‘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.

“Second Chance? Thank you, Lord!”

Following on the heels of this past Sunday’s closing performance of The Scottsboro Boys, the show’s producers are trying something a little different in order to gauge whether or not to bring the short-lived musical back for a return engagement this spring. It was announced today that fans and supporters could pledge to buy a ticket by signing up on the show’s website (which, by the way, has one of the best study guides I’ve seen for a Broadway show). From the results of that drive, they will check to see if the demand is worth the risk.

Barry Weissler went on record today to say:

“We’ve heard from people who told us what a difference The Scottsboro Boys made in their lives – how the show changed their perception of what a Broadway musical can do. We’ve also heard from countess others who have expressed disappointment that they missed seeing the show on Broadway and who were unable to get to us before our untimely closing.   In the final two weeks of our run, we also witnessed some of the most extraordinary audience response I’ve experienced in over 40 years of producing theatre.  We’ve seen similar passion on our Facebook and Twitter pages and in the audience reviews at our show website.”

“In 1931, the world came together to fight against the terrible injustice that occurred to these nine innocent African American teenagers.   Their story has too often been overlooked, but now, almost 80 years later, we’d love nothing more than to keep the story of the Scottsboro Boys alive.   Rumors have been circulating about a return limited engagement for The Scottsboro Boys this spring, but we cannot do this without the support of the ticket-buying public.   We encourage those who would like to have The Scottsboro Boys return to Broadway to sign up with the intent to purchase tickets for a spring limited engagement.  If we can make the numbers work, we will be back.”

Weissler also talked to media outlets about touring the show through various subscription based non-profit theatres around the country, who would provide a built in audience. It’s a risk, but one that I hope the producers take. The new musicals slated for the second half of the year are more traditional musical comedies and revivals. It would be nice to have one serious show from this season (particularly this fall) on the boards around Tony Award time. It’s refreshing to see producers putting so much effort into a show that is clearly very important to them.

I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it again – whether or not you like the show is besides the point: if you care about the American musical you’ll want to see The Scottsboro Boys. (I only hope if they make this happen, they are able to keep the cast together). I’ve pledged to buy my ticket. Will you?

Closing Night: “The Scottsboro Boys”

Scottsboro Hey

When I find myself really taken with a particular show, I make it a point to try to return to see it at its closing performance. The closing  is filled similar fans (as well as family and friends) who want to come back one last time to savor the theatrical magic that drew us in the first time around. I was startled when The Scottsboro Boys announced its closing notice two weeks ago; I had expected the show to last through the holiday season and well into Tony time. But after only 29 previews and 49 performances, the final Kander and Ebb musical set its last show at the Lyceum Theatre for December 12. In spite of some strong reviews and a vociferous audience response, the show couldn’t muster up an audience or advance sales. When asked if I wanted to go to the last show, I said yes immediately.

The musical is one of the best I have seen in the last few years. It was bold, daring and audacious while being literate, tuneful and clever. Kander and Ebb’s score, evoking the sounds of the South, is one of the best I’ve heard in some time and I think ranks with Chicago and Cabaret. There’s not a dud in the score, from the jubilant “Hey Hey Hey Hey!” opening to the chilling title number in the finale with its climactic and impactful use of blackface. (For what it’s worth, the minstrelsy was used in a way that spoke of empowerment and abandonment of the archaic and racist form of entertainment).

In one of the classiest gestures I’ve ever seen from an audience, there was a spontaneous full-house standing ovation for John Kander as he was led to his seat pre-show. It’s a moment in my theatregoing life that I will never forget. (To the Broadway producers out there – I’m still waiting for the NY premiere of The Visit). It was a moving gesture to a man whose 50 year career is synonymous with Broadway excellence (starting as dance arranger for the original production of Gypsy). It struck me that many of Kander’s contemporaries haven’t had new work on Broadway in years. Jerry Herman’s last musical (La Cage) opened on Broadway when I was less than two months old. Bock and Harnick never wrote another musical together after The Rothschilds in 1970. Even the master, Stephen Sondheim hasn’t had a brand new Broadway musical since Passion in 1994.

