OK, I admit it. I was skeptical when the Roundabout Theatre Companyannounced its plans to bring its acclaimed 1998 revival of Cabaret back to Studio 54. It seemed like a cynical attempt to resurrect a cash cow for an organization that has been struggling under the weight of its own ever-widening girth.
Well, all of that may still be true, but there's no question that this revival of a revival still packs an artistic and emotional wallop. This Cabaret should always be welcome on Broadway.
As I sat watching the current production, I was continually reminded of the importance of Cabaret, both in terms of its artistry and its signifcance in the development of musical theater. When I cover Cabaret in my musical-theater history course, I emphasize the rise of modernism in musical theater, the solidification of the concept show, and the break from traditional storytelling structure. Cabaret also has a message that remains all too timely. At every turn, the show seems to be saying: this could happen here.
When co-directors Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall brought Cabaret back to Broadway in 1998, the show had been revised considerably from its original form in 1966, and even its first Broadway revival in 1987, and the changes took what was a sensational piece to begin with and made it even better. Cabaret is, of course, based on the play I Am a Cameraby John Van Druten, which was in turn adapted from Christopher Isherwood's book, The Berlin Stories. I often say that the 1998 revival fulfilled the show's promise as a dramatic work, but it also made the show more historically accurate. The revisions not only bring greater efficiency and power to the show, they also bring it more in line with the atmosphere of Berlin during the rise of the Nazi party in the 1930s that Isherwood describes so vividly in his work.
One of the most significant changes was restoring the full impact of the song, "If You Could See Her." Anyone who's seen the 1972 movie or the 1998 version of the show knows that the song ends with a real punch in the gut. The Emcee sings comedically about his love for a gorilla, which ends with the line, "If you could see her through my eyes...she wouldn't look Jewish at all." Unfortunately, this line was mistaken by audience members of the '60s production as a direct insult to Jews. Original director Hal Prince decided to change the line (to "she isn't a meeskite at all," a Yiddish word for someone with an ugly face), figuring that the show was taking enough chances to begin with, and couldn't risk alienating a core demographic. The movie version restored the original lyric, and it has remained with the stage version ever since.
Cabaret has also evolved over time in its portraying of homosexuality. Cliff, the show's male lead, is a proxy for author Christopher Isherwood, and Isherwood was decidedly gay. The original Cabaret bowdlerized Cliff's sexuality, and even included two offensively stereotypical queens in the opening number, as if to more fully distance itself from the truth. The 1972 film portrays Cliff as bisexual, and it wasn't until the 1998 Cabaret that Cliff became fully gay. Cliff does, however, have sex with Sally, enough for them to wonder whether Cliff is the father of Sally's baby. The current portrayal of Cliff is not only truer to the source, it's also truer to the spirit of the times, with its free and fluid sense of pansexuality, one of the very things, in fact, that Hitler was able to successfully demonize and persecute in his rise to power.
The current production, as far as I can recall, is pretty much an exact copy of the 1998 show, which is just fine with me.
Back are the cabaret tables with drink and food service. But more important is the overall production concept, the at-times brutal staging, and the brilliant directorial touches,
with the deft use a cigar here or a lipstick there. Alan Cumming is mesmerizing as ever as the Emcee, and Hollywood import Michelle Williams makes a strong impression in her Broadway debut as Sally Bowles. Ther's been a lot of grumbling about Williams in reviews and online, but I found her adorable and captivating.
For me, the true stars of this revival are Danny Bursteinand Linda Emond as Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider, respectively. Burstein is captivating as always, bringing a searing sense of pathos to his portrayal. (Will someone give this guy a Tony, already?) I've only seen Emond before in non-musicals, and she's a bit of a revelation here, moving and restrained, with strong, haunting singing voice. Burstein and Emond's duet, "It Couldn't Please Me More," was a charming highlight in what is already a production with an embarrassment of riches.
I'm often struck by the preconceptions people have about musical theater. For many people, musicals are only supposed to be fun and tuneful, and that's basically it. Anything that transgresses these confines couldn't possibly be a musical, at least not in their narrow estimation.
Well, these people would probably hate The Scottsboro Boys, which is a tad ironic, because it's one of the most tuneful shows in many a season. But beyond the deceptively pleasant nature of John Kander's music are the late Fred Ebb's alternately searing and simple lyrics, as well as David Thompson's indignant and incisive book. One of the hallmarks of the long and fruitful careers of Kander and Ebb was demonstrating the power of the musical to go beyond mere entertainment into the realm of human drama and social relevance. And, on that front, The Scottsboro Boys represents a fitting cap to a productive and groundbreaking partnership.
