So, what’s a cabaret? It’s entertainment consisting of singing, dancing, telling jokes, and performing little bits of theatre. A Master of Ceremonies introduces each act and makes some jokes. Cabaret takes place in a restaurant or night-club, rather than in a theater. The audience can have some drinks or something to eat while watching the show. (SNL and Jay Leno are cabaret-on-television.) The first cabarets opened in Paris—naturally—in the 1880s. They spread all over Europe. Any place you had a big city, crowded apartments, people with some money to go out in the evening, and a sense of pride in being citizens of their city, you got cabaret. German cabaret developed along different lines than in France. Both the German and the Austrian empires censored what could be said in public performances. When those empires gave way to democracies after 1918, a flood of pent-up political smart-alecky performers hit the stage. Mostly, the comedians didn’t write their own stuff. Instead, some really smart guys who wrote for the newspapers also wrote routines for cabaret comics. Kurt Tucholsky, Erich Kastner, and Klaus Mann are good examples. Also, lots of the cabaret performers leaned left politically, so German cabaret often targeted the rich and powerful. Once the Nazis got into the saddle in January 1933, cabaret artists came in for a lot of trouble. (You try sounding smart with a broken jaw.) Still, between the end of the Second Empire and the coming of the Third Reich, you could hear a lot of funny, offensive stuff from a cabaret stage. The “Cabaret Red Light” in Philadelphia sort of falls in the German tradition.
The characteristic forms of this material were cynicism (you don’t trust the motives people give for their actions), sarcasm (you ridicule somebody, often conveying meaning by tone of voice), and irony (you mean the opposite of what you say and the hearer understands this). Cynicism: Paul Krugman of the New York Times thinks the “grassroots” Tea Party is a false front for a few rich guys who want to buy an election. Sarcasm: “Americans are the most charitable people in the world. Look at how we gave democracy to Iraq.” Irony: Stephen Colbert is all irony all the time.
The British writer Christopher Isherwood (1904-1986) went to Berlin for the first time in 1928. He was looking for book material and boyfriends in about equal measure. Isherwood found all he wanted of each, so he went back several times before 1933. He later wrote about his experiences in Goodbye to Berlin (1935) and Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1939). The books were published together as The Berlin Stories (1946). These experiences provided the basis for a play called “I Am A Camera” (1951) by a very talented, but now forgotten, English writer named John Van Druten. Then (1955) it was turned into a movie of the same title, with a script by a very talented but now forgotten English writer named John Collier, but it suffered from the prudishness of the Fifties. (It’s difficult to convey decadence when married couples have to be shown sleeping in separate beds and wearing pajamas.) Later still it was turned into a Dr. Seuss book called Sam I Am A Camera. Ten years later, public morals were a lot harder to offend. [See: “Easy Rider.”] The not-yet-great producer Hal Prince bought the rights to the story, then turned it into a musical called “Cabaret” (1966). It was a big hit, so Cy Feuer, an important Broadway producer, decided to make a movie out of the play he had not produced. He hired the fabled choreographer and director Bob Fosse (1927-1987) to direct “Cabaret” (1972).
The movie won eight Oscars (including Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor). The original Broadway show ran for 1,165 performances. A 1998 revival ran for 2,377 performances. The movie made six times its cost in profits. What has made it so popular with people who live in a different society and culture?