The musical, Cabaret, has it's ultimate genesis in a novel by Chistopher Isherwood called I am a Camera (Also sometimes known as Goodbye to Berlin). This book was adapted as a play by John Van Druten and them redeveloped as a musical by John Kander, Fred Ebb and Joe Masteroff.
The musical itself has had four main incarnations - the original 1966 stage version, a 1972 movie, a Broadway revival in 1987, and a second revival in 1998. Of these, the three stage versions follow the same basic plot.
Cliff Bradshaw, a bisexual, writer's blocked, American novelist comes to Berlin to try to finish his follow-up to his first, critically well received novel and to give English lessons to support himself. On the train to Germany he falls in with an affable Berliner called Ernst Ludwig who becomes his first pupil and directs him to a place to stay - a boarding house, run by a spinster called Fraulein Schneider. Cliff takes a room in the house and is introduced to the other boarders, an elderly Jewish fruit seller called Herr Schultz and Fraulein Kost, who we learn as the play goes on, is a prostitute.
With his lodgings organised, Cliff, (also on Ludwig's recommendation), finds his way to the Kit Kat Klub, a seedy nightspot, where he encounters the mysterious Emcee who coordinates the show (and pops up throughout the play with musical numbers which reflect and comment on the action of the main story) and Sally Bowles an English singer who is shacked up with one of the owners. Sally flirts with Cliff, which causes her lover/boss to fire her and throw her out. Sally comes to Cliff's room and persuades him to let her move in with him. While she certainly sleeps with Cliff, Sally pursues her former promiscuous life, and inevitably becomes pregnant, which prompts Cliff to suggest they get married, and also agree to undertake work for Ludwig, smuggling something - he doesn't know what, and avoids asking - between Paris and Berlin.
As this story unfolds a second romance is taking place, though it is much more low key. Herr Schultz woos Fraulein Schneider with offerings of fruit, and when he is discovered by Fraulein Kost coming out of Fraulein Schneider's room late one evening, he fabricates an engagement to save Schneider's reputation - The two women have an antagonistic relationship, because the landlady disapproves of Kost's "profession". After some discussion, Schultz and Schneider decide to make the engagement real, and the next night they have an engagement party.
Things turn nasty at the party when Cliff discovers that Ludwig is a Nazi, Ludwig discovers that Schultz is a Jew, and Schneider discovers that Nazism runs deeper and more passionately in her friends and neighbors than she had previously thought. Act one, which has been upbeat, sexy and generally hopeful ends much darker, with a chilling rendition of a Nazi anthem, by the entire cast apart from the four principlals
In act two things slowly unravel for everyone - Schneider decides to call off the marriage, and Schultz has just managed to dissuade her when someone throws a brick through the window of his shop, convincing her that marriage to a Jew would be dangerous in the current political climate. As Schneider later explains to Cliff, she needs a license to let her rooms, and the only way to survive is to break the engagement.
Horrified by the direction Germany is talking, Cliff arranges to return to America, and wants to take Sally with him. She, however, doesn't want to give up her hedonistic life, to live off his family's charity. She refuses to go, aborts the baby, and they part bitterly - he to go home, she to continue her lifestyle for as long as she can, though it's implied that won't be long.
The key differences between stage versions have been the interpretation of the material, which has become increasingly grittier, more sexualised and more focused on the darker side of the story, and soon I'll go through the show number by number as it is usually performed now, based on the 1998 revival. First though, we should look at the 1972 movie, which was significantly different.
In the movie, Sally is American (played by Liza Minnelli) Cliff - now called Brian (Michael York) - is an English student. Ernst Ludwig, Fraulein Schneider, Fraulein Kost and Herr Schultz play no part in the action at all. Sally and Brian meet in the boarding house where they both live and eventually become lovers despite early difficulties which have led Sally to believe that Cliff may be gay. They fall in with a wealthy playboy who takes them off to his country estate and proceeds to seduce both, before moving on, leaving them with an envelope of money, presumably for services rendered. Sally finds out that she's pregnant and isn't sure which of the two men is the father. Brian offers to marry her but she refuses, knowing they aren't suited and carries on with the abortion she has planned, while Brian goes home. The action is punctuated by Sally performing numbers at the Kit Kat Klub, with the Emcee (played by Joel Grey, reprising his Broadway role). This Klub is a much glitzier and upmarket affair than that we see on stage. The subplot is provided by Fritz Wendel, a pupil of Brian's who is a Jew passing as a Christian. When he falls in love with Natalia Landauer, a wealthy Jewish heiress, he reveals his background and they marry, though their eventual fate is unclear, and looks black - one has to assume that this change was incorporated to avoid having a plain, elderly couple taking up too much screen time. The movie is fun, but it lacks the depth and intensity of the show.