I was fairly blown away when I saw The Scottsboro Boys at the Vineyard Theatre. (Read my review of Scottsboro Boys Off Broadway.) The show has since played a stint at the Guthrie Theater, but I didn't notice any major changes to the show itself, other than maybe clarifying some scenes, and a bit of recasting. The authors have decided to retain a certain historical framing device, which they had originally asked critics not to reveal in their reviews, but have subsequently begun revealing it themselves in certain promotional materials. I will, however, maintain silence on this front, as the revelation significantly increases the impact of the show.
As you may know, the show is a stylized retelling of the story of the "Scottsboro Boys," a group of nine African American men falsely accused of raping two white women on a train in 1931. In keeping with the longstanding Kander & Ebb tradition of "concept" shows, the creators have conceived The Scottsboro Boys as a minstrel show, including a stunningly subversive use of blackface. The result is an upsetting but emotionally cathartic show that is frankly hard to sit through, but not because of any lack of talent on the authors' part. It's just not a very proud moment in U.S. history.
Although the show clearly places the blame for the Scottsboro tragedy at the feet of Southern racism, the authors are careful not to let the North off the hook. In the guise of the Jewish lawyer who takes on the Scottsboro defense, the show sends up both the anti-Semitism of the south and the patronizing attitudes of the northern liberals.
Director/choreographer Susan Stroman and librettist Thompson have worked closely with Kander & Ebb (the latter in absentia) to create "entertaining" interludes throughout the show to keep it from becoming a preachy, depressing dirge. I was reminded of the daring and controversial nature of The Scottsboro Boys when a man seated in front of me at the Lyceum got up and left during a stunningly conceived number called "Electric Chair," which employs the racial stereotypes of tap dancing to illuminate the horror of a child's nightmare. Yes, it's shocking and offensive. It's meant to be.
The show retains some of its admittedly minor flaws. I still find the number "Commencing in Chattanooga" inscrutable. The tune is pleasant and certainly sets the scene, but the lyric is uncharacteristically opaque for Fred Ebb. The result is an uninspired "wanting" song, a rare misstep in an otherwise powerful and provocative show. The stunning finale thankfully retains its power to astound. Even though I knew it was coming, the raw shock of the moment once again had me numb and in tears.
The Broadway cast features many of the same performers from the Vineyard run, including the great John Cullum as interlocutor and emcee, as well as the formidable Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon in protean roles throughout the show. The major cast change is Joshua Henry in the central role of Haywood Patterson. Henry brings great strength to the role, but I didn't find him nearly as emotionally compelling as Brandon Victor Dixon, who played the part Off Broadway.
A bunch of my students from the Boston Conservatory are headed down on a school trip to New York City next weekend. As part of the package deal, they have the option of seeing either La Cage aux Folles or The Scottsboro Boys. As fond as I am of the current production of La Cage (read my review), I've been recommending that students see The Scottsboro Boys. And anyone who cares about the future of musical theater will want do the same.
When Douglas Perry saw the Broadway revival of Chicagoin the late 1990s, he became fascinated with the factual events that inspired the show. He expected to be able to find a book about the real-life "killer dillers," but found that there wasn't one. An accomplished journalist, Perry sought to rectify the situation by producing a tome of his own.
Much of the general public ascribed such heinous acts by women to a loosening of moral values, and an overindulgence in the cabaret lifestyle and bootleg liquor. Or perhaps it was more of a general social malaise. "Something about Chicago was destroying the feminine temperament," writes Perry, not from his own point of view, but from the perspective of the general 1920s Chicago zeitgeist.
Enter Maurine Watkins, an aspiring journalist, playwright, and moralist seeking to acquire some first-hand experience as a crime reporter. Watkins became one of the few female crime reporters with the venerable Chicago Tribune. The Tribune considered itself the "hanging paper," in contrast to the Hearst publications, which sought to wrench as much human melodrama as possible from any given tragedy -- whether or not the details were actually true -- in the shameless pursuit of newsstand sales.
Shortly after Watkins arrived in Chicago, two sensational murderesses hit the real-life Cook County jail: Belva Gaertner (think "Velma"), a stylish former cabaret singer and three-time divorcee, accused of gunning down her married lover. And Beulah Annan (think "Roxie"), the beautiful car-mechanic's wife, who allegedly shot her lover and danced over his dying body to the strains of a jazz record playing over and over on her Victrola. What follows is a scandalous tale of sexism, racism, xenophobia, yellow journalism, and miscarriages of justices.
In The Girls of Murder City, Perry's descriptions of various murder cases and the attendant media circus are heavily detailed and thoroughly compelling. I did have to wonder, however, how he got as specific as he did with the precise descriptions of what the various characters were doing and feeling. Perry provides an extensive bibliography, and one can assume that his accounts are taken from those sources, but sometimes the level of specificity strained credulity. How, for instance, could he know that Beulah Annan, when attending church services, would be "leaning her cheek against her mother's elbow during services"? Perry's bibliography lists no source for this reference, so perhaps it's meant to be fanciful projection?
