From Stage to Screen: Cabaret
Whether you talk to film fans or theater fans, there’s no doubt that Cabaret is hugely respected. The 1972 film version was nominated for ten Academy Awards and won eight of them. The stage version and its revivals have a cumulative 25 Tony nominations and 12 wins. It’s an incredibly renowned piece of art. So which version is better? Is the film version the definitive one, or are the stage versions better?
What’s the History?
The From Stage to Screen blogs don’t usually require so much emphasis on the background of a movie or show, but this is one of those instances where it’s difficult to talk about the differences without delving into its complicated history, so it gets its own special section just for that.
Cabaret is a fascinating example of a work of art going through many, many transformations. It began as Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 semiautographical book Goodbye to Berlin, a collection of six short stories set in Germany. It was here that the character Sally Bowles was first introduced, though only appearing in one story. We saw her again later in the 1951 play (and 1955 film adaptation) I Am a Camera by John Van Druten. Several other characters from Goodbye to Berlin appear in the play, but Sally is the central character.
The 1966 Broadway musical of Cabaret came next, with music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, and book by Joe Masteroff. It’s sometimes referred to as an adaptation of I Am a Camera, since the story of Sally Bowles is the main character of both, but that’s where the resemblance ends. The Isherwood characters at the heart of Camera‘s subplots are replaced by a different character from the original novel — the stoic landlady Fraulein Schoeder (renamed Fraulein Schneider).
When the movie version of Cabaret came along in 1972, it was directed by Bob Fosse. Fosse is best remembered today for his distinctive choreography, which is beautifully on display in the movie. (He would work with Kander and Ebb again later, choreographing the original stage version of Chicago in 1975.) The film was a huge departure from the stage production, adding several new songs and abandoning most of the musical’s book, instead reinstating the characters and scenarios from I Am a Camera. It was also much more adventurous with the steamier side of Berlin, clearly portraying the male lead’s bisexuality (unmentioned in any previous adaptations) and emphasizing the characters’ sexual adventures with more erotic choreography and more explicit dialogue. The 1966 production is very tame in comparison.
The last significant step in the evolution of Cabaret was the 1993 London revival, which found a home on Broadway in 1998 and then again in 2014. All three iterations of this concept were directed or co-directed by Sam Mendes and featured Alan Cumming as the Emcee. This version is darker than any previous adaptations, but also strives for stronger thematic connections, tying together the various plots, subplots, and musical numbers so that each strengthens the others. It includes some of the songs written for the film, such as “Maybe This Time,” “Money,” and “Mein Herr,” as well as “I Don’t Care Much,” which was cut from the original Broadway production. This is considered by many to be the definitive version of the show.
What’s the Story?
Though the show and the movie share a central core plotline and a common setting of 1931 Berlin, none of the subplots overlap at all. There are a few characters in common between the two: Sally Bowles, a nightclub singer who is determined to spend her life having the best, wildest time she possibly can; Cliff (called Brian in the film), a reserved, bisexual writer who is drawn into Sally’s world; and the Emcee of the Kit Kat Klub, a bizarre, almost cartoonish figure whose cabaret numbers are an eerie echo of Germany’s ugly transformation.
(Spoilers ahead for this paragraph.) The story of Sally and Cliff/Brian stays very similar for both versions. He comes to Berlin in search of a job and meets her. They strike up a friendship and then a romance. She gets pregnant and he wants her to move with him back to start a family in his home country (he’s American in the play and English in the movie, while she is the reverse). All seems well, until Sally gets an abortion without telling him and they two break up. He leaves for home, while she stays in Berlin, continuing to work at the Kit Kat Klub.
In the film, there are two other primary subplots. One is a love story between Fritz, a poor German man, and Natalia, a rich Jewish heiress. The other is the appearance of wealthy baron Maximilian, who takes Sally and Brian on a whirlwind romance before becoming bored and leaving. These are both prominent plotlines in I Am a Camera.
The stage version of Cabaret has two entirely different subplots. One centers on Ernst Ludwig, a German who forms a friendship with Cliff and offers him a job smuggling mysterious packages from Berlin to Paris. The other is the love story between Cliff’s landlady, Fraulein Schneider, and kind-hearted Jewish store owner Herr Schultz. While the Ludwig subplot has no real comparison in the movie, the themes of Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz story are found in the film’s Fritz/Natalia pairing: the troubles facing a couple in love when one is Jewish and the other is not. Though the stories end differently, they both focus on how the changing political atmosphere affects love and romance. Sally may not have to deal directly with the realities of German prejudice, but her friends do.
What Was Different in the Movie?
