In the off chance that you don’t know these words, then you should go see the Broadway revival of Kander & Ebb’s “Cabaret” right now because it is spectacular. See it anyway. If you are old, your Emcee is probably the lovely and amazing Joel Grey, who originated the role on Broadway and in the movie. But if you are not-old-to-medium, your Emcee is the incredible and forever young Alan Cumming, who originated the role in the London and Broadway revivals in the 1990s. He is back, playing the same role, in pretty much the same exact physical condition. He has the blood of tigers running through his veins. The Emcee does not stop moving and grooving, making sure everyone who visits his Klub is having a ball, mainly by showing off the Kit Kat girls.
Sally Bowles stands as one of the few classic, coveted, and career-defining roles for women. In your 20s and 30s, you dream of the chance to play Sally, and then in 20-30 years, when one of your illegitimate children from your Kit Kat Club patrons grows up to be a stripper, you dream of the chance to play her overbearing mother (Mama Rose). These are the two big Hamlets for women.
Michelle started the show a little harshly, with the dirty and hilarious song “Don’t Tell Mama”, but when that’s your introduction to the character, it’ll always be harsh and unnerving (especially because we’ve never seen Michelle like this before). It’s performed here with all the dancers/strippers in baby doll clothes and squeaky voices, so uber uncomfortable but that’s the point. We did this song as part of a cabaret (not Cabaret) in college and I had super fremdschamen for the girl singing it to the crowd of friends and family. The song is about how her other relatives are cool with where she’s working but begs you not to tell her mother. It’s a very efficient title.
After, in her first book scene, her Mayfair accent is crazy uncomfortable. It’s not pleasant to listen to like so many British accents, and it’s off-putting. But this choice makes sense for Sally. She is a jarring person and she is unstable. You see immediately that this girl is trying to find solid ground to stand on but is simultaneously frightened of staying still. Michelle evokes this inner push and pull with every word she says. You kind of hate her, you kind of feel bad for her, and most of all you just want her to take a deep breath.
But once she sings her best song, “Maybe This Time”, you realize what an incredible actress Michelle Williams really is. We are lucky she began her hopefully long career in live theatre with this show. As she prays and hopes through this heartbreaking song, you realize how badly she was snubbed for a Tony nomination.
But of course this is “Cabaret”, it’s World War Two Berlin; it’s not going to end well. Of course Sally never learns how to accept comfort or stability, or love. She throws away what we know she wants due to fear, maybe not of anything in particular but of everything. Yet you still feel relieved for Cliff, a wonderful Bill Heck. Sure you don’t want him to be heartbroken, but a) Sally is a freaking train wreck and b) you want him to hightail it the hell out of Berlin.
Also, Sally and Cliff do not have the most compelling relationship in the show. That honor belongs to Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider, played by the inimitable Danny Burstein and Linda Emond (both of whom should have won Tonys). Herr Schultz adorably woos the Fraulein with kindness and pineapples, and they adorably decide to marry and fill their older age with companionship. But, as one could see from space, Herr Schultz is a Jew, and the increasing strength and brutality of the Nazi party scares Schneider away, leaving Schultz broken-hearted but not broken in spirit. Even before we see his fruit shop vandalized, we know how things will end for him. And even though we want the two to be together, you can’t help feeling for Schneider as well, because there is no right decision for her in this situation.
Spoilers!! Seriously don’t read if you plan on seeing this show because I’m about to ruin the most effective piece of theatre.
The real emotional kicker, though, happens in the very last moment. The Emcee is doing his thing, wearing his trenchcoat and singing “Willkommen” just as in the beginning. His cheeky little striptease revealed his famous lederhosen + suspenders getup when he did this earlier. At the end, however, you get a shock. I actually gasped, as I forgot, or maybe never knew, this final moment of the show. For some reason, I expected the Emcee to be a Nazi, or at least to pretend to be, selling out to save himself and maybe his club. What I never expected ever to happen was in the final beats of “Willkommen” for the Emcee to pull off his trenchcoat to reveal the famous striped pajamas and gold star of Jews, of concentration camp victims. His arms go out, his body goes limp, and you see the silhouette of the backs of all the other characters upstage, and then blackout. This was the most riveting moment I have seen in theatre in a very long time, and this gut punch of an ending made the entire show an unbelievable emotional success. It also made me realize how important and necessary “Cabaret” is in the musical theatre canon. Current events especially across Europe are proving that old saying about learning history so we don’t repeat history to be scarily timely. And that’s the point of art, like “Cabaret”, to hold a mirror up to modern society and show you how much or how little progress it’s made.
Despite its unbelievably depressing themes and ending, this revival proves “Cabaret” as one of the greatest musicals ever written. It continuously reels you in until you can’t break away. When Sally gets to the title number at the end, you really feel every note in your non-tiger blood and somehow still have hope for everyone amid all your fear. If you can see this important show before Alan Cumming (and Danny Burstein, amazing) leaves, you owe it to yourself to do so. I hope Emma Stone captures even half the character of Sally that Michelle Williams did. If she can, you’re in for a treat.