Direct And To The Point: Cabaret

CabaretThis post is inspired by Roundabout’s current (remounted) production of Cabaret, directed by Sam Mendes and starring Alan Cumming and Michelle Williams. Although I was familiar with the music and had a loose notion of the plot, this was the first time I’d ever actually seen a production of this show. This is perhaps the least familiar I’ve been with a show that I’m posting about, so I’m still very much in “thinking mode” about this one, but here we go…

– Who’s story is this?

I’m not sure who’s story this is. That seems completely dumb to say, but it’s true. I had always assumed that it was Sally’s story. Or perhaps Sally and Cliff’s story. Maybe that comes from having seen Liza’s face associated with it more times than I can count. And I guess it is her story. But to me, the more interesting story is the one between Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. In Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz’s story you see the rising Nazi sentiment of Berlin destroy the possibility of two people finally being able to share their lives together. In Sally and Cliff’s story, the Nazi’s presence is almost a sidebar. Due to the way this piece is structured (the effect that the Nazi presence has on the story, the way its presence is revealed and songs like “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” and “If You Could See Her”), it seems like the Nazi sentiment and the way it made cowards and enemies out of neighbors was at least one of the concepts that Kander and Ebb intended to punctuate. Making the story Sally’s seems a little asking people to pay attention to the cop who’s writing out a parking ticket, while there’s also “subplot” revolving around a cop who’s engaged in a high-speed car chase. But just because something is more interesting doesn’t mean it’s where the story is.

– About the sex.

There are a lot of show numbers with in this musical. Many of the songs are presented as the various acts of the Kit Kat Club. Which is to say, many of the songs in the show do not advance the plot with their lyrics. Rather they tend to act as commentary on the story. Since that connection is not overtly present in the lyrics, I think it’s important make sure that the staging and choreography focus on highlighting those parallels. Most of the numbers in this production did that very well, but the few that didn’t just kind of passed by as naughty nightclub numbers.

– Sensitivity vs. Survival.

In this story we find two couples – one younger and one older – but both with a sensitive man and a survivalist woman. While the details of these relationships differ, I find it interesting that the need to survive is what ultimately ends them both.

– About Sally

This production paints Sally as a very infantile sort of woman, which, while it may be a valid option, is completely unappealing to me. I think Sally is absolutely the life of the party. But I think being the life of the party is how she’s survived living in a very cold and difficult world. She’s the life of the party because she her life depends on it. She’s made of steel, even if she is unable to ultimately free herself from the destructive patterns of her life. Even in her opening number, “Don’t Tell Mama”, I think the role-play of playing sweet and innocent is much more exciting if it’s played by someone who is actually a strong woman. I mean, it’s fun to watch a cat play, but it’s much MORE exciting to see a tiger playing. The thrill of danger and power that can be turned on at any point is much more engaging than knowing you’ve already seen the full extent of what the damage would be. Plus I think letting Sally be a stronger character fits better with “Mein Herr”.  I also think this affects how we experience her decision to get an abortion and go back to the Kit Kat Klub at the end of the show. If she’s been forged by the necessities of her life and is someone who has had to take care of herself, that strength and determination makes what she does a decision of survival. If she’s infantile, it makes it a childish impulse.

– About Cliff.

Bill Heck turns in a great performance as Cliff. However, I think this role ultimately makes more sense with someone who is more of an underdog. Cliff stops working for Ernst and ultimately leaves Berlin as a result of not being able to stomach the rising Nazi sentiment, specifically as it relates to Herr Schultz. I think this kind of response is something that makes the most sense if someone is an outsider, an underdog, someone who’s not one of the cool kids. If you’re a strapping alpha male, it’s easier to bury your head in the sand and stay put, because you can convince yourself that things aren’t actually that bad in your life. Ernst still likes him and still has good paying work for him. He’s got the girl (who might be pregnant with his child). It’s significantly easier to stay put. I think Cliff has to be able to empathize deeply and personally with what Herr Schultz is experiencing, in order to up root everything and run away. I think if Cliff is that underdog, who is well aware of how ugly bulling can get, and he’s watching the situation get serious for Herr Schultz, then he knows the only thing he can do to protect Sally is take her and get the hell out of Dodge. I also think you don’t want Cliff to ever seem like a viable physical threat to Sally. I think once he becomes a potential physical threat, he’s just like every other guy she’s ever been with. There were a few moments in this production where Cliff briefly resembled Stanley Kowalski, which I don’t think serves the story in any way. I think the tragedy of Cliff is that he’s not strong enough to save Sally from herself.

