(This is an old post that was originally made on a blog for an English class. I was happy with the post and still like the ideas, so I am posting it here.)
(Note that I later realized my description only applies to the ’98 version of the show.)
The musical Cabaretbegins and ends the same way. The show opens with the Emcee greeting us and promising us that “we have no troubles here!” Along with our protagonist Cliff, the audience falls for the “mysterious and fascinating” Sally Bowles and the languid, pleasure-seeking denizens of the Kit Kat Klub, and we give into the enticing escapism that the over-the-top sex-god Emcee promises. Then, in the finale of act one, a character takes off his jacket to reveal a Nazi armband and suddenly our entire paradise is thrown into chaos. We, along with Cliff, watch helplessly as the Third Reich rises to power, much to the apathy of our heroine and her hedonist friends. And then, at the very end of the show, our old friend, the Emcee, returns to us once more. He mugs to the audience, and we think he’ll make us laugh- give us some quip to leave us out on a high note- and then he removes his jacket to reveal a striped uniform marked with a yellow star of david and a pink triangle. “Where are your troubles now?” He asks us. “Forgotten? I told you so.”
It surprises me how frequently I see the song Cabaret sung out of context. I’ve seen young girls at vocal recitals happily belt out “life is a cabaret, old chum,” as if that’s really the takeaway of this musical. As if the song isn’t originally delivered by a post-abortion Nazi sympathizer who has just broken off the only meaningful relationship in her life because she was afraid to give up her lifestyle of debauchery.
The message of Cabaretis, unequivocally, that life is most certainly nota cabaret, old chum.
Cabaret tells us to shove our escapist fantasies and be aware of our lives in three ways.
First, there’s action on stage- Cliff gives in to escapism and is happy to ignore reality until he realizes he’s been unwittingly serving the Nazi party in order to support his comfortable life with Sally in Berlin. Sally seems like a beautiful, carefree spirit until Cliff is forced to come to terms with the fact that she’s really an irresponsible, clueless mess. Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz comfortably fantasize about marrying happily until Nazi party members who were once their friends remind them that Herr Schultz’ status as a Jew means their marriage would be grounds for great repercussions. Every character gives into escapism and is forced to return to reality by the end. The only character who stays in denial is Sally, and by this point in the story she seems not only like a bad person, but a pitiableone, doomed to spend the rest of her life in a strained, unhealthy fantasy.
Then there’s what happens in the audience. The Emcee in Cabaret is both the Emcee of the fictional Kit Kat Klub as well as the Emcee of the audience’s evening in the theater. From his very first entrance, we are inserted into the show. He speaks directly to us so the line between audience and actor becomes blurred. We’re invited into a dreamworld ourselves- the world of Cliff and Sally and the Klub- and we fall for the perfect fantasy of this world the same way Cliff does. We ignore the warning signs and allow ourselves to be taken in by sex and show biz until it’s too late to deny our bystandership. The audience, by proxy, becomes an unwitting accomplice to the rise of Adolf Hitler.
Perhaps my favorite scene in the show is just after act two begins. A heavy scene ends, and then the Emcee prances on stage with a gorilla in a tutu, and the audience laughs and claps along as he sings a characteristically nonsensical song about love and acceptance. “Why can’t the world leben and leben lassen– live and let live?” He asks, and we laugh, because he’s describing a relationship with a monkey. We laugh right up until the final line of the song: “If you could see her through my eyes… she wouldn’t look Jewish at all.” Suddenly, no one is laughing.
In his excellent book on theatre, The Empty Space, Peter Brook writes of categories of theatre pertaining to how they effect their audiences. The two that fascinated me most were the Holy theatre, wherein the audience is moved to total self-forgetfulness by the magic onstage before them, and the Rough theatre, wherein the audience is moved to painful self-awareness and even discomfort.
Cabaret is the perfect example of Rough theatre- it forces its audience into happy complacency and criticizes them when the consequences of their complacency are made clear.
This is the third way Cabaret is tells us to kill off our escapist fantasies. Cabaret is not just about characters or even the audience giving into a fantasy… it’s about reminding us to live the rest of our lives differently, too. Our night at the theatre alienates us, makes us uncomfortable and self-aware, and so we return to our regular lives with a grain of salt and a sense of unease about where else we may be an unwitting, complacent accomplice.
“We have no troubles here” indeed.
Cabaret tells us sardonically that if we claim to have no troubles, we are probably clueless, or else simply bad people in denial. It spares the audience no discomfort in order to inform them that they’ve all been had- and that they sorely need to wise up to face the future.
I love Cabaret for this message. It’s one of my favorite musicals. It’s deeply uncomfortable, and wildly inappropriate- and yet, it is one of the most profoundly effective musicals, made only more powerful by leaning into the things that make it uncomfortable.
I’m thinking about Cabaret right now (more than I usually do, anyway) because of this news story. LaGuardia High School was forced to remove all of the Nazi imagery from their production of The Sound of Music after the principal deemed it too offensive.
Well, of course Nazi imagery is offensive. That’s the point.
As Cabaret illustrates, the offensive and uncomfortable can be powerful. This isn’t to say we should encourage senseless offensive behavior, of course. Cabaret is purposefully shocking. It contains generous sex, drugs, Nazis, violence, and even an abortion. But the inclusion of these elements is not an act of worship. Some seem to think Cabaret is a raunchy free-for-all, but not a single one of these elements are glorified, unless ironically in order play the audience as the fool. Sex is seemingly glorified, until we realize it’s just the fancy gimmick used to lure us in- and the second act is decidedly sexless. We are tempted to ignore Sally’s drug use and implied alcoholism because she is so “mysterious and fascinating”, but are forced to come to terms with the fact that she’s really a mess- not at all the lovable idol we fell in love with. By the end, the offensive content is just that- offensive. We’ve seen it for what it is, and that’s why it’s in the show.
And Cabaret illustrates, of course, that ignoring our problems is not a solution.
The Holocaust is a part of our history. The Sound of Music is based on the memoirs of the real-life Von Trapp family, who really did flee Austria when the Nazi party rose to power. And, like it or not, it seems we can’t go more than a few days recently without comparisons of either American political party to the Nazi party. We can’t pretend there were or are “no troubles here”.
Censorship in high school theatre is a widespread problem, and most often, it comes back to this idea- pretending that problems don’t exist. Instead of discussing suicide, domestic violence, drug addiction- real problems students today face- theatre departments are gagged. We are to pretend the Nazis never existed, even though Nazis are currently marching in major cities.
High school administrators are engaging in a strange sort of escapist fantasy themselves, in which everyone else is aware of the problems, but they plug their ears so as to avoid addressing them.
Never before would I have thought to compare high school admins to Sally Bowles, and yet, here we are.
When these problems are addressed in a theatre, it allows a dialogue to begin that benefits actors and audience alike. Cabaret does this brilliantly, as we’ve discussed. These benefits can be multiplied in school theatre, where the actors are students under the direction of someone who is often a teacher. The school auditorium becomes a place not just for harmless family fun, but for learning- real, meaningful learning- which is what it should have been all along.
Cabaret tells us to look for the problems in our own world and make them our business. Cabaret tells us that life isn’t carefree, and trying to pretend it is only brings unhappiness. Cabaret reminds us that escaping from the real world might mean forgetting your troubles temporarily- but in the end, they’ll still be there.
If we let ourselves get wrapped up in laughing at the man dancing with the gorilla for long enough, we’ll discover we’ve missed something important- and if we let that happen, no one will be laughing at all.