Cabaret: When we say "never again," we mean it

by Victoria Aschheim

"They were so willing to go to a place that they knew was theatrically so dangerous. They couldn't get there fast enough." David Thompson on Kander and Ebb*

A lively connection between the performing arts and the life of scholarship has been forged in the first segment of the partnership between the Humanities Center at Harvard and the American Repertory Theater. A full-house audience gathered on September 20 at Club Oberon, seated at small, round tables in a cabaret atmosphere, to hear a remarkable panel discuss the A.R.T. revival of Cabaret, as well as the musical's history and setting in 1931 Weimar Republic Berlin, with the looming tragedy of the rise of the Third Reich.The profound discussion was driven by the insights of stars in the firmament of the Harvard faculty: moderator and director of the Humanities Center Homi K. Bhabha, history professor Charles Maier, music professor Carol J. Oja and professor of English and comparative literature Martin Puchner. Amanda Palmer, of The Dresden Dolls, also joined the forum to discuss her role as Emcee, a deeply dark role she described as the "human embodiment of the ultimate party and the ultimate tragedy."Scott McMillin has observed: "The rise of Nazism seems to take place in a seedy Berlin nightclub."** Club Oberon is transformed into the site of the Berlin cabaret, where anti-Semitism and the Nazis’ empowerment hovers in the air the audience breathes. The look of John Kander (composer) and Fred Ebb's (lyricist) Cabaret productions was strongly influenced by Ebb's great interest in German Expressionist art. The A.R.T. production at Club Oberon continues this aesthetic vision.In a 2004 radio interview, Joel Grey (whose iconic performance as Emcee was noted by Professor Oja), identified the song "If You Could See Her Through My Eyes" ("she wouldn't look Jewish at all") – "the meanest...darkest of songs" – as the moment when Cabaret turned into what was going on in Nazi Germany."*** The legacy of the period of the 1931 Weimar Republic and Cabaret’s relevance for the 21st century provided a gripping ethical theme in the discussion. Professor Bhabha observed that the question that haunts us is how we are implicated in the blindness of the decadent Kit Kat Klub, the nightclub setting of Cabaret, in which the audience, importantly including the audience in the A.R.T. production, becomes an integral part.Sensing a "strong transnational" aspect in Cabaret, Professor Bhabha told of the nagging anxiety he felt on trips to India and Latin America that bookended his attendance of Cabaret. "Entertainment," he expressed, "is a kind of containment," with the "glittering nights and days of globalization that cast shadows of destitution." Professor Bhabha in this way introduced the message of ethical vigilance we as observers of societal danger must perpetuate. Professor Oja captured the relevance of Cabaret: "The gift of politically-related art is to get under your skin and make you feel deeply uncomfortable." Politically motivated, liberal arts humanists, Professor Bhabha stressed "have to believe that when we say 'never again,' we mean it; we can't afford to say it won't happen again, for we then lose our ethical vigilance. The huge problem of the moment is that it is happening now."Professor Maier spoke of the milieu of 1931 Berlin with the Nazis gaining support, and with open anti-Semitism in the city. He provided as an example of the intersection of the public and private spheres of 1931 Berlin, the shocking moment in the 1972 film version of Cabaret when a boy begins angelically singing "Tomorrow Belongs To Me," gradually electrifying the crowd with the increasingly strident Nazi spirit of his performance. Professor Maier reflected: "You can see him change and the people change – the two worlds cannot be kept apart."Professor Oja observed that memories of the Holocaust are very much present in this country. She described how familiar modes of musical meaning can be gripping and unsettling, citing two musicals with historical frameworks: Cabaret and Fiddler on the Roof (1964), which ends with a pogrom and its music in a minor mode dirge. Professor Oja described Lotte Lenya, who performed the role of Fraulein Schneider in the original (1966) Broadway production of Cabaret, as representing a "lost world." Professor Oja pointed out the transatlantic element Lenya exemplified: Lenya brought Berlin to New York, having first played Jenny in Marc Blitzstein's English version of The Threepenny Opera and then Fraulein Schneider in Cabaret. Lenya's authenticity was evident in the striking musical example Professor Oja provided, Lenya's lyrical interpretation of the waltz, "So What," "beneath it albeit a cynical strand." Fred Ebb wrote in his memoir that Lenya "personified the authenticity of what we were doing."**** In reading John Kander's memoir in preparation for the forum, Professor Oja related how Kander feared being perceived as ripping off Kurt Weill. Lenya consoled Kander that his music did not sound like Weill, but Professor Oja observed that Kander's music does draw on Weill and Blitzstein. Professor Bhabha described as "a magical moment" Professor Oja's playing the song "Meeskite" (a Yiddish word meaning funny-looking), which was omitted from the film version of Cabaret.Professor Puchner pointed out that so much of the play revolves around satire and survival, with the survival material going back to Christoper Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin stories published in 1939, which formed (together with the 1951 transformation of The Berlin Stories into the play, I Am a Camera) the basis of Cabaret. Isherwood had described his stories as a collection of subplots and coincidences. Professor Maier observed that this aspect of montage, the juxtaposition of fragmentation, was Christopher Isherwood’s reflection of what the Berlin milieu was: There was something very torn about the characters – torn in their sexual preferences, living in fragments, Professor Maier expressed. Professor Oja transposed this montage principle to Cabaret’s music as an example of pastiche.Siegfried Kracauer, a prominent German-Jewish intellectual, prophetically reflected on the ability of Weimar revues to convey "precisely and openly the disorder of society…."***** The Cabaret forum underscored the importance of responding to such dangers through art. Ingrid Monson, professor of African American music, remarked after the discussion concluded: "It’s wonderful to have events like this with people reacting to the performance, with a mixture of professors and performers giving their takes. We should have more; there’s something magical about it."* as quoted by James Leve in Kander and Ebb. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009, 1)** The Musical as Drama: A Study of the Principles and Conventions Behind Musical Shows from Kern to Sondheim by Scott McMillin. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006, 23)*** Joel Grey interview on Downstage Center, American Theatre Wing, CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, October 8, 2004.**** John Kander and Fred Ebb as told to Greg Lawrence in Colored Lights: Forty Years of Words and Music, Show Biz, Collaboration, and All That Jazz. (New York: Faber and Faber, Inc., 2003, 68).***** Berlin Cabaret by Peter Jelavich. (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1993, 167)Photos by Victoria Aschheim

[Caption: Professor Oja and moderator, Professor Bhabha]

[Caption: From the German Expressionist collection of Cabaret's lyricist, Fred Ebb, Emil Nolde's watercolor depicting a Master of Ceremonies - "Conferencier" ca. 1910-1911, one of Nolde's theater, masked balls, and cabaret works of art depicting actors, singers, dancers, and spectators. Nolde remarked: "I drew and drew, the light of the rooms, the superficial glamour, all the people, whether bad or good, whether half or fully ruined. I drew this 'other side' of life with its makeup, its sparkling, dirt, and its corruption." (Quoted from: From Berlin to Broadway: The Ebb Bequest of Modern German and Austrian Drawings, by Isabelle Dervaux, Forewords by Charles E. Pierce, Jr. and John Kander, New York: The Morgan Library & Museum, 2007, 72).]

[Caption: Professor Bhabha delivers his introduction]