Directed by: Bob Fosse
Written by: Jay Allen
Starring: Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Helmut Griem, Marisa Berenson, Fritz Wepper, Joel Grey
Horrifying political uprisings in retrospect seem avoidable but in the moment the inevitable rise can slip right under our noses. This notion displays itself while we all enjoy the spectacular show put on for us by the wonderful performers in Cabaret. Through its incredible musical sequences, complex characters, and thrilling story, it just about tries to protect you from the inevitable rise of the most horrific regimes in human history.
While attempting to finish his doctorate, Brian (Michael York) moves into the same boarding house as the alluring Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), who performs at the Kit Kat Club. They begin a relationship, which gets complicated when other people mix into their lives and the rise of the Nazi party.
Opening this tremendous feature introduces us to a world we have not seen on film. We have the eccentric Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey) introducing the players and the environment we are about to enter. A place where sexual promiscuity is encouraged and where song and dance reign supreme. It culminates into a strong performance of “Willkommen” and then we’re off into a story about exploration and seizing the life we’ve been given. This opening sequence demonstrates the luxurious and beautifully choreographed dance numbers we’ll receive. With it, we also get the introduction of Sally Bowles.
Whenever I think of Liza Minelli, the very first performance that comes to mind is her excellent Academy Award-winning performance as Sally Bowles. A character, who represents mystery, intrigue, and ultimately vulnerability. Someone who can get on the stage and perform like no other but still have insecurities. Her work as this character cannot be described as anything short of iconic. Minelli fully captures this character and rightfully received acclaim for what she could conjure in this thrilling story. Minelli’s Sally Bowles serves as the proper antithesis to Michael York’s Brian. He becomes the surrogate for the audience to enter this world, as he learns about the culture of where Germany is at this point and how Sally’s life hangs in the balance. Their relationship allows for the audience to learn more about them, as they learn about themselves.
One cannot speak about excellent performances in this feature without mentioning Joel Grey and the great job he does as the Master of Ceremonies. His musical performances become a welcomed addition to the overall story. From his footwork to his suave and sexual nature, he does not get much development as a character, but he leaves an impact every time he jumps on screen with his next musical number.
Based on the 1966 Broadway musical, Cabaret takes a look at this group of people living in a frivolous and free manner just as the Nazi party fully consumes the nation of Germany. The slow but sure progression of this takeover can be seen in their appearance as audience members. At first, you only really see one and he is ridiculed at every turn by the performers in the Kit Kat Club. With each performance, more and more appear in the audience until the performers solely have them to entertain, as they have taken over the club much like for the rest of the country. The Kit Kat Club thus becomes a metaphor for this Nazi rise and how the adventurous and artsy nature of these folks once blossomed but now faces the threat of a regime attempting to restrict anything they do not see as fit for the culture. What I found incredibly resonant about this progression is it occurs in a subtle way. At first, these zealots get pointed out, but we forget about them because everything happening on the stage draws more intrigue. It then gets to the point where the inevitable arrives right in front of them and our eyes and we know how everything will result moving forward.
Pairing well with the musical numbers, the fashion and costume design for Cabaret captures the look of that era and what would be seen in these types of clubs. With the production design to display these costumes being a stage, everything else on it needed to match the music being played. The costumes transport you to this era and how free everyone lived before fascism rose and took over.
Truly one of the best musicals and a standout for a host of reasons, Cabaret remains a treasure in Hollywood history. It further demonstrated the ability to adapt a Broadway musical into an equally compelling feature film and highlighted some tremendous performers in the form of Liza Minelli and Joel Grey. Each dance number becomes memorable and it allows us to have some fun in a world we know will soon never be the same again.