Cabaret’s Sui Generis Cast Album
Most of the hundreds of original cast albums have of course been recorded in studios. A few have been recorded live, such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s Porgy & Bess, the British Moby Dick and Catch My Soul. And then there was Mummenschanz, a mime show where a listener ONLY heard the audience response. (Seriously: nothing else.)
But there is only one cast album that offers the sound of both a studio and live recording: the 1998 revival cast album of Cabaret. It’s truly sui generis.
(Need a translation? “In a class or group of its own” and “not like anything else” will do.)
The album has come to our attention once again, for Alan Cumming, its Tony-winning star, has returned to Broadway with Cabaret. Although sixteen years have passed, Cumming doesn’t look sixteen seconds older in heading a very well-received replication of the Tony-winning revival.
Make that revolutionary Tony-winning revival. As college professor Bert Silverberg has noted, “There was a time when everybody played Emcee as Joel Grey did. Now everyone plays it the way Alan Cumming redefined it” — tough, unapologetic and overtly sexual.
Most of his numbers on the 1998 revival cast album get applause because producer Jay David Saks and A&R Director Bill Rosenfield had an inspired notion. How about the sound of a live audience solely for the numbers that take place in the cabaret? They could sport both the sound that says love (applause) as well as the one that expresses happiness (laughter).
And that’s what the two provided – almost. Cabaret entertainer Sally Bowles’ “Maybe This Time” and Emcee’s “I Don’t Care Much” offer no applause, because they’re done during the club’s quiet pre-opening hours.
A note about these two songs: they weren’t in the original 1966 production, but they could have been, for two future diva-legends had recorded them years earlier. Streisand did “I Don’t Care Much” in 1963 and Minnelli did “Maybe This Time” a year later.
Take it from someone who read the script to what was then titled Welcome to Berlin in the summer of ’66: “I Don’t Care Much” was in there, intended for the show where it is now. But it didn’t even survive to the first preview of the Boston tryout.
Through the years many have told me that although they didn’t know about the Minnelli recording, they’d assumed that “Maybe This Time” had previously been written. Their reasoning: if it had made its first appearance in the film, it certainly would have been nominated for an Oscar. Don’t be so sure; Kander and Ebb’s most famous song – officially called “The Theme from New York, New York” – was written for a film and wasn’t even nominated.
Another song set in the cabaret gets no applause, either: the title song. This suggests that Sally – who had, after all, been fired – is imaging her return to the club. That makes sense when one considers the C-section of the song: “I used to have a girl friend known as Elsie” who died and was “the happiest corpse I’ve ever seen.” This is not the type of lyric one would hear in a ‘30s nightclub; pop recordings of “Cabaret” since Marilyn Maye’s original in 1966 have skipped this section and have solely concentrated on the more joyous A-A-B-A sections that celebrate music, a holiday, wine, a band and a smile.
So the final score is seven numbers with applause, twelve without – unless we count the applause you’ll give this sui generis album.
Applause and laughter aren’t the only atypical sounds heard on this recording. “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” meant to replicate a Nazi anthem, has the sound of a 78 rpm record of the era. As a result, scratches and surface noise abound.
Finally, there’s one sound effect that’s quite disturbing: the sound of a brick being thrown into the window of the fruit shop run by Herr Schultz – a German, yes, but also a Jew. Hear Tony-winner Ron Rifkin try to slough it off as the work of “mischievous children” all the while knowing the truth. The terrorist act is a terrible precursor to Kristallnacht and a reminder that Cabaret isn’t just unmitigated nightclub fun.
That brings us to “If You Could See Her,” in which Emcee dances with a gorilla on the Kit Kat Club stage and sings the lyric first heard at the start of the Boston tryout, then dropped, but reinstated for London and the 1972 film version: “If you could see her through my eyes,” Emcee concluded while gazing fondly at the ape, “she wouldn’t look Jewish at all.”
Back in 1966, however, this lyric infuriated so many Boston theatergoers that it was changed to “She isn’t a meeskite at all.” Theatergoers either knew the word or had learned it a song earlier, when Herr Schultz explained that “meeskite” meant “ugly” or “funny-looking.” Unfortunately for Schultz, this is not the time to be using a Yiddish word, for the Germans he tells it to are becoming increasingly anti-Semitic.
When Bob Fosse did his landmark film, he returned to the original lyric. But he had to, for he’d dropped “Meeskite” (along with most every other book song). With no Herr Schultz to instruct audiences in advance what “meeskite” meant, Fosse would have confused moviegoers if he’d used the revised lyric.
Sam Mendes, who staged this revival, dropped “Meeskite” too, so he was end-played into using “She wouldn’t look Jewish at all.” But don’t we have a sneaking suspicion that that’s the lyric he would have opted for, anyway? Implying that Emcee would feel free enough to say such a line in public – and knew he wouldn’t get in trouble but would instead get laughs – was an excellent way to show how the Germans were being programmed to think.
Anyone asked to play Fraulein Schneider would be no Lotte Lenya – but that also means that she might have a stronger and more secure voice. Indeed Mary Louise Wilson did. This is also a more spirited recording of Cabaret, because musical director Patrick Vacarriello speeds up the tempi and makes the orchestra more dynamic. Equally impressive is the “sweet band” sound reminiscent of the period, nicely prominent in the entr’acte.
And then there’s the reprise of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” started by Michele Pawk, who plays Fraulein Kost, the prostitute who turns Nazi. Pawk didn’t receive even a Tony nomination for the same role that in 1967 won a Tony for Peg Murray. In those days of what we now laughingly call “long-playing” records, there was no room for any of Murray’s Tony-winning performance; thankfully, there was for Pawk’s reprise in 1998.
For the current 2014 production, Cumming is the only performer to return. Sad to say, Natasha Richardson, who portrayed Sally, tragically died in a 2009 accident. So there’s poignancy to hearing Richardson sing “Not a loser any more, like the last time or the time before.”
But in 1998, that actually turned out to be truth for the character of Sally. The “last time” that Cabaret had been on Broadway in 1987, Alyson Reed lost the Tony; “the time before” in the original production, Jill Haworth wasn’t even nominated. But Richardson became the only Sally out of three (and now out of four) to win a Tony for the role.
Now – as for those live cuts: truth to tell, they weren’t recorded “live” at all. Says Rosenfield, “I suppose that enough time has passed that I can reveal we used canned audience responses that were inserted later. Jay spent hours listening to canned responses and inserting them very carefully.” Well, shouldn’t a show that contrasts illusion and reality offer us both, too?
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at http://www.kritzerland.com/filichia.htm and at http://www.mtishows.com. His books on musicals are available at http://www.amazon.com.