Cabaret the musical

Cabaret is a musical based on Christopher Isherwood semiautobiographical book Goodbye to Berlin based on “his experiences of living in Berlin at the end of the Weimar republic”, and John Van Druten’s Broadway stage adaption of the novella “Sally Bowles” story in I am a Camera (Hillman-McCord 2012:91). The film Cabaret was set in Berlin during 1930s that centered on life in the Kit Kat Klub nightclub and around it, through the telling of the story of Sally Bowles, Brian Roberts and their friends. The film contrasts the decadency of the cabaret show against the juxtaposition of violence, Nazism and anti-Semitism present at the time.

Sally Bowles and master of ceremonies

Cabaret contains “provocative visuals that captured the social life and moral degeneracy of Weimer Berlin” (Garebian 2011:179). Berlin cabarets were a product of changes in artistic taste and urban life. The cabarets in Berlin during this period of multiple social and political movements contained a cross-section of German society, “though the literary cabarets drew a more select audience than did the political ones” (Garebian 2011:179). Within the film musical, the Cabaret and its master of ceremonies becomes the central metaphor of the film, illustrating the decaying society. This pioneering new trend of a metaphor holding a plot together created a new musical theatre structure called the ‘concept musical’. The set was an integral part of the concept of Cabaret and the representation of Berlin.

Cabaret serves as a key example of the complexities involved in text and reception of it audience with a popular musical film. The film portrayed its German citizens of all classes within a sympathetic and non-judgmental light motivated through the foreigner perspective of Englishman Brian Roberts. The author of cabaret Joe Masteroff stated “I wanted to make a production that was somehow coming from that place, not from any sort of judgment about that place. I really wanted to capture a free sense of Berlin in this time” (Garebian 2011:179). Within the story, Sally Bowles the nightclub performer and Brian Roberts a homosexual Englishman form a friendship and become entanglement in love and sexuality complications. “One is precisely that of the fascination with the other, the oscillation between alien and familiar” (Elsässer 1996:137). All the drama is set against the backdrop of the nascent fascism of the period, therefore shifting perspectives in Hollywoods film industry representation of Germans. However, most remarkable is the fact that the Cabaret was used as a Nazi setting to tell a musical. Such a complex and sinister chapter of history combined with jazz music was thought to be trivialising the past, however the shift from somber Wagnerian music drama genre, for example The Damned, to popular jazz catchy music made musicals as a genre to be taken ‘seriously’ (Elsässer 1996).

Cabaret is a hybrid text that is “regarded as a historical fact about 1972” (Elsässer 1996:137). As the author intended by stating “I suddenly began looking at Cabaret as much more of a historical piece. It was a part of history; it was in history; and it was a moment of history” (Garebian 2011:179). The film therefore records the transgressive shifts in gender, sexuality and popular music within the referential place of Berlin in the 1930s, of which the place itself holds the connotations of danger, transgression and transition. Overall, “Cabaret represented its diegetic universe as a blend of youth, the politics of the street, impending apocalypse and sexual adventure, suggesting a number of Zeitgeist parallels between the 1930s and the 1970s, which however shallow they may seem to a social historian, allowed the film to have a multivocal speaking position, made coherent by its star, who successfully ‘addressed’ these new and shifting audiences” (Elsässer 1996:137).

“We have no troubles here, here life is beautiful” (Cabaret 1972).

Elsässer, T. (1996) Film culture in transition: Fassbinder’s Germany: History, Identity, Subject

Amsterdam: Amsterdam university press

Garebian, K (2011) The making of Cabaret

New York: Oxford University press

Hillman-McCord, J. (2012) Echoes of the Holocaust on the American Musical Stage

North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc Publishers


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