Number by Number/Scene By Scene
Wilkommen.The Emcee welcomes the audience to the club and introduces Sally and the Kit Kat girls and boys - we do get a warning, however oblique, that things aren't well - "Leave your troubles outside" he says "We have no troubles here. In here, life is beautiful", with the implication that outside, thing aren't so great. The scene segues into a carriage in a train where we meet Cliff and Ernst Ludwig, and as Cliff arrives in Berlin the Emcee takes the stage again with a brief reprise, this time welcoming the American to Berlin.
So What. At the boarding house where Cliff is looking for a room, Fraulein Schneider shows him round, and finally agrees to let him have the room for half her desired price - we learn that her life has been a series of disappointments, but she manages anyway: "You learn how to settle for what you get" she says, and that pretty much sums up her philosophy. Cliff is introduced to the other boarders, and, alone at last, he is enticed to the Kit Kat Klub by some of the girls and boys (presumably in his imagination, as he remembers Ludwig's enthusiastic recommendation)
Don't Tell Mama . This production number introduces Sally - it's a sexy little song,performed by her and the Kit Kat girls and it's soon clear that Sally hasn't got her job because she's a great singer. She's not, but she is full of enthusiasm, and this comes out even more when she flirts with Cliff after the number, going into apparent orgasm at the sound of English as he recites her a piece of doggerel. This flirtation leads to her being sacked by Max. While this is happening, Cliff is talking to Bobby, one of the Boys at the club, and it's clear that the two have a history - if Cliff isn't gay, he's certainly not entirely straight.
Mein Herr. Sally's second song, performed, again, with the girls, is a sassy number about moving from one man to another - which she is, after all, just about to do.
Perfectly Marvellous .The next day, Sally comes to Cliff's room just as he's finishing up a lesson with Ernst, who it turns out she knows. During the patter song she persuades Cliff to let her stay with him, and probably more - "I've only got one narrow bed" he sings. "We'll think of something," she replies, and pushes him off stage.
Two Ladies. Here the Emcee comments on the decadence of the lifestyle Sally and her crew (including him, obviously) are following. "Here in Berlin everyone has a perfectly marvellous roommate." he says "Some people have two people." and he and two of the girls (or sometimes one girl and on boy in drag) extol the delights of a menage a trois ("Twosies beats onesies, but nothing beats threes").
It Couldn't Please Me More. Back at the boarding house, Fraulein Schneider and Fraulein Kost have a contretemps about Kost's ... behaviour ... with sailors. Kost threatens to leave, and Schneider is flustered when Schultz arrives with a gift for her, which turns out to be a pineapple. It's a comic moment, when she compares it to other gifts he might have given her ("If you brought me diamonds, if you brought me pearls"), but the emotion is warm and genuine. This might not be a Romeo and Juliet romance, but it's real - and realistic.
Tomorrow Belongs to Me. A recorded, angelic voice of a boy soprano sings about stags in the fores, golden rivers and a bright new dawn. He is cut off in mid flight when the Emcee stops the recording after the line "Tomorrow belongs" and intones, harshly, "to ME!"
Maybe this time. Sally is upset and she an Cliff have a row, leading to her starting to pack. Cliff asks her to stay and tells her he's never felt like this about anyone. As the scene continues, he finds out she is pregnant and proposes. Reluctant, since the baby is probably not his, Sally resists but is eventually won over. In this big torch song, she wonders if her luck has changed, and this time she's found someone who will really love her. At the end of the song, Ludwig visits, and to raise some money for the marriage and baby, Cliff agrees to smuggle something from Paris for him.
Money. Another commentary song by the Emcee, this time with the girls which reflects the desperation of not having money, and the lengths people will go to to get it. Big, noisy, intense, GREAT number.
Married After a series of comings and goings between Kost and various sailors, where she catches Schultz exiting from Schneider's room, there's a showdown where Schultz claims the couple are engaged. After Kost leaves, they discuss the problems, and Schultz proposes properly, and manages to persuade Schneider that he is sincere. Finally, he sings this song, a waltz, which sets out the joys of married life.
