‘Cabaret’ – A Tale of Two Sallys

Cabaret Minnelli

Last night I had the great fortune to attend TCM‘s 40th anniversary screening of the film version of Cabaret at the Ziegfeld Theatre on 54th Street. After waiting for what seemed an eternity outside in the frigid temperatures, we were among the last to be let into the theatre for the screening. Several hundred people behind us were sent away (with a Howard Keel DVD set as a sort of consolation prize).

I hadn’t intended on going. I do enjoy screenings, but I know how these TCM sponsored events, which are free, are a hot ticket and admittance isn’t guaranteed. I figured on sitting this one out. As it turned out, someone who was going asked me if I wanted to come. And in that instant I changed my mind. I figured, why not? I sat with Patty and Emily and my web designer Chris Van Patten. They had released some VIP seating and ushers told us to fill in, thus we found ourselves in the same row as Joel Grey and Bernadette Peters. (Other sightings at the event included Arlene Dahl, Phyllis Newman, Tony Danza and Alan Cumming).

Prior to the screening, there was a Q&A led by TCM host Robert Osborne, talking with the film’s stars Liza Minnelli, Joel Grey, Marisa Berenson and Michael York, mostly rehashing the same stories they’ve shared on TV and radio this week. All this was to celebrate the (year-late) 40th anniversary of the film’s debut. Warner Bros. has undertaken a meticulous restoration and repair and such for a big Blu-ray release (it comes out February 5). The audience was in the mood to cheer, with most names in the opening credits receiving huge ovations (including the stars, Fosse, Kander and Ebb, and even stage director Harold Prince), as well as ample applause after most musical numbers.

This marked the first time in maybe ten years I had watched the film. It’s a fascinating study in adapting a stage musical to the screen, and probably the last truly great film musical to date. The credit is due mostly to director Bob Fosse, who took an unusual stage musical and turned it into an unusual dramatic film with songs. Fosse’s singular vision served to create something purely cinematic, using the medium to its best advantage and pushing boundaries with the film’s sexual and political content. (Props also to David Bretherton’s brilliant Oscar-winning film editing, which only heightens the experience). Major characters were dropped, and new ones were added.  The character songs were discarded, leaving only the diegetic cabaret songs (and adding a couple of others). The only song not sung in the Kit-Kat-Klub is “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” a beer garden waltz that builds into a chilling Nazi anthem – one of the most unsettling moments in the film.

Sally Bowles was meagerly talented and British in Christopher Isherwood’s original book, John Van Druten’s play I Am a Camera and the stage musical (a major reason Minnelli didn’t get the role on Broadway), but for the film she became an American. While the character makes much more sense as a British expatriate, Minnelli gives the performance of her career here. There is nothing she holds back, singing or acting-wise, in this portrait of the ultimate solipsist. Perhaps her being American only adds to how pathetic her delusions are. I think for those in the audience who might be only be familiar with Liza from the tabloid marriages and over the top interview persona, it’s eye-opening to recall how tremendous an actress she is. A captivating performance from beginning to end. Joel Grey recreated his Tony-winning role as the ultimate show-biz creep, the Emcee, to Oscar winning effect. In fact, the cast is universally good, and I think that York’s performance as bisexual British observer Brian is especially underrated.

Cabaret Dench

Meanwhile, I have also been paying attention to another Sally Bowles. On record, the film soundtrack, the original Broadway and 1998 Broadway revival cast recordings have always been available, but there is one essential recording of the score that has lingered out of print for two decades: the original London cast album. The 1968 West End production, which played for 336 performances at the Palace Theatre, was noted for its star, a young whipper-snapper by the name of Judi Dench. Thanks to Masterworks Broadway, this album is once again available and a must-hear.

