I've had a few opportunities recently to spend time in Weimar Germany on stage, screen and in literature. I like how life can often be very serendipitous. Yesterday I saw the Roundabout Theatre Company production of Cabaret, which is enjoying a revival (this is the 50th anniversary) as a traveling Broadway show and part of my subscription package this season.
Cabaret has a really interesting history. The musical is based on a play by John van Druten called I Am a Camera, which was adapted from a short 1939 novel by Christopher Isherwood called Goodbye to Berlin. I've dipped into the Isherwood book, which is actually more of a series of interconnected stories he wrote about Berlin in the 1930s and I get the feeling that they are at least in part autobiographical. It was first presented on stage as a musical in 1966 and according to my program notes that first production "shocked audiences" but it went on to be a long running and award winning show. It was then adapted to film in 1972 starring Liza Minnelli (which I have never seen but now must try and get my hands on the DVD), though I think the stage and screen versions differ quite a lot.
Last week I read the script of Harold Prince's Cabaret, book by Joe Masteroff, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb so I would have a little familiarity with the story before seeing the musical. It's one of those iconic musicals that you sort of know but never read or seen, but now I feel like going back and skimming just once more as there were things that I don't quite recall reading, or didn't catch the first time around. So, the story is set in the waning days of Weimar Germany where the refrain is "life is beautiful" and it was all about having fun. It's a decadent world where everything and anything goes, and you certainly get that sense seeing the musical. It has its racy bits and felt a little outrageous and over the top, but of course on the horizon is Hitler and the coming storm.
It begins . . . and the setting of the scene per the script:
"Scene: Berlin, Germany"
"Time: 1929-1930. Before the start of the Third Reich"
"Note: There is no curtain. As the audience enters the theatre, the stage is bare and dark. Street lamps on both sides of the stage recede dimly into the distance. A large mirror hanging center stage reflects the auditorium, this allowing the audience to see itself. A spiral staircase is on the left side of the proscenium arch."
The emcee narrates the story. He is very much the impresario--dressed up and made up and outrageous, a bit leering and without a single inhibition. He even came out into the audience and danced with one of the theatregoers. It is set mostly in the Kit Kat Club where everyone is invited to come in and leave all your troubles at the door. The girls are beautiful and the musicians are beautiful and life is beautiful. There are telephones on the tables and guests can call each other up and "connect", which is what Clifford, a writer from America, and Sally Bowles, a British singer at the club do. Cliff has come to Berlin to write. His first taste of the country is on the train into the city where a fellow passenger, a Berliner named Ernst, slips a piece of his luggage in with Cliff's so it won't get searched. Americans are welcomed in with nary a question, but Berliners must have their belongings checked. Ernst befriends Cliff and recommends inexpensive lodgings where he meets average Germans just trying to get by in life.
And life seems one big happy party. One big frolic until cracks begin to appear and all the shiny luster starts to tarnish. All the hope and happiness dries up and you can hear the glass breaking and the boots marching. The production (as every Broadway show I have been fortunate enough to see) was excellent. There was no mirror hanging on stage, but an empty frame with those Broadway lightbulbs illuminated that you are likely familiar with. There were indeed two spiral staircases and no curtain. The musicians didn't sit in the orchestra but were sitting on a raised platform between the staircases. It was dark and decadent but also an insidious underlying darkness--the kind where you wake up after a party and everyone looks tired and haggard. It was quite intense, particularly the ending.
My other run in with Weimar Germany came in the form of a silent film from the period of Weimar Cinema. Every fall the Alloy Orchestra comes to Omaha and performs live music to a silent film. The score is something the trio has composed especially for the film, so it is always an amazing experience. This year's film was the 1925 German silent Varieté starring Emil Jannings and Lya de Putti. The film is set in the world of circus performers and acrobats. Essentially a former acrobat leaves his wife and child for a pretty young thing and they take to the big top again where they join another performer as trapeze artists. Two is a couple and three only complicates matters. You can probably imagine what happens but the film is also known as Jealousy for obvious reasons. This was made in 1925 and it is a pretty amazing film considering the action shots where the three are performing. It was quite dramatic and even a little melodramatic. Weimar Cinema was active from 1918-1933, so this falls right in the middle. You can't get more authentic than that. It only comes around once a year, but the Alloy Orchestra is always great fun to watch and an amazing experience. Marlene Dietrich's Blue Angel, another famous Weimar Cinema film will be showing at my favorite theater in November, so I will have another opportunity to spend time in 1930s Germany. With its nightclub setting it may very well have that Cabaret feel to it, too.
I didn't finish the Christoper Isherwood stories, but I might at least read the section, "Sally Bowles". Somehow I feel like reading Isherwood now is like opening a whole new can of literary worms, if you know what I mean.