Kander and Ebb have been represented continuously on Broadway since 1996, when the still-running revival of Chicago opened. They’ve had three new musicals have opened on the Rialto in that time (Steel Pier, Curtains and Scottsboro). When not on Broadway, other new musicals have been in gestation in regional theatres – including Over and Over/All About Us (adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth) and The Visit. Scottsboro marked the final debut of a Kander and Ebb score and brings to a close one of the greatest chapters in musical theatre history.

There’s that final performance quality for anyone who has been involved on either side of the footlights. Energies and emotions are high and that usually channels itself into a riveting performance with a heightened electricity and pace that adds to the special quality of the day. This was no exception. Numbers received extenuous applause – the opening number, “Shout” and “Never Too Late” all but stopped the show dead. “Go Back Home” is the loveliest ballad I have heard in quite some time and has an emotional resonance which brought many in the house to tears.

As for the cast, if there was yet again ever a reason for a Tony Award for Best Ensemble, this is it. John Cullum guides the evening as the Interlocuter, the sole white actor onstage. Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon were brilliant as Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo. As for the nine actors playing the Scottsboro Boys, all are exceptionally talented singers, dancers and actors. Seeing it a second time allowed me the opportunity of picking up elements on the periphery, including the really striking way in which The Lady is used throughout the show (and given a beautiful, mostly silent portrayal by Sharon Washington), often observing on the periphery. It was especially interesting this time just to see how much thought went into the character’s function (for those who didn’t see it, it was ultimately revealed that she was Rosa Parks).

The classiness of the evening continued through the curtain call, which brought the entire cast and creative team together with members of the production team. After glasses of wine were passed around, Kander offered a toast to his late collaborator Fred Ebb (who died in 2004) then librettist David Thompson offered a toast to the real Scottsboro Boys and finally Stroman offered a toast to the audience. Of the many closings I’ve attended (this was my 14th), this was the first with such a gesture and it was one of the most understated and effective ways to celebrate the run of a show I’ve seen.

There has been talk of The Scottsboro Boys returning in the spring, just in time for Tony recognition. Many succes d’estime shows talk about tours and return engagements when forced to close and nothing comes of it. However, this time I would really love to see it come to fruition. Scottsboro was not seen by nearly enough people. This is a bit premature as there are many, many musicals left to open this season, but I really do hope that Kander and Ebb take home the Best Score Tony this spring. (I’m also hoping Stroman is double-nominated in one of her finest outings as director/choreographer). It may have run only 49 performances, but The Scottsboro Boys have set the bar exceedingly high. I only hope the Tony nominating committee and the Tony voters aren’t in their usual out of sight, out of mind mentality when it comes to fall shows that have closed.

After the show, I went to Angus to decompress with dramaturge Russ Dembin, my web designer Chris Van Patten and a few of Chris’ friends. Sitting in the bar in what could be best described as stunned wide-eyed silence. There was a lot to process, but eventually we talked about their reactions to the show which were overwhelmingly enthusiastic and also just depressed at the premature closing. But I do have a feeling that while this original production is short-lived, the musical will maintain a reputation that other noble failures have achieved. There is early talk of a film adaptation to be made by Oscar nominated director Lee Daniels. But even if that weren’t to come to fruition, The Scottsboro Boys does have that one important link that keeps a musical from total obscurity: an original cast album.

Say Goodbye to “The Scottsboro Boys”

While I didn’t expect The Scottsboro Boys to run for years, I was still quite taken aback and shocked to read that the new musical was closing. The Kander and Ebb show – their final collaboration- will shutter on December 12 after only 49 performances and 29 previews. With a book by David Thompson and superlative direction and choreography by Susan Stroman, Scottsboro told the story of these nine men who were falsely accused, tried and convicted for the rape of two white women, in one of the darkest chapters in the history of racial America.

