Lavender MagazineArts Spotlight: 486 By: John Townsend January 9, 2014
Theatre Latte Da and Hennepin Theatre Trust are reviving Kander and Ebb’s 1966 groundbreaker Cabaret. Be aware that what you’ll see is the bolder 1998 re-imagined version. How fitting it’s part of The Trust’s Broadway Re-Imagined program. Director Peter Rothstein says “I’ve always wanted to direct Cabaret but only if I could do the 1998 version, because I wasn’t interested in putting the show ‘back in the closet’. They began to license the 1998 version just this year. Needless to say, I secured the rights immediately.”
At the time it was written, the original director, Hal Prince, didn’t feel audiences could handle the homosexual aspects that penetrate Berlin Stories by iconic gay writer Christopher Isherwood, the work from which the musical is drawn. Given its two doomed romances, Nazis, and abortion, there seemed to be enough controversial content anyway. (Abortion was still illegal and unspeakable then.) The musical’s book writer, Joe Masteroff, notes that “in the original stories the character really had no sex; in 1966 our Cliff was heterosexual; in Bob Fosse’s film (1972) he was bisexual. In the 1987 revival, Cliff reluctantly admits to his homosexuality.” When the 1998 revival came about Cliff kisses another man by the third scene. Rothstein adds that “the dialogue and songs were changed, in my opinion, to more accurately reflect the sexual liberation of the time.”
Isherwood’s experience is the inspiration for the stories, therefore, the musical. He left his native England for Berlin in 1929 with frank interest in exploring his homosexual and homo-romantic feelings and fleeing the stultifying upper class expectations foisted on him by family obligation. Berlin was what one might compare to San Francisco in the 1960s and ’70s: a mecca for sexual and gender outcasts in which they could live freely and openly and possibly prosper. Gay acceptance, women’s rights, Marxism, creative self-expression, and religious tolerance were hallmarks of Weimar Berlin, which of course, were all anathema to the authoritarian Nazi movement gaining steam at the time. This impending threat of Fascism is vividly felt in the stories and in the musical. The city’s 500-plus cabarets extensively employed GLBT personnel. Crossgender performances on stages were common. In Berlin Stories, however, Cliff is closeted. One can argue his sexual otherness rises between the lines. (It’s worth noting that Isherwood’s memoir, Chistopher and His Kind is a landmark work in being a gay and sexually-expressed Brit in Weimar Berlin. It should be required reading or viewing of the film version.)
All this made Rothstein wonder “how could this culture that so freely embraced homosexuals, women’s rights and religious tolerance allow for the horrors of the Holocaust? That difficult question makes Cabaret transcend the test of time and reson enough to produce it in the Twin Cities in 2014. Plus, it’s just damn sexy.”
For those who think ill of Hal Prince for not going with the gay undercurrent more fully, it’s important to point out that homosexuality in the 1960s and into the ’70s was still close to being unmentionable and when mentioned, was almost always stigmatized in most places. Crossdressing and homosexuality were still seen as two sides of the same coin. Though New York and Los Angeles, the centers of the nation’s entertainment industry, had vibrant gay communities at the time, they were still one of the very, very few American cities where gay freedom was somewhat allowed, but even then only in insulated sections of the cities. Gay ghetto was a term used at the time in reference to such sections. So just because New York and LA had some degree of gay acceptance glbt folk citizens were still clearly marginalized. The entertainment monolith still rigidly adhered to the traditional values of the rest of the land. And don’t delude yourself that every straight citydweller in those two metropolises was openly pro-gay. Not so! Even allies at the time had to lay low.
Granted, though Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Isherwood, Gore Vidal, James Baldwin and Jean Genet were celebrated at the time they were seen as part of an echelon detached from the American mainstream. Figures like television’s Johnny Carson and inadvertently and ironically Vidal’s conservative enemy, William F. Buckley, helped push the envelope. Vidal was just so smart, witty, and sharp on points of American history. Williams’s plays were just so damned brilliant and some had been made into extremely popular films with who were even then, legendary stars, like Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, Katherine Hepburn, Ava Gardner, Richard Burton, Deborah Kerr, and Geraldine Page. Capote was also a Carson staple and his gossipy personality was adored by bitchy people everywhere. Genet and Ishwerwood were big selling authors. Baldwin was embraced primarily at the time as a race-equality figure. His gayness was often not talked about. But these were not the norm! Many also have the wrong idea that the whole nation was smoking pot and protesting the war in Vietnam. Not so! Those in small towns and most suburbs were totally untouched by war protests and race riots. For most of them, segregation and militarism were seen as things somewhere between perfectly normal and sacred. Both corporate and alternative media since then have irresponsibly left the conservative 1960s reality by the wayside. If the radical ’60s mentality had been as permeating as media presents, there never would have been a ‘Reagan Revolution’.
That’s why one has to credit Prince with going with what he could. Put him in context of his time and not our own. In a 1966 Cabaret rehearsal he showed the cast a group of disheveled protestors. He said “I asked the cast to identify where and when the photo was taken and everyone naturally assumed it was Berlin in the early thirties because that’s the time and place of our show. They were surprised when I said it was taken in Little Rock, Arkansas in the mid-fifties. These aren’t Hitler Youth but blonde white kids snarling at black kids entering an integrated school, an image that is still relevant today, unfortunately. We’ve come along way since 1966, and since 1930 too for that matter, but human nature doesn’t change; what happened in Berlin at the time of Cabaret can happen here.”
In Nazi Germany hundreds of thousand of GLBT people were put to death in concentration camps. They were made to wear a pink triangle. Some Christians didn’t buy into the Nazism because of its unprecedented trampling on the teachings of Christ, though many Christians and their churches did go along with it. True Christians, gypsies, and communists in the hundreds of thousands met horrific deaths in the camps and Nazi outposts. They too had their stigmatizing badges. Six million Jews, who were signified in the camps by wearing yellow stars, perished at the hands of Hitler’s regime. But do we hold Hitler solely accountable or do we also include all those who went semiconsciously along with him? And if we do that, then aren’t we also taking inventory of our own selves and how the systems we each partake in, help our hurt our fellow human beings?
It’s also now widely held that when the allies brokered the Versailles treaty after World War I that it was so punitive toward Germany that it was inevitable that there would be a nationalistic backlash and that a tyrannical leader would emerge. And of course, that’s what happened. France was the most vengeful ally at Versailles and ironically it would be France that would be occupied and terrorized by the Nazis less than two decades later. Had the Golden Rule been followed history might have been very different and happier.