Cabaret’s Jewish Themes More Relevant Than Ever 50 Years After its Debut


Director B.T. McNicholl hears it every time he leaves the theater. Reads it every time he picks up a review.

And while it delights him to no end, at the same time it can’t help but be cause for concern.

B.T. McNicholl (center) oversees a rehearsal of Cabaret, which comes to the Academy of Music starting April 4. Photo by Joan Marcus

Because McNicholl considers Cabaret, which runs from April 4 to 9 at the Academy of Music, more relevant than ever.

“The themes it deals with — the dangers of political apathy or being disengaged, fear of the other, with a capital O, marginalizing a group because of their religious beliefs — these are subjects you hear on every TV station and read in every newspaper,” said McNicholl of the show, which won eight Tony Awards in 1967. “Those are, in fact, major themes addressed in the course of the evening.

“I had a couple stop me in Fort Lauderdale saying, ‘You have to keep touring that show. You can’t stop. It has too much to say about where we are today.”’

The story of what takes place in Berlin just before Hitler rose to power hits close to home, especially for Jews. What starts out as subtle anti-Semitism eventually turns blatant. It becomes clear that the Kit Kat Club represents a lot more than just a sleazy strip-joint hangout.

Some may know of Cabaret only through the movie, which won eight Oscars in 1973, but McNicholl pointed out that it’s a different Cabaret from the one you’ll see onstage.

“If you think you’ve seen Cabaret because of the film, then you haven’t seen Cabaret,” McNicholl said. “First of all, there’s an entire storyline not in the film that centers around a Jewish shopkeeper and a landlady who’s not Jewish.

“That’s a pivotal part of the plot. But in the film they replaced it with a different plotline that didn’t carry the same weight.”

The headliner in the original musical was Lotte Lenya, a Austrian born singer/actress whom old-timers may know for being mentioned in Bobby Darin’s “Mac the Knife,” or as knife-kicking Rosa Klebb in the early James Bond classic “From Russia with Love.” Veteran character actor Jack Gilford played the shop keeper.

As for Liza’s Sally Bowles, that was played by British actress Jill Haworth, best known for playing Sal Mineo’s girlfriend in Exodus, who tragically shows up at the wrong place at the wrong time.

At the bottom of the marquee it said “Introducing Joel Grey,” who would win the Tony for that performance and go on to have a memorable career.

Back then, Cabaret was considered somewhat risqué, yet still became a Broadway sensation somewhat along the lines of what Hamilton is now. Yet it was filled with controversy, particularly when, as master of ceremonies at the Kit Kat Club, Joel Grey sang, “If you could see her through my eyes” to a gorilla, whispering at the climactic moment “she wouldn’t look Jewish at all.”

“Originally that line caused fighting in the theater,” said McNicholl, who first became involved in the production in 1999. “It was so controversial, the producer was asked to change it to mieskeit, which is referenced earlier.

“But when they revived the show years later, they went back to the original line.”

Now a whole new generation of theatergoers find themselves caught off-guard.

“It’s interesting to bring the show around the country,” said McNicholl, who has overseen language adaptations to the show in Spain, France and Holland. “There are whole pockets of the U.S. that don’t have a large Jewish community.

B.T. McNicholl

“When the show’s at its best, audiences are conditioned to laugh at the emcee. So when he says something that horrible, people have a reaction to laugh since it has the context of a punchline. But then they have that moment of silence because they realize they’ve laughed at something so horrible.

“That’s what the show is trying to do — show in a modest way how this kind of thing can happen. When you’re not thinking and following the crowd, it allows people to become complicit to evil things.”

For McNicholl, whose name was shortened from Brian Thomas to B.T. in high school, his love affair with Cabaret started early.

“I saw it on Broadway, then played the emcee in high school, so I was very familiar with it by the time I got involved in 1999,” said McNicholl, whose resume includes directing productions of Spamalot and Billy Elliot, along with winning the Helpmann Award, Australia’s version of the Tony, for Cabaret. “It was hands-down the most inventive production I’ve ever seen.

“I did a lot of research on the period because we wanted to adhere to keeping it gritty, real and emotionally honest. The movie gave Sally more songs, but didn’t have her sense of vulnerability. The show’s about two love stories that intersect during the rise of Nazism.”

Based in Los Angeles, where he runs a theater group, McNicholl gets a daily report on the performance wherever the show is running. He said Philadelphia, where he once did a musical, Camila, that went on with its Sept. 11, 2001 performance, is “sophisticated. The perfect audience for a show like Cabaret.”

To the director, each performance should be unique in its own way.

“The key to directing is making sure the audience becomes engaged from moment to moment,” he explained. “A play is happening live every night like a high-wire act or a sporting event. You want it to have the same immediacy.

“A good play should feel like you don’t know how it’s going to end and will be exciting to find out, if we do our jobs well.” 

So he says there’s no good sitting alone in your room. Come here the music play. “It’s a great piece of theater- with a capital T– regardless if it’s a musical,” McNicholl concluded. “You’ll have a thrilling, exiting time, hear some great songs and be left with something to talk about.”

Now, more than ever.

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