Cabaret’s tale of star-crossed lovers in pre-WWII Berlin was dark stuff indeed for mid-‘60s New York audiences accustomed to considerably brighter shows like Hello Dolly, She Loves Me, and Mame. Still, that first incarnation of Cabaret was positively sunny compared to its 1998 revival and the addition of Kit Kat Boys to the previously all-female entertainers, more than a suggestion of homosexuality stirred into the mix, and the buoyant “Why Should I Wake Up?” and the Yiddish ditty “Meeskite” excised in favor of the considerably darker “Mein Herr,” “Maybe This Time,” and “I Don’t Care Much.”
As any musical theater aficionado will tell you, Cabaret takes as its source material Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, autobiographical tales which recount the then 20something British medical student’s stay in the sex-and-sin capital of Europe. As Wikipedia relates, “rejecting his upper-class background and attracted to males, (Isherwood) remained in Berlin, the capital of the young Weimar Republic, drawn by its deserved reputation for sexual freedom. There, he fully indulged his taste for pretty youths. He went to Berlin in search of boys and found one called Heinz, who became his first great love.”
Clearly, Isherwood’s real-life adventures would have been more than a tad too gay for mid-‘60s Broadway, and even today’s Cabaret centers around its hero Clifford Bradshaw’s very heterosexual love affair with Brit expatriate slash night club entertainer Sally Bowles. Still, this Cliff has a past (as an early phone chat with one-time lover Bobby reveals), and this Berlin is clearly a place where people of just about any orientation could find a way to express their sexuality openly and freely.
It’s on a Berlin-bound train that Isherwood’s alter-ego Cliff makes the acquaintance of Ernst Ludwig, the friendly Berliner who will introduce him to the city’s nightlife. First, though, Ernst escorts Cliff to the boarding house of Fraulein Schneider, whose song “So What” expresses the been-there-done-that Frau’s “What Will Be Will Be” philosophy of life.
It’s then on to the Kit Kat Club where Sally Bowles is cautioning club-goers “Don’t Tell Mama.” Cliff, seated at a table among Kit Kat Club regulars, gets a call at his table phone from Sally, who introduces herself to the handsome American, and before you know it, the “Toast Of Mayfair” has arrived at Cliff’s room, suitcase in hand, and the two expats are shacking up together.
It’s only a matter of time before Cliff and Sally have become lovers, and since we’ve already learned of Cliff’s past dalliance with Kit Kat customer Bobby, this hetero twist in Cliff’s life may even come as a bit of a surprise to our romantic hero.
As Sally and Cliff become intimately involved, so does Germany’s involvement with Nazism take deeper root, and Cliff begins to have second thoughts about earning extra Deutschemarks as an amateur courier for Ernst. Fraulein Schneider too begins to think twice about marrying her Jewish suitor, greengrocer Herr Schultz, who had previously won her heart by gifting her with a pineapple (“It Couldn’t Please Me More”). Berlin, which had seemed to Cliff such a perfect antidote to staid old England, now shows itself to be a considerably darker, more dangerous place to live.