Well, as you can see from that complicated synopsis, there are some significant changes. Aside from the abundant plot substitutions, Fosse made the decision to remove all the show’s “book numbers” — that is, songs that come out of nowhere where all the characters suddenly know the choreography and sing their feelings in rhyme. He kept in only the “prop songs,” the ones that can be sung realistically in the context of the show. Every song in the movie version is portrayed as an in-universe performance, whether it’s an audience-pleasing number in the Kit Kat Klub or as a sing-along in a beer garden.
Granted, the book numbers from the original couldn’t have made it into the film unchanged, as they all center on plot points that never happened (Fraulein Schneider’s romance and Sally moving in with Cliff/Brian). This was a smart move, grounding the film in realism and making it appealing to people who dislike musicals for spontaneous songs. I didn’t miss these numbers at all.
The casting of Sally Bowles in the film led to one small but important deviation from both the stage version and the original book. The stage version of Cabaret typically casts actresses who are not great singers as Sally, including Judi Dench, Natasha Richardson, Molly Ringwald, and, most recently, Michelle Williams, Emma Stone, and Sienna Miller. Casting Liza Minnelli made for an incredible soundtrack and marvelous musical numbers, but it undercuts the story’s theme by making her good at her job. In the stage version Sally is unimpressive enough to be fired early from the club early on in the show, only returning at the end.
This isn’t minor nitpicking. There’s a reason Sally needs to be just a mediocre performer. One of the primary themes of the entire story is self-delusion, both in the show and in the movie. It’s about people turning to look the other way when faced with unpleasantness. The Emcee urges us to “Leave [our] troubles outside.” The cabaret musical numbers represent a deliberate choice to believe the most comfortable truths. That theme is deeply connected to Sally’s dream that she’s going to be discovered, that she’s going to be wildly famous and rich, that she is the Kit Kat Klub’s biggest asset. In the show, this is all clearly not true, but her desperate optimism never fades.
In the movie, these dreams are all plausible. It’s easy to see that Liza Minnelli is an incredible dancer and singer, and it’s believable that her future is solid here and that she could work her way up into better jobs. She’s not nearly so out-of-touch with reality as her stage counterpart. On top of that she has moments of vulnerability and acute self-awareness where she lets her guard down and admits her failures. Compare that to Stage Sally, who is wrongly overconfident, certain that even as she is jobless and homeless she’ll find something, while we as an audience know that her dreams will never happen.
With that example altered, even in such a slight way, the story doesn’t fit together as neatly as it does on stage. The seamless thematic connection between narrative and musical interlude is lost and we are left with a good, but misguided, rendition of the story.
How Are the Songs?
There’s no denying that Liza Minnelli is a joy to watch. She may not match the show’s characterization of Sally, but she lights up on the screen when the music starts playing. It’s no surprise that the movie launched her into stardom, though she’d already made a splash on Broadway with her performance in Kander and Ebb’s Flora the Red Menace, where she set a record as the youngest woman ever to win a leading actress Tony Award. There’s also no doubt that the soundtrack for Cabaret is much more pleasant to listen to than any of the cast recordings. Natasha Richardson may have won a Tony for her work in the 1998 revival, but I have no desire to hear her sing “Maybe This Time” ever again.
Joel Grey, reprising his role as the Emcee from the original Broadway production, is the only other primary singer besides Liza. He is, unsurprisingly, very good as well. In later productions, this character was played less cartoonishly and more darkly sexual, but Grey’s cheeriness carries an ominousness with it, and it lands the intended dramatic punch on numbers like “If You Could See Her” and the finale.
How Do They Compare Overall?
There are really two different stage versions of Cabaret: the original 1966 production and revamped version by Mendes. Let’s compare them both to the movie, in chronological order.
The 1966 version: Hypothetically ranking the show (using Liza Minnelli’s first film, The Sterile Cuckoo, as a placeholder), it lands at #1212 out of 2337 on my personal chart, roughly halfway down.
The movie: The film version of Cabaret lands globally at #696 on Flickchart. I admire the movie but am less charmed; after my last rewatch, it sits at #962.
The Mendes concept version: This one rockets up the chart to land at #233.
While the movie solidly improves on the slower, quieter version of the ’60s, it doesn’t measure up to the dreamy eeriness of the version currently taking Broadway by storm (again).
I Liked This. What Else Should I Watch?
Liza Minnelli sings more in New York, New York, Stepping Out (to which Kander and Ebb contributed one song), and concert performances That’s Entertainment! and Liza With a Z. You can catch Joel Grey in Dancer in the Dark and The Fantasticks.
Other movie musicals without book numbers, for those of you who hate people bursting into song for no reason: Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Jersey Boys, and, to a lesser extent, Chicago, where the songs are either real performances or imagined performances in Roxie’s mind.