Saturday, June 25, 2016

Who Says It Can't Happen Here?

In 1967, Ron Jones devised a classroom experiment (labeled The Third Wave) for his 15-year-old history students at Ellwood P. Cubberley High School in Palo Alto, California who were studying Nazi Germany. According to Wikipedia:
"Intended as a week-long experiential project, Jones designed lesson plans which created a movement, including a salute, a slogan, and a secret police force. The experiment spiraled out of control and was ended by Jones after complaints from teachers and parents. Jones then revealed that it was a hoax intended to give students a direct experience of how easily they could be misled into behaving like fascists, drawing parallels to the rise of the National Socialist movement in Germany." 
The side effects of Jones's experiment continue to ripple through popular culture.

For decades after World War II, Americans comforted themselves with assurances that "It can't happen here." But the rise of the religious right, conservative hate groups like the Tea Party, and a white supremacy movement that wants to "take its country back" indicate otherwise.

A billboard for a white supremacist candidate for Congress

Consider this video of Zack Fisher at a recent rally for Donald Trump in Phoenix, Arizona.

When interviewed, Fisher (who insists he is only against illegal immigration), stated that:
"I’m super proud of my heritage, I’m from Germany and from Ireland. All of my parents and grandparents came here legally, the right way. That’s what I was trying to explain. We were walking by and got yelled at, saying 'You like that taco? You like that burrito in your mouth?' We just don’t want to put up with that all the time. You shouldn’t have to put up with that. I don’t get it. They’re bringing the hate to the rally. Now I have to carry my gun with a bullet in the chamber. And that’s fine, I carry a gun with me everywhere and always."
Musical theatre fans will have no trouble recognizing this clip from the 1972 film version of Cabaret (which was directed by Bob Fosse with a cast headed by Joel Grey, Liza Minnelli, and Michael York). What follows is a crudely disturbing parody inspired by this year's Presidential election.

* * * * * * * * *
On November 20, 1966, when Cabaret premiered on Broadway, it was a much gentler show than the touring production which recently landed at the Golden Gate Theatre. Based on Jon Van Druten's 1951 play, I Am A Camera, which took its inspiration from Goodbye To Berlin (a semi-autobiographical novel by Christopher Isherwood that was published in 1939), the original production's musical numbers were not as hard-hitting, nor was the staging as confrontational.

Cabaret won eight of the eleven Tony Awards for which it had been nominated, ran for 1,165 performances, and was a triumphant career breakthrough for Joel Grey as the leering Master of Ceremonies. Others in the cast included:
Lotte Lenya (Fraulein Schneider) and Jack Gilford (Herr Schultz)
in the original Broadway production of Cabaret

The story (which takes place as Adolph Hitler rose to power during the last years of the Weimar Republic) may have been new to some members of the audience. But, arriving barely two decades after the end of World War II, it was uncomfortably recognizable to Jewish-American families whose relatives had died in Nazi concentration camps.

In 1993, Sam Mendes directed a new production of Cabaret in London at the Donmar Warehouse starring Jane Horrocks as Sally and Alan Cumming as a hypersexualized Master of Ceremonies who was constantly grabbing his crotch and had a swastika tattooed on his ass. Other changes included the addition of "Mein Herr" (first sung in the film) and the reinsertion of "I Don't Care Much" (a song which had been cut from the original production). The finale, in which the Master of Ceremonies was shown wearing the black and white stripes of a concentration camp prisoner with a yellow Jewish star and a pink triangle badge (identifying a homosexual) was a harsh reminder of what happened to undesirables under the Third Reich.

On March 19, 1998, the Roundabout Theatre Company presented the Donmar production on Broadway at the Henry Miller's Theatre (and later Studio 54) starring Natasha Richardson as Sally Bowles, with Denis O'Hare as Ernst Ludwig, Mary Louise Wilson as Fraulein Schneider, and Ron Rifkin as Herr Schultz. Choreographed and co-directed by Rob Marshall, the production was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, won four, and ran for 2,377 performances. Cumming's Tony-award winning performance was hailed far and wide, leading to an impressive career in film, television, and cabarets.

