Feb. 22 2017 12:59 AM

Politics push a Broadway classic back into its discomfort zone

The cast and crew of the latest touring production of “Cabaret,” which arrived at the Wharton Center Tuesday, have found the show’s political themes are as relevant as ever.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Instead of settling into the complacent valley of the classics, Broadway’s “Cabaret” manages to keep dangling at the edge of the abyss.

On the show’s latest national tour, which opened at the Wharton Center Tuesday, director B.T. McNicholl and the cast have been blindsided by fresh reactions to a 50-year-old show that peeps in on the denizens of a nightclub in 1930s Germany.

McNicholl has been involved in the show since he played the louche Emcee character in a high school production. He’s directed this revival production in one form or another since 1999, but he’s never seen reactions like this.

“Everything is ringing the bells,” McNicholl said. “We are very fortunate, in a sense, that we are out there with this show now.”

Late in the show, Herr Schultz, a Jewish storekeeper, says to a young American about the Nazis, “Don’t worry, it’ll pass, I promise.”

The audience gasps.

“You feel it,” McNicholl said. “Lines of dialogue get applause. Not the numbers, where you expect it, but the dialogue, because of the ideas and themes. It’s scary.”

“Cabaret” was a risky project in 1966, when director Hal Prince enlisted composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb (later to become the musical team behind “Chicago”) to bring novelist Christopher Isherwood’s memoirs of Weimar Germany to Broadway, complete with hot-button subject matter such as abortion, anti-Semitism and Nazi xenophobia.

“Hal Prince conceived the show as an answer to the civil rights movement in the United States,” McNicholl said. “It’s about how racism can happen here.”

But another side of “Cabaret” is hitting people upside the head these days.

The show’s characters try everything they can think of, from music to sex to drugs, not to notice the bellicose rhetoric, nationalistic fervor, clampdowns on speech and roundups of “undesirables” happening all around them.

“We see ourselves in them,” McNicholl said. “That’s how we behave.”

McNicholl called Hitler’s rise to power “the central mystery of the 20th century.”

“This show helps the audience understand what happens when you let extremists run the show, and also the consequences of not being engaged politically,” he said.

The touring version coming to East Lansing, produced by the Roundabout Theatre Co. of New York, is based on Sam Mendes’ and Rob Marshall’s 1998 revival, which McNicholl called “definitive.”

Building on Prince’s theater-within-the-theater concept, Mendes tightened up the action and musical numbers and confined the entire show to the colorful, claustrophobic Kit Kat Club, where the dancers doubled as orchestra members.

Mendes went for a seedier, more realistic feel, spicing the fleshy pallor of the cast with decadent touches such as the Emcee’s rouged nipples, the rips in the Kit Kat girls’ stockings and the needle marks on their arms.

McNicholl called it “a complete and thorough integration of concept and material.”

The revival won a second shelf full of awards for “Cabaret” and pushed the show back to its discomfort zone.

McNicholl saw the revival for the first time in 1999, the day before he interviewed for the job of taking over the show as resident director.

“It was mind-blowing to see the power unlocked from the material in such a brilliant way,” he said. “It was being treated in a very mature, gritty, edgy, sexy, historically accurate way, which had never been done.”

The 1998 revival ran for 2,377 nights at Studio 54 and earned four Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical.

Since McNicholl took over the production, he has done the show in cities that were once part of Nazi-occupied Europe. Ten years ago, the tour stopped at the Folies Bergère in Paris.

“Underneath it is a cabaret that was the basement playground of the Nazis during the occupation,” McNicholl said. “It was derelict, but I went down into this cavern theater where you knew Nazis had been cavorting. Upstairs, 10 feet above, we were performing a show about them and about that time in history.”

Many revivals, McNicholl said, draw the frequent comment, “It was great at the time, but now — eh.”

With “Cabaret,” the opposite has happened.

“People say, ‘Oh my God, it was more powerful than we thought.’” McNicholl said.

However, there’s no way “Cabaret” would have lasted so long if it were only a grim lesson on the rise of fascism.

“It’s a good, rowdy musical on top of everything,” McNicholl said.

The tender romance between the German landlady, Fräulein Schneider, and the Jewish shopkeeper, Herr Schultz, gives the audience a moral compass in the Kit Kat Club’s den of decadence.

Some songs have been pulled and others added over the years, but standards such as “Cabaret,” “Money,” the saucy “Don’t Tell Mama” and the sentimental “It Couldn’t Please Me More” have a lot to do with the show’s lasting appeal.

“That goes back to Hal Prince,” McNicholl said. “They knew they had to entertain, as well as enlighten and engage. You have to care about the characters.”

Another song that has stuck around, to devastating effect, is the Nazi-inspired “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.”

It’s a powerful moment for modern audiences.

“You go along with the cabaret, you’re having a great time, and then at some point in the second act, the doors slam shut behind you,” McNicholl said. “You start this slow toboggan ride down into the depths. You go with that feeling because you’ve been complicit in the revelry of Act I and the first part of Act II.”

McNicholl credits the shock ending of the revival entirely to Sam Mendes.

Look for our review of "Cabaret" on p. 13

“It was not in the original production at all,” he said. “It’s a total surprise, and people are so shocked there is absolute silence. The curtain call starts in silence and slowly they begin to applaud. That’s not typical when you see a musical.”

There’s no telling how long “Cabaret” will last, but it’s not hard to picture a sweaty crew of colonists in a space dome on Mars, 50 years from now, escaping from their grim duties into the sexy, doomed world of the Kit Kat Club.

“Cabaret” composer John Kander said the show will continue to be relevant as long as people hate each other.

“We hope that ends, but until then, we keep touring,” McNicholl said.

If he meant that literally, he’s in for a long haul.

Roundabout Theatre Co.
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 21-Thursday, Feb. 23; 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 24; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 25; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 26
Tickets start at $41/$28 students Wharton Center
750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing
(517) 432-2000, whartoncenter.com