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The Making of Cabaret

by Keith Garebian

Despite various directors’ attempts to make Cabaret change with the times – Liza Minnelli’s green fingernails in Bob Fosse’s 1972 film version, and the surprising evocation of a concentration camp at the end of Sam Mendes’ recent stage version – the 1966 musical remains fixed in time.

In The Making of Cabaret,/I>, writer Keith Garebian shows Cabaret as a turning point in the history of musical theatre. It’s also pivotal in the career of Broadway producer and director Harold Prince who was also involved in West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, Sweeney Todd, Evita, Phantom of the Opera, and Kiss of the Spider Woman. Garebian relies on existing sources, (there are no new interviews) to explain how Prince has become “inseparable from the history of the American musical for more than the past four decades.”

Cabaret was a creative challenge from the start, a musical featuring “a second rate singer in a seedy night club,” narrated by “a disguised homosexual,” and with a plot line involving an abortion and Nazi atrocities.

Garebian packs this book with fascinating details, including the complicated financial arrangements for the show as well as the surprising threat that resulted in the rewriting of a line of a song. This is cultural history for those interested in theatre gossip and anecdotes. It avoids the jargon that has become vogue in some academic quarters – there’s no “liminal,” “hegemonic,” or “chthonic” here. Garebian has been let down, though, by editorial looseness in a reference work with potential American sales. In the section about the actor Jack Gilford and McCarthyism, the actor appears before the “House of Un-American Activities Committee.” Drop the “of” in the next print run before Americans notice and laugh.

Fortunately, this doesn’t detract from the overall value of this book. Garebian shows the intriguing theatrical connections of the original production team. The legendary Lotte Lenya comments on Brecht as well as about being old and famous on Broadway. Boris Aronson, who emigrated from Russia in 1923, brought with him design ideas that evoke the highly stylized theatrical imagery of the murdered Soviet stage innovator Meyerhold, with whom he had also worked. And throughout, there is the sheer effort of composer John Kander and librettist Fred Ebb (with whom Prince would later team up again on Kiss of the Spider Woman) as they write and rewrite song after song as the show takes shape.

British director Jonathan Miller says there’s a time when the link between the first stage production and all subsequent versions snaps. That’s when “the bridge of reminiscence and anecdote is irreparably broken.” Garebian’s anecdote-rich book makes it clear that the bridge between Prince and Cabaret is still firmly in place.