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In the Realm of the Senseless

Kit Kat Club disappoints

The Weimar Republic lasted, in total, for fifteen years, from 1918 to 1933. But the vast majority of what people imagine when they imagine Weimar Berlin—an endless playground of opulent nightclubs full of curling smoke, imported jazz, and polymorphous perversion—lasted perhaps five years, from the loosening of morals that followed hyperinflation in the early-mid 1920s and roughly until the death of foreign minister and former chancellor Gustav Stresemann in 1929, after which the political situation deteriorated rapidly.­

After 1929, general unrest and the targeting of theaters and other dens of iniquity by fascist brownshirts led to a sharp decline in decadent “Weimar culture” even before the Nazis officially took power. When Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s first full-length stage collaboration, The Threepenny Opera, opened in August of 1928, the audience demanded multiple encores and curtain calls; only two years later, the premiere of their third and final full-length collaboration, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, caused a riot in the theater (unconfirmed reports suggested that fascist agitators bought blocs of seats in order to cause trouble). By 1933 both men, like most of their peers, had fled Germany, and the legend of Berlin’s vanished Weimar decadence had largely been enshrined, with the Brecht/Weill team joining Marlene Dietrich, the Mann family, and Fritz Lang among its most prominent icons in exile.

While Dietrich, Lang, and the Manns made their way to Hollywood, Weill found a well-paying home on Broadway. His first American show was Johnny Johnson, a loose adaptation of Czech author Jaroslav Hasek’s Good Soldier Švejk, among the most popular stories in interwar Germany. The subtle transmogrification of Weimar culture into American entertainment thus began before World War II even ended, initiating a fascinating reversal: what the United States had once been in the Brechtian imaginary—a wild, lawless land of infinite possibilities and untrammeled self-realization—Weimar Berlin became in the American imaginary. Undoubtedly, that post-war idealization had a great deal to do with the totalitarian destruction that followed the years of decadence: only in relation to the purity of Nazism’s evil could the American bourgeoisie come to sympathize with a world of cross-dressing homosexuals, sex workers, and uninhibited drug use.

Cabaret is back on Broadway once again, in a fancy but disappointing production that made waves in London’s West End in 2021.

The twilight of the Weimar era—when jazz-fueled licentiousness had become risky but was still a profitable way to skim foreigners of their cash in a time of unrest and unemployment—is the setting for Christopher Isherwood’s story collection Goodbye to Berlin (1939), which became the basis for John Van Druten’s play I Am a Camera (1951), which became Fred Ebb and John Kander’s musical Cabaret, which premiered on Broadway in 1966. Thanks significantly to Bob Fosse’s Oscar-winning 1972 film adaptation, Cabaret is among the best-known Broadway musicals, but it is also among the best-known and most defining representations of its era; Liza Minnelli’s “Mein Herr” is much more familiar to the average listener than, say, Marlene Dietrich’s “Falling in Love Again.” In the film, the intercutting of performances with footage of brownshirts in the audience or beating up patrons outside the Kit Kat Club illustrates that same escalation of tension and violence that can effectively destroy a subculture even without the official sanctions of the law or the state—what we now call “stochastic terrorism,” the same kind of media-fueled violence that led to the death of a sixteen-year-old non-binary teenager in Oklahoma in February of 2024.

The road to Cabaret’s success was paved by a smash-hit English-language revival of The Threepenny Opera in the West Village, at what is now the Lucille Lortel Theatre, that ran from 1954 to 1961. Lotte Lenya, who stole the show as a relatively unknown actress in the original 1928 production and was also Weill’s widow, reprised her role as Jenny; her performance was so remarkable and the show so successful that Lenya was awarded the only Tony, to this day, to ever be given for an off-Broadway performance. When the revival opened, the memory of the war was still fresh and German culture still had a titillating frisson of taboo; by the time it closed, the Partisan Review crowd were breathlessly quoting Adorno and Nietzsche. In 1964 Nina Simone recorded a dramatic rendition of “Pirate Jenny” live at Carnegie Hall. When Cabaret opened five years after Threepenny closed, the role of Fräulein Schneider was originated by Lenya herself, bringing a patina of authentic Weimar grit and a stamp of implicit verification to Broadway’s vision of what Berlin had been. Weill’s invisible hand was also on the musical’s score: though he had died of a heart attack in 1950, in his collaborations with Brecht he introduced the notion of the tango as a musical leitmotif for sultry decadence; hence the record Minelli keeps playing over and over on her gramophone in the film.