Drawing upon historical record and fact, the creative team built one of the most original musicals that has been seen on Broadway in quite some time. The musical is presented as a minstrel show, using minstrel techniques as a framing device to both comment and condemn the incident with an Interlocutor, cakewalks and even a shocking, gut-wrenching use of black-face. The musical first appeared at the Vineyard Theatre last spring followed by a pre-Broadway run at the Guthrie in Minneapolis this summer. It started previews on October 7 and opened to mostly positive (if somewhat reserved) reviews on Halloween.

I guess it’s the nature of the business these days, but it seems that producers are either unwilling or unable to allow a show that’s not particularly mainstream to build an audience via word of mouth. Last season’s revivals of Finian’s Rainbow and Ragtime were met with a similar fate. None of these shows was what I would deem well-publicized, and their exceptional quality alone didn’t seem to help draw audiences. Interestingly, all three deal with racial injustice in one way or another. (Another show dealing with race relations, Memphis, the only new musical with an original score last season, won the Best Musical Tony and is still running).

Oscar Hammerstein II’s adaptation of Edna Ferber’s Show Boat took daring strides in presenting the famed “Miscegenation scene” involving a biracial principal character and also integrating black characters with white characters. Joe and Queenie are more than servants, they are part of the Show Boat family and are treated with dignity and respect by the white proprietors. Other musicals have been less successful: Hallelujah, Baby! and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue come immediately to mind as failures whose authors’ good intentions came off as expressions of condescending white liberal guilt.

Even the 1993 revival of Show Boat directed by Harold Prince (with Stroman’s choreography) was met with protestors who felt the show was racist, similarly to those who protested Scottsboro a few weeks ago. Never in my experiences with musical theatre have I experienced a musical that dealt with race relations with unflinching honesty; uncompromising and unyielding about the ugly core at the center of the story. The creators of Scottsboro were not out to make light of this story; their use of the techniques is at once alienating and fascinating, forcing the audience to confront an ugly past that in our politically correct age we’d rather not think about.

‘Post-racial America’ is a term I’ve heard a lot, especially since Barack Obama was elected President. However, I don’t know if that’s a term that rings true. I’m hopeful for equality and great progress has been made in the 80 years since the Scottsboro incident. But it’s foolish to neglect the fact that racism is still a problem in the U.S. and may always be one. Whether it’s some idiot using an ethnic slur over a Wal-Mart intercom, or accusations of racism in government hierarchies and political parties or physical violence, there are still many issues that need to be worked out. If you do a news search for the term “racist attack” you might be surprised at the number of recent articles that pop up – and on an international level. Platitudes only get us so far. Understanding what has been is the only way we can learn and therefore make strides for what should and must be a better tomorrow. The Scottsboro Boys is a show that can start the conversation we should all be having about inequality in America.

When the show closes, it will mark the shortest run of any Kander & Ebb show since 70 Girls 70 in 1971. I’m a bit surprised that the producers didn’t even want to give it an extra few weeks. The two weeks around Christmas and New Year’s Day are the two most lucrative in the Broadway season. I recall seeing Souvenir at the same theatre five years ago – a show that had been struggling since opening and had posted its notice – selling out an entire Wednesday evening house. The two kids next to me admitted that they had never heard of the show but couldn’t get tickets to anything else. No expectations, but they wanted to see a Broadway show. During that time, tourists will even see the less popular vehicles. It’s a glorious time. Why they chose to close before Christmas is beyond me. I say give it an extra month, at least.

Another thing about the show, and something I had a great conversation with Jesse North of Stage Rush about after we saw the first preview was its marketability. How would the producers promote the show? In spite of a great TV commercial, I never saw anyone from the cast appearing on television shows. If The Scottsboro Boys has anything it has a superlative score and one of the best new ballads in years: “Go Back Home.” Where were the appearances on Live with Regis and Kelly or The View to give audiences a sample? Even after protestors took on the show, no one it seems, except Whoopi Goldberg, seemed to hop on the national bandwagon championing the show and its message. 

