Reviewed By Mrs. Norman Maine
Posted 07/11/02 09:21:33

"A watershed moment in musical film"
5 stars (Awesome)

Bob Fosse's 'Cabaret' changed the way the American film going public viewed the musical as a genre and its influence is still felt in the way in which song and dance are integrated into modern films. Although it's now 30 years old, there's nothing dated about this jaundiced view of between the wars Berlin and the ambisexual goings on of its inhabitants.


Helmut, our producer, was on the set of Fillies , the stunning new musical version of Equus today. The poor dear must be ninety in the shade, if he's a day, but he had this creature with him who was either his pet harpy, or his demented grandmother - an overly peroxided bimbo with the improbable name of Anna Nicklesmuth. He introduced her as his caretaker but, even with her less than officious help, he kept tripping over the jazzy gold sequined feedbags on the set. Disaster was averted as her cellulite thighs gave him a soft landing space. We finally did a full take of the number, Reins on the Roof , and Helmut was most complimentary of my performance, saying it had to be seen to be believed.

I returned home to find Norman flat on the couch. He had been down at the Beverly Center helping June Allyson open her new incontinence products boutique. Apparently there was quite the mob scene and poor Norman was in the way when a bus load of ladies from the Golden Sunsets retirement community all demanded service at once and started clubbing him with their walkers. Norman had no sooner recovered from this when he was run over by an impatient elderly gentleman on a scooter, determined to beat him to the only free urinal in the men's room. Norman is going to have to have a talk with his agents in the morning and have a new bodily injury clause inserted in his contract.

I calmed my hubby down and left him on the couch with a pitcher of sloe gin fizzes and descended to the home theater in order to put my feet up and relax after such a taxing day. When Iím working, I tend to unwind in the evening with a musical to keep me in the proper mood from day to day, so I popped Cabaret into the VCR. This is the restored 25th anniversary edition that includes not only the film, but also a documentary with behind the scenes footage and interviews with surviving stars and creative team.

Cabaret is a Bob Fosse film of the Kander and Ebb Broadway musical, originally produced and directed by Harold Prince. It was made in 1972, the year that Fosse completed his unequaled directing trifecta - winning, the Oscar for directing this film, the Emmy for directing Liza with a Z , and the Tony for directing Pippin . It is a musical adaptation of several of Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories , written in the 1930s about a British man's perspective of the Weimar society and the rise of the Nazis, later adapted for the stage as I am a Camera by John Van Druten.

Cabaret details the unconventional relationship between Brian (the Isherwood figure, played by Michael York) and the nightclub chanteuse, Sally Bowles (Liza Minelli) in 1930s Berlin. Brian arrives in Berlin determined to experience life and is quickly drawn to the seedy nightlife the city has to offer. He becomes friends, and eventually lovers, with Sally and watches (he is the titular camera) as the decadent society she personifies is carried away by the rising tide of fascism while the revelers of the Cabaret world never notice.

The stage production of Cabaret was one of the first concept musicals, using the Cabaret setting and songs as commentary on the rather traditional book musical romance that formed the backbone of the story. An air of authenticity was provided by a subplot detailing the unhappy courtship of Sally's landlady, played by Lotte Lenya, one of the major theater figures of Weimar Berlin, with a Jewish grocer. Harold Prince was interested in moving into new musical territory but held back, thinking the audience of 1966 was not ready for a more radical conceptualization; his reticence (which has been removed in the current New York revival staged by Sam Mendes) was rewarded with a major hit.

Sally Bowles was played on stage by Jill Haworth. Kander and Ebb had written the part specifically for Liza Minelli (who had starred in their earlier show, Flora, the Red Menace ). Prince, however, held a grueling set of auditions, fourteen callbacks in all, and narrowed the field to three. Liza, Jill and yours truly. When it was announced that Jill had gotten the part, Liza and I held each other, wept copious tears, and spent the afternoon at Schrafft's eating ice cream sundaes. When Liza won the movie role, we again went to Schrafft's to celebrate - but this time she picked up the check. I did eventually play Sally in the Dubuque production and got some of the best notices of my illustrious career.

Fosse, when he looked at the material in cinematic terms, took the radical step that Prince dared not take, he completely removed the traditional book elements of the musical, leaving only the diegetic numbers in the Kit Kat Klub cabaret commenting on the story; the music enriches the story rather than propelling it forward by establishing plot or character. With this revamp, the subplot went (and was replaced with another Jewish romance, derived from a different Isherwood story.) The new lovers are now young and played by Marisa Berenson and Fritz Wepper, who are both much more attractive than Lotte Lenya, and new plot threads were introduced, including a more honest look at the sexuality of the Isherwood surrogate. While Isherwood was unapologetically gay, Brian, in the film, is bisexual. In the original stage conception, heís straight.

This rather daring move changed the way in which movie audiences related to the musical as a genre. Prior to Cabaret , audiences could accept traditional book songs with characters breaking into song and dance in the most unlikely situation. The full realism that Fosse used began the trend that led to the culture rejecting the suspension of disbelief for musical numbers not firmly rooted in the reality of the situation. The movie musical has never been the same. Traditional book musicals, for instance, are now the province of animation. Live action musicals now require a setting where song and dance are part of the story and the charactersí real lives.

So, how does Cabaret hold up after nearly thirty years? Brilliantly. It plays as if it had been produced last week. The musical numbers, featuring Minelli and Joel Grey's leering, unctuous, master of ceremonies are brilliantly choreographed and photographed. The device of the distorted mirror that frames the movie (from the original stage concept) helps draw the modern audience in and gives them a wake up call to see the trends of todayís society that parallel those of the Weimar republic. The musical numbers such as Wilkommen , The Money Song and of course Cabaret , are so good that it almost undermines the concept of Minelli being a second rate entertainer. Both she and Grey deserved their Oscars. Sally, in particular, is an amazing creation; a bundle of neurotic vulnerabilities that are heartbreakingly real.

The one number that does not take place in the Cabaret, Tomorrow Belongs To Me , still carries the concept of reality in song through, being staged in an ultra-realistic manner. Sally and Brian, stopping at a beer garden, witness an angelic youth begin to sing the haunting ballad. The camera pulls back to reveal a Hitler youth uniform and soon, as the other patrons join in, it becomes an anthem to what will be and a brilliant illustration of the perils of groupthink.

This film should be on the must see list of all with an interest in the American movie musical.

Originally Written 4/24/01
Revised 7/2/02

Fur coats. Bisexual encounters. Nazi armbands. Gratuitous gorilla. Female impersonation. Women trombonists. Grotesque theatrical makeup. Mispronunciation of 'phlegm'. Dog murder.

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