Or, Willkommen! Bienvenue! . . . Go Away!
The movie version of "Cabaret" (1972), as recklessly deconstructed by one Bob Fosse, is a film musical for people who don't like film musicals.
Traditionalist friends who are avid fans of the genre tend to frown upon it. That's because it really isn't a musical - not in the traditional sense. True, it has singing and it has Fosse's idiosyncratic choreography, but neither is strictly/seamlessly integrated into the narrative. Its numbers are "staged."
The songs that were sung off-stage in the play were either eliminated or reconfigured for Liza Minnelli to sing on stage at a tawdry little club.
What I'm saying is that "Cabaret" isn't a "book musical" wherein the numbers are required to carry forward the plot and advance character development - you know, where characters simply break out into song.
This is what your average moviegoers doesn't understand or like. While people have no problem suspending disbelief for the brainlessness of comic-book and superhero movies, the idea of one character singing to another is seen as ridiculous. But fantasy is fantasy. There's no difference.
Anyway, the original 1966 stage version of the John Kander-Fred Ebb material was very much a book musical. The songs were strewn throughout the plot and they were sung by various characters. A few were staged as cabaret numbers in the notorious Kit Kat Klub, but only a few.
For their film version, Fosse and company took songs out of the narrative and away from supporting characters and gave them to the supposedly second-rate singer Sally Bowles and the creepy Kit Kat host, known only as Emcee, making them all as grotesquely lurid as possible. It's all "divine decadence!," see? Which Sally is given to shrieking at repeated intervals.
Gone was the musical tradition of songs replacing dialogue to advance the film's plot. Fosse wasn't exactly breaking new ground here. Way back in 1957, director George Sidney and his scenarist Dorothy Kingsley turned the Rodgers and Hart musical,"Pal Joey," into "An Evening with Frank Sinatra." Except for "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" (which Rita Hayworth lip-syncs to another woman's voice; Hayworth was always dubbed), the songs in "Joey" are performances, sung before an audience.
An iconic Broadway show, finally a film, was no longer a book musical.
Actually, George Cukor's "A Star Is Born" (1954) predates "Joey" by a few years, restricting all its songs to performances either in clubs or on studio soundstages - or, in one scene, in Judy Garland's living room where she "entertains" James Mason, reenacting a musical number she shot that day. "A Star Is Born" is often hailed as a great film musical but it really isn't.
It's a great drama which just happens to have songs.
Rob Marshall's 2002 film of "Chicago" is a shrewd redefining of the book musical. Yes, characters sing on screen, but all the musical numbers are presented as daydreams, fantasy, a way to make all the singing and dancing palatable for dim audiences. Again, it's a musical for people who don't like/understand musicals. It's a bastardization of the book musical.
Marshall notwithstanding, the auteur behind "Chicago" was ... Bob Fosse. But he was dead by the time "Chicago" made it to the screen and, to Marshall's credit, he didn't bother to recreate Fosse's original choreography, sparing us those annoyingly affected dance mannerisms.
"Cabaret" was Fosse's second film as a director, following 1969's "Sweet Charity," which received less-than-charitable reviews. The experience must have convinced Fosse that instead of turning "Cabaret" into another elephantine roadshow musical, he would go the art-house route.
Hiring Liza Minnelli must have seemed like a brilliant strategy, given that she had one foot in Old Hollywood and the other ensconced in the then-Hollywood New Wave (having starred with some success in Alan J. Pakula's "The Sterile Cuckoo").
But she's simply too overpowering for the role of Sally, originally created in the play and film of "I Am a Camera" by Julie Harris and in the Broadway stage version of "Cabaret" by the Harris-like Jill Haworth.
Haworth, with her slight voice, was no great singer, but neither is Sally. Minnelli turned her into a Mermanesque belter, a showstopper. Huh?
There's a great moment in the 2007 documentary "Chris and Don: A Love Story" when the writer Christopher Isherwood attends an advance screening of "Cabaret" with his longtime companion, Don Bachardy.
Isherwood created Sally Bowles. He wrote the 1945 two-part book "The Berlin Stories" (known largely as just "Berlin Stories" for some reason) that was the genesis of "Cabaret." As Bachardy tells it, Isherwood squirmed during the screening, whispering over and over again, "She's ruining it!," every time Liza Minnelli did one of her trademark Liza bits.
Isherwood's book was adapted into "I Am a Camera" in 1951 by John Van Druten ("Bell, Book and Candle" and "Old Acquaintance"), starring Harris, who would also star in the 1955 film version, in turn adapted by John Collier. There's more. Joe Masteroff did the stage-musical adaptation and Jay Presson Allen ("Marnie") is credited with the script for the Fosse film.
For me, a book musical is the only authentic musical, a genre that has been muddied for the past two decades or so. "Flashdance," "Footloose" and "Dirty Dancing" have all been referred to as musicals. They aren't.
They're dancicals. Characters don't sing in these movies - they just dance.
So, let's get something straight - a film musical isn't a musical unless its characters burst out into song, and not on a stage or some dream.
"Cabaret" isn't a musical.
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~Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli in "Cabaret"
~photography: Allied Artists 1972 ©