Just a few days ago I was thanking the producers of this show and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson for risking their shirts and I stand by that. But why are they throwing in the towel so soon? I also think it’s just a little bit Scrooge-like to basically fire a team of employees at the peak of the holiday season. It was a great gesture for the Weisslers to take on the new Kander & Ebb show, especially since the revival of Chicago has given them more money than they’ll ever need. However, it would be an even greater gesture if they put some of that money into running Scottsboro for a while longer. Considering the glorious Lyceum, a house I love, is one of the least desirable locations for any Broadway show, I can’t imagine a stop-clause had anything to do with it. Closing the show now will kill its chances at the Tony Awards in June. We saw it happen last year and the year before. For the voters: out of sight, out of mind.

Fortunately the show has a wonderful cast album of its Off-Broadway production and will no doubt become a title that will be attempted by regional theatres. I plan to see the show in the next two weeks. If you seriously care about the American musical, so should you.

“The Scottsboro Boys”: A Story to Tell

This is hands down the best TV commercial for a Broadway show I’ve seen in quite a while. One of the topics Stage Rush’s Jesse North and I discussed after the first preview of The Scottsboro Boys (but not on-air) was the show’s marketability. With a tough storyline, hard-hitting concept and all around edginess, this isn’t your ordinary, everyday family/theme park musical. The show’s team has done exemplary work on this 30 second spot. Needless to say, one look at this commercial and I want to see it again. Also, the original off-Broadway cast recording was released by Jay Records this week and is a must-have.


First Preview Tonight: “The Scottsboro Boys”

I’ll be in the audience at the Lyceum Theatre tonight for the first Broadway preview of The Scottsboro Boys, Kander and Ebb’s final musical. (Many thanks to my buddy Jesse from Stage Rush). It’s a risk for a musical: telling the story of a group of young black men falsely convicted of the rape of two white women in 1931. The show, which was produced off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre last season, tells this harrowing story of racial injustice with an ironic, fascinating concept: as a minstrel show. Taking this archaic, racist antedecent of burlesque, the creative team uses it to comment on our nation’s racial history. The cast is predominantly African American, with one white man (two-time Tony winner John Cullum headlines as the Interlocutor).

Word of mouth from off-Broadway and from it summer run at the Guthrie Theatre has been tremendous. Even reviews that were less than positive have fueled my interest in the show. When I read the NY Times review of the off-Broadway run, my reaction was “This show sounds incredible.” I’ve been greatly excited by the show’s audacity and compelled by the story being told. And given Kander and Ebb’s ability to tackle brave and daring ideas with Cabaret, Chicago and Kiss of the Spider Woman, a daring, cutting edge musical like Scottsboro is an outstanding swan song (though I hope someone brings The Visit to NY).

David Thompson supplied the book, Susan Stroman the direction and choreography. The cast features Joshua Henry, who is replacing Brandon Victor Dixon as Haywood Patterson (Dixon left to star in the upcoming Ray Charles musical). The original cast album comes out on Tuesday, which represents the off-Broadway version of the show. It’s one to have: the score is beautiful, bold and brilliant with memorable songs and some haunting arrangements. Plus, there’s a bonus track of the late Fred Ebb singing “Go Back Home,” the show’s standout ballad.

This is a brief clip of the cast (with David Anthony Brinkley as the Interlocutor) performing the opening number “Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey” from the summer run at the Guthrie :


Writer and dancer Emily Frankel, who blogs at Em’s Talkery, is married to John Cullum. They get together once a week to film a small vlog for AIR Broadway casting and her site. In this particular entry, they talk about Cullum’s rehearsal process and preparation for the Broadway run:


Finally, here is a clip of Brandon Victor Dixon on Theatre Talk singing the “Go Back Home” which has haunted me since I first heard it:


"The Happy Time" – An Appreciation

I’m not sure why I didn’t delve into The Happy Time around the time I was first discovering Cabaret, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Woman of the Year and Chicago. John Kander and Fred Ebb made an indelible mark on Broadway, with a collaboration that spanned almost 40 years, producing some of the most respected musicals this side of the 20th century. Somehow when I was touching on the hits, I overlooked this 1968 gem.