Tomorrow Belongs to Me (Reprise). This song is where the tone of the show changes completely. At the engagement party for Schultz and Schneider, Cliff returns from his job in Paris, with a briefcase which he hands over to Ludwig. Ludwig goes to congratulate the happy couple and on his way back is waylaid by Fraulein Kost who wants him to dance with her. When he takes his coat off to do so, he reveals an armband with a swastika, which enrages Cliff when he realizes he's been smuggling funds for the Nazis. Kost reveals to Ludwig that Schultz is a Jew, prompting him to remonstrate with Fraulein Schneider. As Ludwig is about to leave the party in disgust, Kost again stops him and says that they will make the party amusing together. Here she sings the song previously sung by the boy soprano, and it becomes clear that it is a rallying song for the Nazis. First Ludwig, and then everyone at the party apart from Sally, Cliff, Schultz and Schneider begin to sing, and the act ends with this militant rallying call for the Nazis.
Kick Line. Act 2 begins with a kickline with the Emcee in drag. It looks like a comedy number until the high kicks become goose steps.
Married (Reprise). This song comes after a discussion between Schneider and Schultz, where she tells him about her fears for what their married life would be under the Nazis - the scene at the party has proved they are more powerful than she thought. The song is cut off in the middle of the last line after Schultz says "Somebody wonderful" and before he can say "married me" by someone throwing a brick through his shop window.
If You Could See Her Through My Eyes. In another apparent comedy song, the Emcee bewails the way he and his ladylove - a gorilla - are treated by society "If we're out walking together, they sneer if I'm holding her hand" and he appeals for understanding. It's all very funny until in his final line, he says "If you could see her through my eyes - she wouldn't look Jewish at all."
What Would You Do? Fraulein Schneider explains to Cliff and Sally why she had to call off the engagement. Cliff disapproves, but she points out that he can move on, but she can't, and asks him to consider how he'd react. This is the most tragic number in the show - provign there are some things love can't conquer
I Don't Care Much. Impelled by the worsening situation, Cliff decides to return to America, although Sally has been invited back to take her old job at the club. He talks over Sally when she objects. Telling her to pack, he rushes off to make travel arrangements. As she packs, the Emcee sings this song, reflecting what she will pretend are her feelings, that she's hard and doesn't care - but the emotion of the delivery makes it clear that the words are a lie.
Cabaret. At the Club, Cliff waylays Sally. While he is dragged off and beaten up, Sally sings this, the really BIG number - and while it used to be sung as a showstopper, now it's generally delivered in a brittle, strained way, to indicate that she's undergoing a breakdown. The key to this song is the in the middle where Sally sings about Elsie. "I used to have a girlfriend known as Elsie/ With whom I shared four sordid rooms in Chelsea/ She wasn't what you'd call a blushing flower/As a matter of fact she rented by the hour. The day she died the neighbours came to snicker/ Well that's what comes of too much pills and liquor/ But when I saw her laid out like a queen/ She was the happiest corpse I'd ever seen". Berlin is Elsie. It's been living wildly for the moment, but now, it's dead, all that's left is the cabaret - which is a sham. Sally maybe prepared to sink with the ship ("When I go, I'm going like Elsie") but she knows it's sinking.
Finale After Cliff says goodbye to Herr Schultz, Sally arrives. She tells him she's had an a abortion and won't be going to the States with him. This is a sharp, sour scene, which leaves Cliff sitting in the station writing the opening sentence of his new novel. "There was a Cabaret, there was a Master of Ceremonies, there was a city called Berlin in a country called Germany, and it was the end of the world." He begins to sing Wilkommen and is joined by the Emcee who takes over the song, as Cliff slips away. The music becomes discordant, and over a sustained violin note, the song is interspersed with the main characters restating their position - Schneider reiterates that people do what they have to in order to survive, Schultz restates his belief that the Germans will not given to Nazism - he knows, he says, because he is a German, and Ludwig tells the audience "If you were German you would understand". Finally, the Emcee is left alone on the stage to sing the last three lines, "Auf wiedersehen, A bientot, goodnight" as he does, he turns, and usually he is dressed in striped prison pyjamas or otherwise marked as a Nazi prisoner. It is on this image that the show closes. It's not an image you forget easily.
Cabaret is not your standard musical - it's dark, it's sleazy, it's intense - and it's wonderful.