In any case, Perry certainly knows how to effectively set the scene. His descriptions of the rampant mob mentality during the funeral of one of the minor murderesses was alternately heartbreaking and terrifying. Perry also demonstrates a knack for building suspense during the trials of Gaertner and Annan, wringing compelling drama out of the court proceedings. Perry does devote a bit too much attention to the Leopold and Loeb case, which admittedly occurred during the time period, but would seem to be outside the scope of Perry's thesis.
Based on her experiences covering the Gaertner and Annan trials, a disgusted and outraged Maurine Watkins decided to turn these travesties into the play Chicago, which ran on Broadway during the 1926-27 season, and later toured the country. The play was made into a film twice, once in 1927 under the title "Chicago," and again in 1942, this time called "Roxie Hart." Watkins was unhappy with both versions, and to her dying day refused to entertain offers of a musical treatment.
When Watkins died in the early '70s, Bob Fosse approached her estate about creating a musical with John Kander and Fred Ebb, and you probably know the story from there. Fans of the musical Chicago will notice in Perry's book elements that have survived intact from the news reports and court documents, all the way to Watkins' play and Fosse's and Ebb's libretto. This includes actual lyrics, such as "We both reached for the gun," as well as plot elements, including Roxie's fake pregnancy.
One of the reasons the musical Chicago struck a nerve upon its 1996 revival was that the show's focus took on a new relevance alongside the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, a miscarriage of justice in a very different vein, which nonetheless made household names out of Marcia Clark, Kato Kaelin, Judge Ito, Johnnie Cochran, and Mark Fuhrman. I'm frankly appalled that even now, after 15 years, I can still recall those names. That's the insidious power of the media, and Perry's book puts a fascinating perspective on how another media circus evokes its own particular place and time.
NOTE: New Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations require bloggers to disclose when they accept anything of material value related to their blog posts. I received a complimentary review copy of The Girls of Murder City .
The Scottsboro Boys constitutes a triumphant reunion of most of the creative team behind the delightful and underrated Steel
Pier, including Kander and Ebb themselves, as well as librettist David Thompson, and choreographer Susan Stroman. Stroman also performs directing duties here (Scott
Ellis directed Steel Pier), and The Scottsboro Boys represents a decided return to form for Stroman after the execrable Young Frankenstein and the ambitious but disappointing Happiness.
Thompson and crew have conceived The Scottsboro Boys as a minstrel show, telling the true story of the "Scottsboro Boys," a group of nine African American men falsely accused and convicted of rape in 1931 Alabama. The minstrel show concept works stunningly, reclaiming this derogatory show form as a tool of empowerment and illumination. The show only uses actual blackface once, and very briefly, but the effect is devastating.
The Kander and Ebb score for The Scottsboro Boys is miles above their score for Curtains, and includes a tuneful array of period numbers, from cakewalk to Bert Williams ballad. Stroman uses dance sparingly but effectively, particularly in the
horrifyingly sprightly "Electric Chair" tap number.
And the cast is simply outstanding, including the great John
Cullum, who serves alternately as emcee for the minstrel show and judge for the trial. Also on hand are Colman
Domingo and Forrest
McClendon, two talented African American actors who act as Cullum's minstrel cohorts, and play a variety of deliberately cartoonish white roles throughout the show. (The precise relationship among these three roles could use some clarification.) The standout among the "boys" themselves is Brandon Victor
Dixon in the pivotal role of Heywood, and Dixon proves he's capable of far greater things than his admittedly strong performance as Harpo in The Color Purple would have us believe.
Not every element is working at this stage in the show's development. The meaning and purpose of some of the numbers aren't quite clear, including "Commencing in Chattanooga," which the men sing on their fateful train trip. And the yuck-yuck minstrel jokes aren't really landing. Perhaps they're not meant to, but at this point most of them come off as lame. But on the whole the show is remarkable, both rousing and sobering: a heartbreaking retelling of a notorious and shameful miscarriage of justice.
The Scottsboro Boys runs at the Vineyard until April 18th, but the run is completely sold out. The Vineyard Web site has an announcement that the show has its "eyes set on Broadway," and offers patrons the chance to sign up for ticket-offer notifications. Now that Lips Together, Teeth Apart has been canceled, and both All About Me and The Miracle Worker are closing, there are increasing odds that the show might actually make it to Broadway, perhaps this season.
If there's any justice, that is.
GRADE: A minus(Could be a masterpiece, with a few tweaks)