To be honest, The Happy Time isn’t a great musical. It suffers from (what else?) a weak libretto by N. Richard Nash that’s very loosely adapted from Samuel Taylor’s play. But Kander and Ebb wrote a score that is very much unlike any other they wrote. Their musical scores were usually edgier and grittier than most, delving into darker cynicism shaped by directorial concept. However, this one has a romanticism and lightness that if a far cry from a seedy Berlin nightclub, a Windy City or South American jail cell or an ice skating rink.

The story concerns a jet-setting, prodigal son photographer who returns to his French-Canadian hometown St. Pierre to reconnect with his family, turning their lives upside down. His curmudgeonly father continues to criticize – when not looking at his “dirty pictures,” while his nephew worships him. Meanwhile, he reconnects with a former love, who has grown into a practical, focus (read: grownup) schoolteacher.

The musical was produced by that Abominable Showman David Merrick and directed and choreographed by Gower Champion, who won Tonys for both assignments. Robert Goulet, who won his Best Actor Tony for his work here, starred alongside David Wayne and newcomer Michael Rupert. Julie Gregg was Goulet’s love interest and old pros George S. Irving and Charles Durning played Goulet’s brothers. The production opened at the Broadway Theatre on January 28, 1968 to decidedly mixed reviews. Many found favor with the actors, but great fault with the script. It closed after 286 performances and bears the distinction of being the first musical to lose a million dollar investment.

However, the show, though mired in relative obscurity, has found a new life in recent years. Goodspeed Opera House showcased the first revisal in 1980. A production at the Niagara University Theatre in 2002 enlisted Kander and Ebb to help further revise the book and score, restoring cut scenes and songs. The composing team declared this the definitive performance version of the show and was used in the 2007 Musicals in Mufti concert and the 2008 Signature Theatre revival in Virginia.

RCA recorded the original cast album which showcases what was so wonderful about the original production: its music and lyrics. Goulet gets the choicest material, notably the lilting title song that opens the show and the act two opener “Walking Among My Yesterdays,” the most beautiful song about nostalgia I have ever heard. Wayne charms with “The Life of the Party” and Rupert makes an auspicious Broadway debut with the charming “Please Stay” and the rousing “Without Me.” All three score with the eleven o’clock number “A Certain Girl,” which to my ear is about as close to Jerry Herman territory you’re likely to find Kander and Ebb. For those who are wondering, Goulet is at a vocal peak here; his confident and assured baritone ringing out quite clearly with none of the Vegas stylings for which he later became quite notorious.

Now, I’m not saying that The Happy Time is their best score, but it certainly ranks as my personal favorite. This original Broadway cast album gets more airplay than any other Kander & Ebb score. A little caveat: here’s a clip from the 1968 Tony Awards. Goulet sings the title song, then joins Wayne and Rupert on “A Certain Girl.” Ohhh, for the days when Tony performances lasted eight minutes… Enjoy.


"One of the Boys"

Bluegobo has returned! They may not have the Ed Sullivan clips, but there is still a lot to enjoy at the website. To celebrate here’s a clip:

Before Allison Janney started singing a song of the same name in the current 9 to 5, Lauren Bacall delivered “One of the Boys” in Woman of the Year, winning a second Tony in this then-contemporary updating of the Tracy-Hepburn classic. Not the strongest of book shows, it sports a fun musical comedy score from Kander and Ebb, which has been out of print on CD for years (Arkiv Music, get on it!). Perhaps it’s time for Encores! to give us another NY production, starring the aforementioned Janney or maybe one of our regular musical leading ladies like Donna Murphy.

Here is Bacall and the boys delivering the crowd pleaser on the Tony telecast in 1981.