– The MC.

I thought Alan Cumming did a marvelous job balancing both the notion of having fun with his role as host, yet also giving weight to the gravity of the situations. I think that is key for this role – having someone who is fun and unpredictable, but can let the mask drop in the second act. For that reason, I would love to see Christian Borle do this role as I think he does a great job at being able to flip between those two extremes. I also wonder if the MC is a figure that Sally constantly sees. What I mean by that is, in this production, the MC, as our narrator, wafts in and out of scenes – sometimes as commentary, sometimes as set dressing – without the other characters acknowledging him. Which I think is right. But I wonder if there’s milage to be gained in Sally being the only one to be aware of him in the scenes outside of the Kit Kat Klub. Frankly, it might just make her look crazy, but I would be interested in trying it.

– The Elephant in the Room.

I love the way Ernst is revealed as being involved with the Nazi party. I think it’s incredibly effective and I love that you don’t see it coming. However, I wonder if more could be done to build up more of a peripheral Nazi presence before that without diminishing that payoff. At one point Cliff is arguing with Sally about the severity of what is going on with the Nazis and he says something to the effect of “haven’t you been paying attention to what’s in the papers?!” implying that you would have to be completely obtuse to NOT know how big of a threat this was. But, quite honestly, I didn’t have any awareness that Cliff had been paying attention to it to begin with. As an audience member, I know we’re in Berlin in the 1930s, but what specifically that means with regard to the cultural saturation of the Nazi party, I don’t immediately have a context for. Especially, since no mention of it is made in the show for so long.

– Maybe This Time.

The song “Maybe This Time” functions sort of like an aside. It pops up right in the middle of a scene an presents us with Sally’s inner monologue. In this production, they staged this by pulling Sally downstage in isolated light in front of Cliff. Which is a nice visual and certainly helps us understand that the song is now commenting on the scene. But given that Cliff (and what he’s saying) are the emotional impetus for the song, I think it might be stronger to have Sally upstage of him so that she can both sing her nightclub number and still visually reference the reason that she’s singing that number.

– Life is a Cabaret.

This song marks Sally’s return to the Kit Kat Klub. For this production, they had her dressed in a very simple black sheath dress. This might be the most that her body’s been covered for the entire production. I’m not sure this costume choice really serves this moment. While I could see Sally’s character justifying to herself that this moment is about taking back the reigns of her life, ultimately it’s putting her back in a state of victimhood, at the mercy of the Kit Kat Klub. As such, I think part of the awfulness of returning to the Kit Kat Klub is being forced back into the skimpy outfits and having to perform for any man who happens to be there. (As a side note, I would also like to see her outfits be a little less revealing over the course of her living with Cliff. I understand that she’s a person who doesn’t really feel the need to cover up. But I think when you’re in a relationship that feels safe – and I think she has to allow herself to feel safe and at home to some degree in her relationship with Cliff in order for us to feel any sort of loss when they fall apart – the need to constantly be showing leg or cleavage subsides. Also, given the fact that they reference it being cold enough outside for everyone to need coats, I imagine Cliff’s apartment might also be a little chilly.) My other quibble with this moment in the show, was that the end of this song sounded exactly like everyone else I’ve ever heard sing it. This is the climax of the show and Sally’s breaking point. I think the phrasing of that should feel personal.

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Post them below. The more the merrier!

Direct And To The Point: Inspiration #2, Sam Mendes

This bit of inspiration comes to us by way of Vanity Fair Magazine. The original article can be found here. Or you can read the full text below. Enjoy!

Sam Mendes“At its spring gala, the Roundabout Theatre Company honored Sam Mendes, prolific director of theater—his King Lear and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are both currently playing in London—and films, including Skyfall and American Beauty.

