“Leave your troubles outside! Life is disappointing? Forget it!”
World War I completely devastated Europe, leaving most nations desperately struggling to feed their people. Forced to bear the blame of causing the war, pay reparations to the Allied powers, and attempt to build some semblance of a government, Germany faced especially dire circumstances. After the forced abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Weimar Republic was born. Under this new government, with the help of the American affluence of the 1920s, Germany was seemingly on the path to recovery until the U.S. stock market crash of 1929 sent the economy into meltdown yet again. With economic downturn came poverty and unrest which paved the way for the Nazi party to ascend to power, and eventually, would lead to the onset of World War II.
Though poverty was fairly severe and the political climate was tumultuous through the duration of the Weimar era (which lasted from 1919 until 1933), arts communities flourished, and Weimar Germany was considered an epicenter of artistic innovation, creativity, and experimentation. The precarious political environment proved perfect for inspiring the creative minds of the day. While cinema, dance, and music all found new expressions in Weimar Germany, perhaps the most dramatic growth was in the theatre.
During this Era, a new propagandistic theatre emerged which provided artists a means to express their distress at their country’s political situation and was pioneered by iconic duo Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill who were best known for their work, The Threepenny Opera (1928) which still serves as a beautiful representation for what life was like in this time period. This artistic work is regarded as a direct predecessor of the “Book Musicals” that populate Broadway, Ogunquit Playhouse, and other stages across the globe today. The best expression of the theatricality of the Weimar Era is, of course, through cabaret, or Kabarett as it was known, where Berlin’s theatergoers could enjoy food and libations while watching their favorite performers satirize current events through music, dance, and monologues. This art form expanded during the Weimar Era to crowded underground theatres bustling boozed-up patrons, bodacious women, and boundary pushing and bold performance artists. Kabarett gained infamy as an art form filled with bawdy references, political satire, and a very distinct German gallows humor. Berlin’s Cabaret scene thrived with theatres and shows for people of different ethnic groups and walks of life.
The Berlin Kabarett scene with its decidedly vulgar humor and discussion of taboo topics was a place where members of the LGBT+ community could flourish even though homosexuality was illegal in Germany. Throughout the country, as well as the U.S., a period of traditionalism was in fashion, however, Berlin’s underground and cabarets were safe places where gender and sexuality were interchangeable and fluid. It was not uncommon to see men in dresses and rouge or women with short-shorn hair in suits. Cabarets were the home to diverse communities where people could be free to express themselves, despite rising tensions and intolerance that awaited them just outside the door.
As the Nazi party rose to power, anti-Semitism began to rise with it. Cabaret culture, though decidedly more progressive and tolerant than the general German society, was not immune to this injustice. Berlin had cabarets for every social group, which meant significant segmentation. Jews frequented Jewish clubs, young people frequented young clubs, and rich people attended wealthier clubs. Anti-Semitic tensions also rose as Jews like Max Reinhardt, and Albert Einstein found notoriety in the arts and sciences through their tremendous contributions. These successes brought fame and eminence, but also fostered tensions and jealousies between the ethnic groups that called Berlin their home.
Since its debut on Broadway in 1966, Cabaret quickly became one of the best-beloved musicals in the history of theatre. Through its three popular stage renditions and iconic film adaption starring the Liza Minelli and Joel Grey, the story of an American novelist and English cabaret dancer in Berlin’s seedy underground has infiltrated our vernacular. The story told in Cabaret was first portrayed on Broadway in the play I Am a Camera by John Van Druten, which was based on a short story by Christopher Isherwood entitled Goodbye to Berlin. Cabaret adapts this story and uses the metaphor “Life is a Cabaret” as well as the contrast between heavy book scenes and delightfully preposterous musical numbers to explore this tumultuous time.
The content of the musical has changed in its various revivals over the years to better reflect the relevance of these themes. Among these distinctions is the addition of musical numbers, “The Money Song” and “I Don’t Care Much” to the 1987 and 1998 revivals as well as the treatment of Cliff’s, sexuality which becomes more outright with each new interpretation. The 1998 revival originally starred the late Natasha Richardson as Sally Bowles and Alan Cumming as Emcee and was remounted in 2014 featuring modern-day A-List celebrities Michelle Williams and Emma Stone. It is from this most recent revival by stellar creative team Sam Mendez and Rob Marshall that Ogunquit Playhouse’s production draws its inspiration.