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Things that piss me off: Cabaret, the Gruesical

Lars cabaret HEADER

Last week Gaby mentioned that she had quite a hard time, writing about something that genuinely pisses her off. After that I took the challenge to write about something that pisses me off. That was not an easy task: there is not a lot of literature covering the topic of standing in line at the supermarket-register.1 But then I realized there is something in the literary field that makes my blood boil: re-renderings of classics. Why? Because they are absolutely unnecessary.

Goodbye to Berlin

The fact that in 1998 for some reason a new version of the musical Cabaret had to appear was something that still makes me rant. To understand my discomfort, we have to go back to Berlin in the 1930’s. The American novelist Christopher Isherwood was residing in the capital of Nazi-Europe and his brilliant book Goodbye to Berlin, covering his experiences, first appeared in 1939.

On the first page Isherwood provides us with a mission statement:

I am a camera with his shutters open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite, and the woman in kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.2

This attitude towards depicting reality provides the modern reader with a description of Berlin at the dawn of full Nazi dictatorship that is alternating between comedy and tragedy. The story tells the experiences of Isherwood, called Issyvoo by the German population, who comes to Berlin to become an English teacher. He finds lodging at the house of Fräulein Schroeder who is also offering rooms to rent to figures like Fräulein Mayer, a music hall yodeler and ardent sympathizer of the Nazi regime who speaks “with a Bavarian dialect with peculiarly aggressive emphasis.”3

Fräulein Mayer is especially keen on making the life of her Jewish neighbor Frau Glanterneck as unpleasant as possible. Frau Glanterneck is not only a Jewish woman, but had also complained about Fräulein Mayer practicing her yodeling routine at home, and thereby in Frl. Mayer’s opinion insulting all Bavarian women.4 When Frau Glanterneck, a widow in her sixties, places an ad in the newspaper to search for a new husband, Fräulein Mayer smells her chance to avenge the cruelty. When a candidate shows up, a widowed Prussian butcher, she confronts him with the rumor that Frau Glanterneck rents out her bed for immoral purposes. And even worse: sleeps in the same bed afterwards. Fräulein Mayer is very pleased when the butcher turns up at Frau Glanterneck’s gait to confront her with the rumors, starts a row, and cancels the intended marriage.5 It’s this kind of simultaneously humorous and tragic incidents that make Isherwood’s book one of my favorite reads ever.

To be gay or not to be gay… that is the question

In reality one of the reasons for Isherwood to go to Berlin was to live out his homosexuality in the then famous Berlin nightlife. In the book however there is not a syllable spent on homosexuality. There, Mister Isherwood is having an affair with the young and eccentric nightclub singer Sally Bowles. This was the storyline that would be the basis for a musical adaptation of the book by Joe Masteroff and Joe Ebb in 1966.6 Unfortunately I have not been able to retrieve the complete script of that musical, so nothing of value can be said about that.

But enough can be said about the film adaptation of the musical that Bob Fosse made in 1972: it is lovely. The dancer and choreographer Fosse was a womanizer, he was married three times and had a lot of amorous adventures with other women, but he also felt the need to focus some attention on Isherwood’s homosexuality.7 But of course there is no credibility in having a homosexual fall in love with Sally Bowles. Fosse therefore decided to make the main protagonist a bisexual. That resulted in one of the classic scenes of the movie where Sally, played brilliantly by Liza Minnelli, states: “the other three girls you had sex with, where obviously the wrong three girls.” Then to burst in to one of my favorite songs of all times: “Maybe this Time”.

It’s these tensions that make Fosse’s Cabaret a classic and my favorite musical of all time. It is a love story, but also a political story about the rise of national-socialism. It is a feel good musical with some really frightening and violent scenes when Nazis go out for the attack. It is really paying tribute to Isherwood’s book. The simple thing I want to say is: it is not a piece of art you should start messing with!

What the fuck!?

But of course Broadway did not share my opinion about that. A new version of Cabaret had to appear in 1998. And this re-rendering really started to mess things up. In the 1972 version the master of ceremony of the night-club where Sally sings, one of the central figures, is grotesque and a bit frightening. He is a metaphor of the time and place where the musical is set.

In the 1998 version the master of ceremony can be described as “a deliciously decadent compeer.”8 I am a well-educated man and do not swear a lot, but this made me cry out: “What the fuck are you doing!?” And that was not the only element that was smoothed to appease a new audience. But I won’t start on that for reasons of health.

You might ask if I actually saw the musical. My answer is: no, because that would be one of the most unnecessary things of all time to do. You also might say that a re-rendering makes the classic work more available for a new audience. My answer is: no one messed with Rembrandt to make him more available to a new audience. So what is anyone’s motive to re-render a classic like this? Money, vanity…..whatever…you just piss me off!

In the meanwhile I plan to turn another classic book into a musical: the telephone book of the city of Groningen. It will be quite amusing.

 

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Lars Sanders

Lars Sanders

Lars Sanders studied history at the University of Groningen and specialised in the history of post-war Germany. Is addicted to fine prose and has a keen interest in representations of the devil and what Ian Kershaw once punningly classified as the lunatic fringe of politics.
Lars Sanders
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  1. American Splendor by Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar is the only that I know of. 

  2. C.Isherwood, Goodbye to Berlin (1939, London 1998) 9 

  3. Ibidem, 18 

  4. Ibidem, 20 

  5. Ibidem, 21 

  6. http://www.bluegobo.com/production/2880032, last seen September 23rd 

  7. http://www.fosse.com/features/fosse_an_introduction.html, last seen September 23rd 

  8. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-finkle/first-nighter-sam-mendess_b_5209314.html last seen September 23rd