As Cabaret celebrates the 50th anniversary of its Broadway premiere, it offers a fascinating example of how a musical can improve over the years as a result of revisions. Much of this can be seen in how the show's score has been reshaped. For instance, a song Herr Schultz sang at the party celebrating his engagement to Fraulein Schneider has disappeared from the show. Interestingly enough, it reappeared in a segment of the animated comedy television series, Phineas and Ferb.

Several of the songs written for the 1972 film adaptation have been inserted in the score for staged productions. The "Telephone Song-Telephone Dance" performed by patrons of the Kit Kat Klub has been replaced with "Mein Herr" (a cabaret number for Sally Bowles that was made famous by Liza Minnelli).

A wistful song for Cliff Bradshaw entitled "Why Should I Wake Up?" has also been cut. In the following clip, Richard Arnold as Cliff and Jessie Terrebonne as Sally can be seen performing this number in a June 2008 production of Cabaret at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre in New Orleans.

As noted in Wikipedia:
"The cabaret number 'Two Ladies' was staged with the Emcee, a cabaret girl, and a cabaret boy in drag and included a shadow play simulating various sexual positions. The score was entirely re-orchestrated, using synthesizer effects and expanding the stage band, with all the instruments now being played by the cabaret girls and boys. The brutally satiric 'Sitting Pretty,' with its mocking references to deprivation, despair and hunger, was eliminated entirely (as it had been in the film version) and where, in the 1993 revival it had been combined with 'Money' (as it had been in the 1987 London production). 'Money' was now performed on its own. "Maybe This Time" (from the film adaptation) was added to the score."

With costumes by William Ivey Long and Robert Brill's unit set, this touring production (which has been on the road for nearly six months) stars Randy Harrison as the Master of Ceremonies with Andrea Goss as Sally Bowles. Unlike the original production, where it was clear that 19-year-old Sally was a minor talent who slept her way into one job after another, Goss is a nimble performer with sufficient vocal power to aim songs like "Mein Herr" and "Maybe This Time" to the theatre's back wall. A woman who has bounced from one affair to another, her Sally oozes with desperate practicality. Whereas her new boyfriend, Cliff Bradshaw, may be a naive American from New Hope, Pennsylvania, Sally is a graduate cum laude of the School of Hard Knocks. She's much too busy trying to cope with life at street level to be interested in politics.

Andrea Goss as Sally Bowles in Cabaret (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

By contrast, the pessimistic Fraulein Schneider (Shannon Cochran)  and optimistic Herr Schultz (Mark Nelson) seem more vulnerable and sympathetic than ever. Their "pineapple" duet ("It Couldn't Please Me More") took on a new tenderness for an audience unused to seeing older adults flirting quite so demurely.

Shannon Cochran (Fraulein Schneider) and Mark Nelson (Herr
Schultz) in a scene from Cabaret (Photo by: Joan Marcus) 

I was particularly impressed with the performances by Ned Noyes as the budding Nazi organizer, Ernest Ludwig; Alison Ewing as the aging prostitute, Fraulein Kost; and Lee Aaron Rosen as Cliff Bradshaw. The big question for many people was how well Randy Harrison (famous for his role as Justin Taylor in Queer as Folk) would do as the Emcee. While his characterization is less coy than Joel Grey's and hardly as salacious and malevolent as Alan Cumming's, he hits the Emcee's marks with strength and, at times, a clownishly unnerving good nature.

Randy Harrison as the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret
(Photo by: Joan Marcus) 

The opening night performance had a few surprises, most notably the huge audience response to the moment when the words "Social Democrat" appear in the script. However, following numerous revisions over the past 50 years (and with BT McNicholl recreating the staging by Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall), Cabaret has become a much stronger show than it was in 1966. Thanks in large part to Keith Caggiano's excellent sound design, this touring company hit its marks harder and moved with greater propulsion than ever before.

Today, perhaps even more than in 1966, Cabaret delivers a stark warning about the deadly cost of political apathy and willful denial. With Donald Trump on the warpath and the sorry results of England's recent "Brexit" referendum, the risks of a large population casting votes when they can't even understand the consequences of their actions is truly cause for alarm.

Performances of Cabaret continue through July 17 at the Golden Gate Theatre (click here for tickets).

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