Now Cabaret is back on Broadway once again, in a fancy but disappointing production that made waves in London’s West End in 2021, directed by Rebecca Frecknall. As in London, the conceit of the production is that we, the audience, are visiting the Kit Kat Club. The entire August Wilson Theater has been accordingly remodeled. For some reason the entrance has been made to resemble the entrance to Basement at Knockdown Center, with a stripped-concrete warehouse look and a low, contextually inexplicable club beat piped in. (They also put stickers on your phone’s camera that look exactly like the ones at Basement. The usher was very confused by the fact that I already had an almost-identical sticker on my phone, from Basement, almost as confused as I was to be walking into a simulacrum of Basement in the company of be-blazered boomers. When I went back to Basement that weekend the guy at Basement was nonplussed by the Cabaret sticker and simply added a fresh Basement sticker on top of it. Now I have three stickers on my phone.) 

The interior redesign is more on point: a pseudo-ethnic Arabian Nights-Art Deco mashup very much in the style of a Weimar tourist trap. The most remarkable detail is a series of large and gorgeous commissioned paintings by Jonathan Lyndon Chase, a fantastic addition that will be lost on most of the audience and will undoubtedly accumulate immense value for whichever producer snags them after the run. But the most heralded innovation of the production is that the stage is in the round. Audience members who can afford it can sit right up next to the action at low club-style tables, and some of them even get pulled on stage for one number. There’s an extra rear mezzanine, and the intent is, evidently, to feel like we’re in it rather than watching a representation of a club on a stage. Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club thus joins Here Lies Love and Illinoise in Broadway’s recent pushback against the proscenium stage and the orchestra pit. The show’s in-the-round architecture is great for pre-show vibes, and gives a three-dimensional vibrancy to the numbers set in the club, but it has an oddly black-box feel for such an expensive production.

The organizing conceit of the original production is a mirroring or parallelism: events in the plot take place outside the club, and the main musical numbers are staged inside the club to offer a knowing, often-cynical commentary on the action. The effect is heightened in Fosse’s film, which dispenses with all the numbers outside the club except “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” This is, I think, one reason Cabaret is appealing to many people who otherwise aren’t big fans of musicals: the songs are intra-diegetic but also plausibly motivated, and a degree of distance is created between the lyrics and the character. The characters are getting paid to sing; they don’t just burst into song in the middle of the Kurfürstendamm. In the new production this effect is severely mitigated, and spaces and scenes blur into a surrealist mélange.

What’s missing in Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club is not a moral lesson of some kind. What’s missing is any genuine sense of what the show is about and what it’s trying to do.

A vague sense of confusion is, alas, the general order of the day. Along with the mise-en-scène, it’s most palpable in the performances of the two leads, Eddie Redmayne as the Emcee and Gayle Rankin as Sally Bowles, a young British performer trying to make it in Berlin. Redmayne’s vocal skills are unquestioned, but his constant presence takes the character’s role as narrator from subtle device to overblown commentary. His Emcee is cartoonish and spastic, both in gestural vocabulary and in costume; the character isn’t meant to be the Joker. But the Joker energy matches the flat, angry Harley Quinn-esque delivery of the show’s Sally Bowles. The character is entirely the wrong kind of bratty, her vulnerability and anxious confidence replaced by a sneering Nancy Spungen edge.

