(note: in places where embedding has been disabled, I provide the link so you can click through to the video on youtube, which I strongly encourage you to do; believe me, it’s worth it.)

I ought to preface this article with the statement that I like the movie adaptation of Cabaret far better than the stage show. If that happens to be a dealbreaker for you, feel free to read no further. If you’re open to the idea, read on and I’ll attempt to explain my view.

No revolution in the musical theater has burst, fully grown, from the ranks of its ancestors like Athena from the head of Zeus. We didn’t go directly from Ziegfeld to South Pacific, or from Promises, Promises to Sweeney Todd. Even the shows that have come to be recognized as milestones bear the hallmarks of their forbears. I like to think of these more as transitional shows than anything else, mature shows equipped with training wheels just to be safe. Pal Joey introduced one of the first antiheroes in the musical theater, but it still had to keep him somewhat likable by casting Gene Kelly in the part. Oklahoma introduced a new storytelling aesthetic, but had to keep the get-lose-get girl elements and jolly chorus numbers. West Side Story broached new subject matter and even killed a character onstage but had to insert a comedy number (“Gee, Officer Krupke”) into the second act in order to break up the unbearable dramatic tension (whatever its faults, the movie version did manage to fix this by swapping “Krupke” with “Cool” as lyricist Stephen Sondheim had originally wanted, but that’s for another day).

            All of which brings us to Cabaret, which wound up serving as a companion piece of sorts to West Side in terms of changing Broadway’s view of what was acceptable in terms of subject matter for the musical stage. However, like West Side, Cabaret also had to dilute its dramatic value in order to reach its audience. The muddy color of compromise is painted all over the show (read the rest after the jump).

The main couple in the show endures a tragic series of twists and turns, and as little as ten years later, this would have been perfectly acceptable on its own terms. But, alas, the curse of the pioneer is to make sacrifices, so we’re also given a banana couple consisting of an elderly German landlady and an elderly Jewish shopkeeper. This romance provides both comic relief and, to a lesser extent, a barometer for the rising tide of prejudice. Modern productions tend to play up the latter function, unaware that this tactic only serves to make musical numbers like this:

…even more hilariously incongruous. More fundamentally, though, I take some issue with the idea that we even need a banana couple as a racism-o-meter. I grant you that it’s good to at least attempt to remind the audience throughout of the impending menace, at least as opposed to the Sound of Music technique of suddenly saying “oh, right, there are Nazis in this show” halfway through the evening. But a more modern show would have established this subtly, using implication rather than the method implied by the quite literal brick that is thrown through the Jewish shopkeeper’s window.

Let’s see how the movie does it. Bob Fosse completely revamped the story when he signed on as director-choreographer. He removed the banana couple entirely, swapped the nationalities of the leads in order to cast new discovery Liza Minelli, and generally cut, introduced, and recontextualized so many songs that he completely changed the fundamental purpose of songs in the show.We’ll take these changes one by one.

First, as I indicated earlier, the banana couple was mercifully cut. In its place, Fosse uses a scattered series of montages, musical sequences, and glimpses of passing Nazi uniforms to keep the rising monster constantly in the film’s periphery, even when the characters are too blind to see it. The increasing Nazi threat is measurable only by their increasingly apparent presence; we see brief flashes of Nazi uniforms, and then some of the young men in those uniforms in action, and then this horrifying but masterfully constructed scene:

Second, the casting. I’ve heard some people complain that the nationality distribution of the stage show was better, with Cliff (Brian in the movie) as an American and Sally as an Englishwoman. I don’t think the nationality matters in the slightest. Both characters are strangers in a strange land, and yet deal with it in vastly different ways. In any case, though, this detail was worth changing in order to cast Liza Minelli, who gives a stunning performance. In the stage show, Sally is a mediocre singer. Obviously, this had to be changed for the film in order for Minelli to play the part, but her roughly-hewn belting makes her eminently plausible as a highly talented but largely untrained cabaret singer.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SRLcmvOtM2Q

But finally, and most importantly, we must discuss the massive changes to the story, themes, and method of the movie. To begin with, Fosse makes all of the musical numbers diegetic. For those of you not familiar with the term, it refers to music ostensibly produced within the world of the story (diegetic) as opposed to music piped in from our world (non-diegetic). Glee frequently uses diegetic musical numbers, but Cabaret does Glee one better (though, to be fair, so do some minor forms of eye surgery). Where Glee often uses musical numbers within the world of the show transparently for the sake of simply having a musical number, Fosse’s Cabaret adaptation insists on exclusively using numbers that illuminate story, character, and theme. There are no throwaway numbers.

For example, the “Two Ladies” number is simply about a threesome in the stage show, but in the movie it becomes a sardonic commentary on the social/sexual relationship between Michael, Sally and the new character of Maximilian, with whom they are both sleeping. Or the “Tiller Girls” dance number, which goes both darker and funnier than the stage show dared to.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRTmvjXs1i0

The song substitutions are also striking. Note how “Don’t Tell Mama”

…makes way for “Mein Liebe Herr”…

…as Sally’s introductory number. The first song makes for a great number, to be sure, but it is too charming to hint at the self-destructive capacities of Sally’s hedonism. The second song, commissioned from original songwriters Kander and Ebb for the movie, is both dark and exciting enough to not only foreshadow what is to come, but make it feel exciting. It helps that it is also one of Fosse’s best-shot numbers.

At the end of the day, though, I prefer the movie for one predominant reason: subtlety. Now, that may sound quite rich coming from someone whose love of bombast borders on the unsettling, but I feel like the story is better served by an immersive strategy–one that forces the audience to come to you–rather than a demonstrative strategy that pushes the point as far as possible out towards the audience.

In part, this is necessitated by the change in medium. Film can afford to be more subtle because it can force the audience’s focus without having to shout it to the back row. The ending of the stage revival does work well; it is dramatic, unexpected, and big enough to give the audience a pleasant shock. It captures the horror of the Nazi regime and condenses it into one moment. This is fine, as far as it goes, but it fails to understand how evil comes to power: not in a sudden shock of wickedness, but quietly, covering itself in adulation and apathy. The Fosse ending understands this. It ends on a cymbal crash over a reflected image of a lone swastika, trusting the audience to understand what it means. As the credits roll, the camera remains trained on the swastika in total silence.

Fosse’s ending conveys the feeling of watching helplessly as evil inexorably takes hold. The revival ending, on the other hand, smacks of teleology, congratulating the audience for knowing where all of this is heading to rather than playing on that knowledge in order to convey a sense of how this could have happened.

For my money, Cabaret is the best movie musical ever made, capturing three artists (Fosse, Minelli, and the team of Kander & Ebb) in their respective creative primes. At the 1972 Oscars, Cabaret went up against The Godfather. The Godfather won Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay. Cabaret  won virtually everything else, and deserved it.

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