Bob Fosse’s ‘Cabaret’ (1972)

Liza Minnelli in Cabaret

Liza Minnelli is a name that I’ve certainly encountered throughout my life, but it’s one that has never really conjured a very clear picture. I had falsely summated, from comments made about her, that Ms. Minnelli’s modest and short-lived celebrity, generated mostly by her famous, tragic parentage, had faded, and that most references to her had become relegated to drag shows and comedy sketches about washed up celebrities. I also remember being more than a little terrified that one of her husbands was really a ventriloquist dummy come to life. Yes, like that Buffy episode only actually frightening. When she appeared as “Lucille Two” on Arrested Development, I was surprised how much I enjoyed Ms. Minnelli, but Cabaret is obviously her signature performance.

Cabaret is a musical unlike most musicals in a couple of aspects. Most noticeably, it is not a musical designed to make the audience feel good. While musicals have certainly tackled weightier topics, even the rise of Nazi Germany (The Sound of Music), most fall into the romantic comedy genre or at least end on an optimistic note. When Cabaret‘s final credits start to roll, the only feeling that really lingers is despair. Secondly, the songs are actual musical performances within the story and serve more to establish the cultural backdrop than to develop the characters or to define relationships.

Most of the songs are performed in the cabaret and feature content that underscores an aggrandizement of ambiguous and unrestricted sexuality and a general feeling of mirth and merriment, despite the tumultuous political climate. Two of the performances even use references to the rising Nazi party and antisemitism as punchlines. One song stands in strong counterpoint to the rest, though it too is presented as a musical performance. As Brian and Max share a meal together, a Nazi youth sings “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”, which turns a song full of hope and affirmation into a chilling promise of Hitler’s Third Reich.

New York Times critic Ben Brantley commented about Ms. Minnelli that “her every stage appearance is perceived as a victory of show-business stamina over psychic frailty… She asks for love so nakedly and earnestly, it seems downright vicious not to respond.” Indeed, this quality of wanting to be loved is what makes her portrayal of Sally Bowles so powerful. Assumingly because of Sally’s cool relationship with her father, she constantly looks for someone to love her or at least give her some affection for a little while. The cabaret provides a venue where she can, in a socially acceptable way, ask dozens of strangers nightly to love her, and indeed the environment encourages the patrons to love her and find her attractive. Sally thinks for a minute that she can find more permanent love in her relationship with Brian, even though and perhaps even because Brian might be gay, but ultimately she buys into what the cabaret sells: a constant source of frivolity and “divine decadence” to distract her from the troubles and hardships of daily life. Minnelli plays Sally with a perfect combination of believable vulnerability and a certain amount of artifice. As Brian says, “Aren’t you ever gonna stop deluding yourself, hmm? Handling Max? Behaving like some ludicrous little underage femme fatale? You’re… you’re about as fatale as an afterdinner mint!”
Cabaret poster
For his part, director Bob Fosse accentuates the discongruity between the life of the cabaret and life outside the cabaret through visual cues. He films scenes in the cabaret at odd angles and unflattering close-ups, which in combination with the exaggerated stage make-up makes the world of the cabaret carnivalesque: garrish and off-putting while simultaneously fascinating. Fosse also films both the patrons and performers of the cabaret in still portraits and reflected in uneven surfaces, suggesting an artificial and distorted quality to life inside the Kit Kat Klub.

I have not seen the play version of Cabaret, though it has enjoyed a successful revival under the direction of Sam Mendes in recent years; however, I read that the Brian-Sally-Max love triangle was not part of the original play. I think that it is a lovely addition to the story, adding a rather unexpected twist. The sexual tension between Max and Brian is certainly evident, though subtly played by both Michael York and Helmut Griem, but I never expected that it would become an important piece of the plot. However, screenwriter Jay Allen does not use Brian’s homosexuality or bisexuality to turn Cabaret into the typical coming out story or confrontation of homophobia. Brian’s admission of an affair with a man only has a more significant impact on Sally because it reveals that they are cheating on each other with the same person.

My only disappointment with Cabaret was that the film version does not include “Don’t Tell Mama”, a song from the play that I really enjoy. But the film does feature probably the best “Honey, I’m pregnant” scene ever captured on film.

Liza Minnelli and Michael York in Cabaret

3 Responses to “Bob Fosse’s ‘Cabaret’ (1972)”

  1. 1 Patrick

    nice review of Cabaret, but…do a little research…Liza has won 3 Tonys, an Emmy, a Grammy, and for years sold out concert halls around the world. Hers is definitely not a “modest and short lived celebrity”.

  2. 2 stephanie b

    I wasn’t saying that was true. I was saying that was my impression of her.

  3. 3 stephanie b

    Sorry if that was unclear.

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