that to do with us?” Sally says, when Cliff is practically begging her to notice the rise of Nazism.

Friends’ lives are ruined, the decadence turns to violence and despair, and the music grows sadder. The hedonism and carefree living? Just a mirage. “Sally, wake up! The party’s over,” Cliff later says.

The ending of Mendes’s production, which leaves the feeling of death in the air long after the lights go up, is among the most haunting and riveting in modern Broadway history.

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Of course, past productions weren’t short on driving home the political message. For the original 1966 Broadway production, designer Boris Aronson fixed the stage with a trapezoidal mirror in order to implicate members of the audience in fascism’s ascendancy. “When the audience saw the characters in the mirror, they saw themselves, too,” the Associated Press described.

And the politics of the show were never constrained to 1930s Berlin, nor were the targets exclusively Brownshirts.

“The original production directed by Harold Prince remains one of the most groundbreaking musical productions I’ve ever seen on Broadway,” Frank Rich, formerly the chief theater critic for The New York Times, told The Daily Beast. “There were events at the time, including the Civil Rights Movement and the opposition to the Vietnam War, that explicitly inspired aspects of the show. [Prince] was very much thinking of confrontations between police and African-American civil rights demonstrators in doing this.”

Bob Fosse’s Oscar-winning 1972 film adaptation of Cabaret, starring Liza Minnelli, also allegorically critiqued American intervention in Vietnam, and the (counter-)cultural climate that the war helped create back home.

Around the time of the Broadway revival in 1987, Joel Grey once again saw compelling parallels to Cabaret’s original message in the violent, uncertain world around him.

“All of a sudden, the whole 20th anniversary [of Cabaret], the political and sociological aspects of what’s going on in the world today seemed enormously pertinent,” Grey told the Sun-Sentinel at the time.

“There’s a lot going on in the world that’s very disturbing: rewriting the Holocaust; pseudo-historians rewriting history itself. And we’re dealing with a terrorist mentality that involves whole nations. I think it’s a darker time now [than it was in the mid-’60s]. We’re less resilient, less open-eyed.”

When Cabaret was mounted at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., in 2006, you can safely bet that uneasy parallels between Hitler’s Germany and Bush’s America were drawn.

“I became more and more disturbed by the way in which our Bill of Rights is being bitten into and our rights as American citizens are being questioned,” Molly Smith, the Arena Stage artistic director, wrote.

So, what does Cabaret mean today, in the late Obama era? The show doesn’t necessarily require any direct parallel to this, or any, administration.

It presents, as it long has, a potent message on the dangers of mass indifference in the face of injustice, atrocity, and state terror. For such a reminder, it’s always worth another visit back to the Kit Kat Klub.