50 Years Ago: Cabaret Stormed the Screen

A dark chapter in history inspired a beloved musical.

Liza Meinnelli
Liza Minnelli in Cabaret (Allied Artists Picture Corporation via Wikimedia Commons; Public domain)

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When you consider sources of inspiration for great stage musicals, one of the least likely might be a semi-autographical novel about Germany’s Weimar Republic. Nevertheless, Christopher Isherwood’s book was turned into play, and then into a Tony-winning musical in 1966. A few short years later, the film version became one of the biggest hits of 1972 and took home eight Oscars against nothing less than The Godfather. Here’s the story of how a book, a play, a musical, and a film became a Cabaret.

Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden
Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden (Photo by Carl Van Vechten via Wikimedia Commons; Public domain)

Born in England in 1904 to a wealthy family, Christopher Isherwood fell in with other up-and-coming writers during his school years, including Edward Upward and poet W.H. Auden. In 1925 during a visit to Auden, who was staying in Berlin, Isherwood began to become more comfortable with his homosexuality. He moved to the German city that November. Isherwood wrote several stories about life in Germany after World War I and during Hitler’s rise to power. He contrasted the city’s vibrant nightlife against the country’s economic despair, and witnessed how people ignored the rising threat of the Nazi regime in their midst. That was particularly realized in his 1939 book, Goodbye to Berlin. His friend and temporary roommate, performer Jean Ross, became the character Sally Bowles for the book. In the U.S., his Berlin stories were collected in 1945 as, appropriately enough, The Berlin Stories.

John Van Druten, a playwright known for works like Leave Her to Heaven, adapted Isherwood’s Goodbye for the stage. The play was titled I Am a Camera; it opened on Broadway in 1951 and centered largely on the relationship between Isherwood and Bowles (the fictionalized Ross). Julie Harris won a Tony for her portrayal of Bowles. Producer Harold Prince got the musical rights to the play and assembled playwright Joe Masteroff and the songwriting duo of John Kander and Fred Ebb. In this version, Isherwood was fictionalized as Clifford Bradshaw. The show, now called Cabaret, opened in November of 1966; Joel Grey originated the role of the Master of Ceremonies. The musical split between the decadent Kit Kat Klub and a Berlin on the precipice of truly dark times. The show struck a chord, and at the 1967 Tonys, it earned eight awards, including Best Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Performance by a Featured Actor for Grey.

“Life is a Cabaret” (Uploaded to YouTube by Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Word got around in 1971 that Cy Feuer was planning to produce a film version of the musical. Prince told the legendary dancer/choreographer/director Bob Fosse that the movie was in the works. Fosse’s intense desire to direct the film impressed Feuer enough that he persuaded studio execs to get Fosse the job. Once on board, Fosse made some changes. He brought Isherwood’s friend Hugh Wheeler to do additional work on Jay Allen’s screenplay; Wheeler’s uncredited rewrite made the male lead, now called Brian Roberts, bisexual (a compromise as the musical had made the gay character based on Isherwood into a heterosexual character). Fosse also chose to have all of the songs performed in the club (except “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” which is performed in a biergarten), and brought Kander and Ebb aboard to compose two new numbers (“Money” and “Mein Herr”); they also kicked in “Maybe This Time,” a song they’d written in 1964.

Joel Grey had already been cast to reprise his Master of Ceremonies role before Fosse got the director’s chair. He also found his Sally Bowles waiting for him in the form of 26-year-old Liza Minnelli. Minnelli was already a Tony Winner (for Kander and Ebb’s Flora the Red Menace in 1965), an Oscar nominee (for 1969’s The Sterile Cuckoo) and, as the daughter of Judy Garland and director Vincente Minnelli, Hollywood royalty. Fosse cast Michael York as Roberts; at that point, York was best known for his Shakespeare collaborations with director Franco Zeffirelli, including The Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet (in which he played Tybalt). Filming commenced in West Germany. Hilariously, Fosse often did battle with another future-classic musical that was shooting at Bavaria Film Studios; the director frequently fought with the production of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory because they would run late and delay the start of Cabaret’s shooting day.

“Maybe This Time” (Uploaded to YouTube by Turner Classic Movies)

The film was a hit upon its February 13, 1972, debut. By May, it was turning a steady profit. It would go on to be one of the biggest hits of the year, a real achievement in a box office environment that included The Godfather, The Poseidon Adventure, What’s Up, Doc?, Deliverance, and Jeremiah Johnson. Even with difficult subject matter like the rise of Nazism and its frank sexuality, Cabaret connected with a large audience. It also connected with critics; Roger Ebert praised it for a being a musical that didn’t try to make its audience happy, while Pauline Kael singled out Minnelli’s work as an example of how someone “becomes a star right before our eyes.”

By the time that the 45th Academy Awards rolled around, it was clear that the big statue battle was between The Godfather and Cabaret. Cabaret set an unusual record that night; it became the most-awarded film at the Oscars that didn’t win Best Picture. That award, as well as Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium and Best Actor, went tp The Godfather; this was the ceremony where Marlon Brando, who won for his portrayal of Don Vito Corleone, notoriously skipped the program and sent Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather to decline the award on his behalf. Cabaret, however, did take Best Director (Fosse), Best Actress (Minnelli), Best Supporting Actor (Grey), Best Scoring (Ralph Burns), Best Sound (David Hildyard and Robert Knudson), Best Cinematography (Geoffrey Unsworth), Best Film Editing (David Bretherton), and Best Art Direction (which acknowledged Hans Jürgen Kiebach and Rolf Zehetbauer and the set decoration of Herbert Strabel).

Liza Minnelli wins Best Actress (Uploaded to YouTube by Oscars)

Over the last 50 years, Cabaret has remained a popular musical, winning Tonys for Best Revival in both 1987 and 1998. It was revived in both London’s West End and on Broadway in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s. With a 2021 West End show, it seems likely that this decade won’t end without another version taking to Broadway. Fosse passed in 1987, a show business legend with Oscars, Emmys, and nine Tonys to his credit. York, Grey, and Minnelli still continue incredibly successful careers across film, theatre, and television; Minnelli is one of a handful of performers to possess the EGOT (having won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and four Tonys).

While Cabaret still has the ability to stir up controversy for the way in which is openly deals with both human sexuality and the sensual nature of performance, it also resonates deeply for its warnings about the rise of fascism. Christopher Isherwood saw what happened in Germany first-hand and wrote about his experiences as a dispatch to the world. Though his tale took many unexpected turns by becoming a play, a beloved musical, and a classic film, the story’s popularity never diminished the serious subtext. Sally Bowles may have wanted to ignore what was happening outside the Kit Kat Klub, but it was clear that Isherwood never could.

Featured image: Liza Minnelli in Cabaret (Allied Artists Picture Corporation via Wikimedia Commons; Public domain)

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