One of the key interpretive questions when staging Cabaret is how much of Sally’s glamorous allure is in her own head and how much of it is visible to other people; her insecurity needs to be palpable to the audience, but it’s an open question whether she hides her anxiety as well as she thinks and how much talent actually lies under her bluster. Admittedly, Liza Minelli, who played Bowles in the film, moved the bar significantly with her passion and vocal chops, something for which many stage productions try to correct: when the narrator, Christopher, first goes to hear Sally sing in Goodbye to Berlin he observes that she “sang badly, without any expression, her hands hanging down at her sides—yet her performance was, in its own way, effective because of her startling appearance and her air of not caring a curse what people thought of her.” To Rankin’s credit, she does bring Sally closer to Isherwood’s original vision, but her Sally is neither alluring nor charmingly inept; she’s just crude and emotionally flat, replacing passion with volume in the dialogue, and in the songs with an awkward, forced rubato. The performance feels most sterile when it most needs to soar—the title track is astoundingly unmoving. I do not for a minute believe Rankin ever had a girlfriend known as Elsie. The inexplicable lack of ebullience also marks another number that is supposed to be a highlight of delirious joy: Redmayne’s dirgelike solo take on “Money.”

The saving grace of the show, the only actors who genuinely seem to understand their characters, are the spectacular Bebe Neuwirth as Fräulein Schneider and Steven Skybell as Herr Schultz. Neuwirth doesn’t imitate Lenya so much as channel her effortlessly, capturing not only the distinctive Berlin-Bavarian accent but also many of the cadences from the original performance. Her Fräulein Schneider is scene-stealing, pragmatic, mostly resigned, only occasionally strident or heartbroken. These two characters’ plotline—bumbling, furtive romance; accidental proposal; genuine love; genuine heartbreak—is the only one infused with enough consistency and pathos for the audience to truly be invested, and as a result, the show seems completely reimagined, though probably not in a way the producers intended: suddenly Cabaret seems like a tale of two elderly singles who fall in love and try to make it work amid political unrest and the obnoxious antics of younger people who work in nightlife.

The metaphor is almost too easy, but the odd split between the raw-concrete entrance to the “club” and the czárdás-meets-Josephine Baker vibe of the interior reflects a basic problem with the production. The idea is that we’re walking into a club, got it. But are we meant to be insiders walking into a club for insiders, or are we meant to be visitors to an exotic world where we will be presented with a subcultural spectacle? The outside suggests the former; the interior suggests the latter. The show itself is decidedly unsure, but the question is important if the staging is intended to move us from observers to participants.

A significant element of Isherwood’s original Berlin stories is the careful delineation of spaces. In the book as in the stage musical, there are two basic kinds of spaces: residential apartments and venues. But the book further divides them. The Troika, where Christopher’s flatmate Bobby is a bartender, is a very different kind of club than the Lady Windermere, the implicitly gay joint where Sally Bowles is a singer; a club, the narrator adds, “which now, I hear, no longer exists.” Both are carefully distinguished from the kind of place “with telephones on the table,” which Cabaret’s Kit Kat Club is explicitly meant to be (there’s a song about it). Likewise, Fräulein Schroeder, as the Fräulein Schneider character is called in the stories, has a nicer apartment than the one Bowles is living in when we first meet her, on the unfashionable end of the Ku’damm, but the apartment Sally is living in is still better than the one the narrator later moves into in the proletarian neighborhood of Hallesches Tor. The shuffling of characters between different tiers of apartment and venue, and the discussion of their relative merits, takes up a significant portion of the book.

The stage musical, on the other hand, collapses each category to a single exemplar—Fräulein Schneider’s, and the Kit Kat Club. In the process, the shrewd materialism of Isherwood’s source material is rendered into typical Broadway idealism. Our two spaces are initially Good, and are complicated by the gradual intrusion of fascism. In the musical, there’s a palpable mood shift in the house when Ernst Ludwig, the friendly neighborhood smuggler, takes off his trench coat to reveal a red swastika armband, rupturing the audience’s sense that they’re friends with all of the characters. It’s one of the few moments of meaningful “political” tension or effect in the show. The rise of Nazism is thus part of the story’s dramatic arc, underpinning and breaking up what might otherwise have been a bohemian idyll.