The event, at the Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan, included speeches and performances from Helen Mirren, Jeremy Irons, Liam Neeson, and Alan Cumming, who did a number from Cabaret, which Mendes is bringing to Broadway this season. Some Mendes collaborators weighed in via video, including one clip in which Judi Dench and Daniel Craig joined in singing “Cabaret.”

After reviewing his career highlights, in depth, the British Academy Award winner said, “One of the things I love about Americans is you do massive ego trips incredibly well. Blimey. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many photographs of myself. I didn’t even know they existed.” Mendes also noted that while tributes are wonderful, they are backward looking, and then decided to share what he’s learned along the way. “If there are any directors out there in the audience, or anyone who’s interested in directing, I’ve written 25 steps towards becoming a happier director. These are them:

  1. Always choose good collaborators. It seems so obvious, but the best collaborators are the ones who disagree with you. It means they’re passionate, they have opinions, and they’ll only ever say yes if they mean it.
  2. Try to learn how to make the familiar strange, and the strange familiar. Direct Shakespeare like it’s a new play, and treat every new play as if it’s Shakespeare.
  3. If you have the chance, please work with Dame Judi Dench.
  4. Learn to say, “I don’t know the answer.” It could be the beginning of a very good day’s rehearsal.
  5. Go to the ancient amphitheater at Epidaurus, in Greece. It makes you realize what you are a part of, and it will change the way you look at the world. If you’re an artist, you will feel central, and you will never feel peripheral again.
  6. Avoid, please, all metaphors of plays or films as “pinnacles” or “peaks”; treat with absolute scorn the word “definitive”; and if anyone uses the word “masterpiece,” they don’t know what they’re doing. The pursuit of perfection is a mug’s game.
  7. If you are doing a play or a film, you have to have a secret way in if you are directing it. Sometimes it’s big things. American Beauty, for me, was about my adolescence. Road to Perdition was about my childhood. Skyfall was about middle-age and mortality. Sometimes it’s small things. Maybe it’s just a simple idea. What if we do the whole thing in the nightclub, for example. But it’s not enough just to admire a script, you have to have a way in that is yours, and yours alone.
  8. Confidence is essential, but ego is not.
  9. Theater is the writer’s medium and the actor’s medium; the director comes a distant third. If you want a proper ego trip, direct movies.
  10. Buy a good set of blinkers. Do not read reviews. It’s enough to know whether they’re good or they’re bad. When I started, artists vastly outnumbered commentators, and now, there are a thousand published public opinions for every work of art. However strong you are, confidence is essential to what you do, and confidence is a fragile thing. Protect it. As T.S. Eliot says, teach us to care, and not to care.
  11. Run a theater. A play is temporary, a building is permanent. So try to create something that stays behind and will be used and loved by others.
  12. You are never too old to learn something new, as I was reminded when I learned to ski with my 10-year-old son. He, of course, did it in about 10 minutes, and I spent four days slaloming up and down, looking like a complete tit. But, don’t be scared of feeling like a complete tit. It’s an essential part of the learning process.
  13. There is no right and wrong, there is only interesting, and less interesting.
  14. Paintings, novels, poetry, music are all superior art forms. But theater and film can steal from all of them.
  15. There are no such things as “previews” on Broadway.
  16. Peter Brook said, “The journey is the destination.” Do not think of product, or, god forbid, audience response. Think only of discovery and process. One of my favorite quotes from Hamlet—Polonius: “By indirections find the directions out.”
  17. Learn when to shut up. I’m still working on this one.
  18. When you have a cast of 20, this means you have 20 other imaginations in the room with you. Use them.
  19. Please remember the Oscars are a TV show.
  20. Get on with it. Robert Frost said, “Tell everything a little faster.” He wasn’t wrong.
  21. The second production of a musical is always better than the first.
  22. Learn to accept the blame for everything. If the script was poor, you didn’t work hard enough with the writer. If the actors failed, you failed them. If the sets, the lighting, the poster, the costumes are wrong, you gave them the thumbs-up. So build up your shoulders, they need to be broad.
  23. On screen, your hero can blow away 500 bad guys, but if he smokes one fucking cigarette, you’re in deep shit.
  24. Always have an alternative career planned out. Mine is a cricket commentator. You will never do this career, but it might help you get to sleep at night.
  25. Never, ever, ever forget how lucky you are to do something that you love.”