The production also starred Oscar-winner (and future Tony winner) Lila Kedrova as Fraulein Schneider, Barry Dennen as the Emcee and Kevin Colson as Cliff. It’s a wonderful album, and if these performers are not as distinctive as their predecessors, they are all up to snuff.  The London album follows the Broadway album closely, but includes extra snippets of dialogue (especially in the finale), music and Fraulein Kost’s reprise of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” The show’s entire finale is included, with Cliff reading the introduction to his book, followed by pieces of the character dialogue and songs and it is particularly devastating. This was also the first time that Fred Ebb’s biting original ending “She wouldn’t look Jewish at all” was restored to “If You Could See Her” (that line ruffled enough feathers on the way to opening night on Broadway that it was changed to “She isn’t a meeskite at all”).

As for Judi Dench, she’s utterly sensational and my favorite Sally Bowles on record. Though far better singers have played the part, she inhabits the character in a way that made me fully understand who she was for the first time. She is dripping with sensuality and cheek through “Don’t Tell Mama” and “Perfectly Marvelous” and her delivery of the “Cabaret” is one of the most gut-wrenching, visceral interpretations I’ve ever heard, with the song becoming its own devastating three act play. It’s hands down my favorite rendition of the song and worth the price of the entire album.

“The Normal Heart”

It’s been 25 years since Larry Kramer took NY theater by storm with his seminal play The Normal Heart, simultaneously an indictment of those who turned a blind eye to AIDS in the epidemic’s infancy as well as a cry for someone to, as the character Dr. Ellen Brookner implores, “Do something!” Agitprop tends to date quickly, but in this sincere, simplistic revival currently playing the Golden Theater, Kramer’s play and message feel timelier than ever.

In short: The Normal Heart ripped out my heart and stomped on it in the best possible way. This revival is the sort of production that reaffirms why I love live theater. To call this galvanizing experience a must-see would be the grossest of understatements. The play is set between 1981 and 1984, and offers a no-holds barred look into the earliest days of the disease: the fear, the uncertainty and, most aggravatingly, the blind-eye the government, press and pharmaceutical companies turned toward the issue.

Joel Grey directed the high acclaimed benefit reading that inspired this production earlier in the fall. It was producer Daryl Roth who made this Broadway engagement happen, and for that we should all be most grateful. Since Mr. Grey has been busy in the hit revival of Anything Goes, George C. Wolfe has stepped in to stage the production. Even with limited rehearsal time and a brief preview period, The Normal Heart features one of the most exceptional ensembles in recent seasons. I found myself impressed across the board by the powerful performances of each and every actor onstage.

At the center of the play is Joe Mantello, as Ned Weeks (based on Kramer himself) in an exhaustively nuanced performance. Mantello has spent the last fifteen years or so as a director, but with all due respect, I think he’s a far better actor than director; his performance here only shows what Broadway has missed since his last appearance in Angels in America. John Benjamin Hickey provides the play’s emotional center as Ned’s lover Felix, who wastes away before our eyes during the play’s second act.

Lee Pace and Jim Parsons make stellar Broadway debuts as fellow founders of a GMHC-type foundation. Also on hand are Patrick Breen, Luke MacFarlane, Mark Harelik, Richard Topol, Wayne Alan Wilcox and the lone female, Ellen Barkin as Dr. Brookner, the stern but compassionate doctor who finds herself the only one of her profession responding to the illness. Barkin is also making a Broadway debut, and is sensational in her second act tirade (which received the kind of showstopping applause you usually expect across the street at Billy Elliot). To play favorites would be criminal, because they all are so utterly spectacular.

This marks the first time in my theatregoing experience that I’ve witnessed an audience leaving a show in total silence, as though departing a church service. But that’s most appropriate, as the play’s final moments project the names of thousands of victims over the stage and walls of the theatre; The Normal Heart is now not only a call to action, but also an elegy for the 35 million people the world has lost to AIDS in the last thirty years.

On the sidewalk, a young man handed me a letter with some startling statistics on the nature of AIDS in contemporary America. Despite progress that has been made, the disease is still incurable and is still an international pandemic. The play onstage reminds us all how terrifying it once was, but the reality is, there is still a long road ahead.

The Normal Heart is at the Golden Theater until July 10 – a strictly limited engagement. Do not miss this.