Isherwood’s original stories are much more pragmatic: his characters are well aware of what Germany they live in. The first reference to National Socialism in Goodbye to Berlin comes a few pages in and astoundingly casual: “In the flat directly beneath ours lives a certain Frau Glanterneck. She is a Galician Jewess, in itself a reason why Frl. Mayr should be her enemy: for Frl. Mayr, needless to say, is an ardent Nazi.”

Isherwood recognizes head-on a fact the musical and film do their best to avoid: that political and economic instability were the origin of Weimar Berlin’s wild, transgressive nature, not an intrusion that brought it to an end. Back in the Kaiser’s day, a socialist English writer, a fascist Bavarian yodeler, and a politically unaffiliated sex worker would never have found themselves living together in a respectable neighborhood in the home of a respectable woman of independent means like Fräulein Schneider.

Saying too much with a heavy hand would have probably been preferable to saying so little.

Isherwood is hardly Brecht, but what his Berlin stories share with Weimar art in general is a tenacious fixation on reality. German expressionism, the Neue Sachlichkeit, Brecht’s epic theater—even when the depiction of reality is grossly exaggerated, satirical, or comic, the intent is always to bring the viewer closer to the generally horrifying world we live in through alienation or defamiliarization. But here again we find an all-too-convenient metaphor: when they fled Germany, Weill brought the aesthetics with him to Broadway, while Brecht took the politics with him to Denmark. And so the most significant political comment that the new production of Cabaret can make is expressed through costuming: over the course of the show, the characters gradually shed their colorful garb with its unusual silhouettes until at the end all of them are treading around the stage in a circle wearing the same flat, genderless beige uniform.

To some extent, of course, the current production’s toothlessness is symptomatic of Broadway in general; the people who can afford to spend $600 or more for ringside seats to an in-the-round production of Cabaret in 2024 are, broadly, not the people who would appreciate seeing Ludwig take off his trench coat to reveal a MAGA armband. But what’s missing in Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club is not a moral lesson of some kind. What’s missing is any genuine sense of what the show is about and what it’s trying to do. There was a strong concept for the staging and a bucket of cash, but there’s no sense that anyone stopped to think about why. The question is to some degree banal; money does make the world go ‘round, and Broadway doesn’t need a more compelling reason to restage one of the most reliable commercial properties in its history.

On the other hand, Cabaret has a historical specificity and a historically specific moral current largely lacking in, say, the stage adaptation of Frozen. Is it really possible to restage this particular musical at this particular time without recognizing that it is, indeed, this particular time? The bolder choice, if you’re going to build a fake-Basement-façade, would have been to really update the show. It could have been set in today’s Berlin, which still has a KitKat Club; it could have been set in today’s United States, or in one of the many other places around the world where creeping fascism is slowly choking the life out of creatives and queers and intellectuals and sex workers. I suspect that even splitting the rent with a friend on too much pills and liquor, the only cast members who could afford four rooms in Chelsea today are Redmayne (he has an Oscar) and Neuwirth (she has Frasier money).

In this sense, the production perfectly completes a circle of grotesque irony: Cabaret is a show about a club where bourgeois normies with too much disposable income come to forget the paranoid urgency of their times and to be titillated by the allures of transgressive practices and subcultures that they will never be a part of, without giving a thought to the ways in which those subcultures and practices are under threat by people very much like them. But at least in Berlin in the 1920s the normies were also hopped up on cocaine. I am really the last person who goes to a Broadway show looking for heavy-handed ethical-historical lessons, but all things considered, saying too much with a heavy hand would have probably been preferable to saying so little. When it comes to consoling the bourgeoisie with fantasies of fascism as a brief aberration that is to be stoically endured or escaped on a train, never again is now.