Unlike most stories that lend themselves to multiple adaptations and forms, the architecture behind Cabaret isn’t an iconic tale with easily recognized archetypes. Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories is a pair of novellas set in Berlin in the early 1930s, originally conceived as one larger work. Maybe the multiple adaptations of The Berlin Stories reflect that tension, the feeling that these characters live in and outside a larger world that we only see glimpses of. The fact that Isherwood’s work is semi-autobiographical, but clearly not fully autobiographical, probably adds to the sense that there’s much more to be told. (Isherwood’s self-fictionalization as the perspective character in Berlin Stories included changing his name and erasing his homosexuality.)
The Berlin Stories was first adapted as the play I Am a Camera, followed by a less successful film adaptation of the play, both starring Julie Harris as Sally Bowles. (I Am a Camera got good reviews, but was hampered by the British Board of Film Censors, which took issue with Bowles’ implied abortion and the unwillingness of the producers to punish Bowles for being an unmarried woman who dared to have sex outside the conventional ties of marriage.)
The Cabaret musical, which turned Isherwood American and Sally English, didn’t hit the stage until the mid-sixties, and it was a big enough success that film rights were sold pretty quickly. Production challenges meant the movie didn’t hit theaters until the musical had completed runs on Broadway and London’s West End. Both musical and movie make more changes to the story of Isherwood (now “Cliff Bradshaw”), pushing more toward Isherwood’s real life and the original source material in some ways and pulling against it in others. Gone is the bittersweet framing device of Isherwood’s work, leaving the fate of even Sally uncertain. (Subsequent productions of the musical would be even more uncompromising.) The musical also added the Emcee, one of theater’s most enduring characters, a trickster and Dionysian figure who begins the show in charge and ends it powerless.
The film reverses Sally and Cliff’s nationalities to those of the real Isherwood and Bowles—Liza Minnelli portrays a brash, awkward American, more at home in this world of unbridled sexuality and nonstop parties than Michael York’s more hesitant Cliff. It cuts some subplots from the musical entirely in favor of creating a more streamlined narrative that puts Sally and Cliff’s doomed relationship at its core. The Emcee’s part is still a tour de force—Joel Grey, already a Tony winner, won an Oscar reprising his Broadway role—but he even more explicitly frames the show, rather than being part of it.
The movie also digs back into Cliff’s sexuality. There was an odd little pop culture moment in the seventies where bisexuality was considered a slightly safer identity than homosexuality (David Bowie and Elton John both identified as bisexual in that decade, as did Boy George in the early days of Culture Club), and it would have been unlikely for the movie to entirely ditch the romantic relationship between Cliff and Sally (it would have, among other things, required completely rewriting their final conflict.) The moment where Sally and Cliff both reveal that they’ve been sleeping with the Baron is a sharp, funny break in the tension. It might be the last laugh of genuine relief in the movie; though in Cabaret nothing lasts too long.
One of the challenges of Cabaret in my mind has always been that Sally is…not actually supposed to be that good a performer. She’s not a Broadway star, or she wouldn’t be singing in a dingy club in a rapidly decaying Berlin. (In fact, Isherwood objected to Minnelli’s casting for just this reason.) The disconnect is less of a challenge in the film. While Cabaret doesn’t go as far as Rob Marshall later would in Chicago, explicitly framing Roxie’s fantasies as musical numbers, there’s an element of unreality on stage that makes the tension between Liza Minnelli’s astonishing performance and Sally’s lack of professional success less jarring. For modern audiences, the extremely ’70s production design adds more distance as well. As with most period pieces, the costuming and color choice says more about the era the movie was filmed in than the era it strives to depict. To be clear, it’s not that it’s inauthentic, it’s just that the authenticity has a certain cast to it. (Vincente Minnelli, who lived through all this history and was certainly no stranger to movie musicals, helped with his daughter’s costumes and makeup.)
“Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” the only song in the movie not performed by a central cast member, is a great horror moment, in the sunny, bright horror tradition of The Wicker Man, which would be released just a year later. The song itself is a brilliant little trick, a song that for American listeners echoes the patriotism of “Edelweiss” in The Sound of Music in its evocation of nature and belonging. Both are patriotic acts of subversion, subtle rebellions against the status quo. But “Edelweiss” is a paean to a lost Austria under the thumb of German occupation. “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” is a nationalist anthem sung by a would-be conqueror. (I haven’t been able to confirm it, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Kander and Ebb, both Jews, remembered The Sound of Music’s Austrian patriotism—as well as the real Austria’s triumphant welcome of Hitler—when they conceived “Tomorrow.”) The Sound of Music finds freedom in the countryside (the real von Trapps settled in the mountains of Vermont) and comfort in family. In Cabaret, you can’t even catch a break at a picnic.
Michael York had a run of pretty interesting movies in the ’70s, and Cabaret isn’t the only one to use him in a role that’s a little blank, a little naive. The movie only catches fire when Sally comes crashing into his life, a staging that seems entirely intentional. Sally is wild and unrestrained, and York attempts to ground her, even as he too gets caught up in Berlin nightlife and the dream of a Baron who will take them far away from the war and shower them in money. But the Baron skips town, and Sally is pregnant, and at the end of the day it’s money, not respectability, that makes the world go ’round. Sally recognizes that she’d be a terrible housewife, and she’s right. But her dream of fame and fortune is as illusory as Cliff’s domestic fantasy. Berlin is a dream to these outsiders, and every dream ends.
Cabaret’s final shot is justly famous, and a trick that only works in cinema; taking Sally’s perspective after her final, defiant performance, looking out toward an audience that is no longer so welcoming. The end is coming, more quickly than anyone is ready for. Tomorrow doesn’t belong to Sally Bowles any more. Tomorrow has become a nightmare.
The story didn’t end when Cabaret was filmed; several songs made their way into later productions of the musical, including “Maybe This Time.” Cliff’s bisexuality became more explicit as well, shading straight into closeted homosexuality. A few years back, I saw a college production of the play, where the director wryly noted that if you called asking about the rights to Cabaret, the office laughed and asked you which version you wanted. Joel Grey’s puckish Emcee is sometimes more sinister, sometimes more sexual. Some productions end with a single gunshot, some with the whole cast in camp uniforms (or nothing at all), walking toward an inevitable end.
Of course, there’s another way the story didn’t end: the Nazis came back.
One of the great works of postwar literature is Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night. Perhaps his darkest work, it takes the perspective of a man who worked as an Allied spy while creating propaganda for the Nazis. Imprisoned at the end of the war, his Allied contacts estranged or dead, he is forced to confront years of lies and the question of if his actions did more overall harm than good. We are what we pretend to be, the book tells us, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be. Those compromises are echoed in Cabaret, as the performances cater more and more to the National Socialists who begin to fill the audience. The last line gut-punch of “If You Could See Her” was not aimed at the audience that cheered along to “Mein Herr.” Everything has changed, but pretending to play along won’t save the cabaret. And it certainly won’t save the Emcee.
The rise of the internet brought with it trolls, people who said things ”for the lulz,” edgelords on YouTube, people “just asking questions.” Some celebrities, tempted by the possibilities of ratings and cash, played along, and found themselves staring back at a wall of Pepe icons. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.
Here’s an excellent piece in Playbill about the many evolutions of the Cabaret musical. This article on Jewish songwriters talks about both “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” and that last line of “If You Could See Her.”