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Life Is a Cabaret in London

Life Is a Cabaret in London, Too

By Peter Filichia —

“Judi sings her way to a hit!”

So said the critic for the London Daily Mirror on Leap Year Day, 1968. The Judi in question, as I don’t have to inform any musical theater fan, was not Judy Garland; while the quotation would fit the legend, the first name is off by a letter.

By now we all know that there is only one “Judi,” and that she’s certainly graced many a hit ranging from William Shakespeare to Shakespeare in Love to James Bond. But on February 28, 1968, Judi Dench unexpectedly showed up in a musical, when she portrayed Sally Bowles in the original London cast of Cabaret.

As The Emcee says in “Willkommen” (one of the greatest opening numbers in Broadway history), “You don’t believe me?” Well, just listen to the recently re-released Original London Cast album of the Kander and Ebb score. Once you hear Dench’s first cut – “Don’t Tell Mama” – you’ll tell your mama, papa and everyone else how well she handles the material.

Some viewed Dench’s performance as the first definitive Sally Bowles. Although the great musical theater historian Ethan Mordden judged original Broadway cast member Jill Haworth as “one of the best Sallys I’ve ever seen,” many more (including me) felt that her performance was lacking.

Forty-six years ago this week, Walter Kerr, in his Nov. 21, 1966 review in the New York Times, stated that Cabaret was “a stunning musical” and that it was “brilliantly conceived” — but “with one wrong note.” He meant Haworth. Many critics said much the same thing. When the time came for Tony nominations, Haworth saw co-stars Jack Gilford (Herr Schultz), Lotte Lenya (Fraulein Schneider), Joel Grey (The Emcee) and even Peg Murray (Fraulein Kost, barely in the show at all) honored. But not she, even though she was first-billed and the ostensible lead.

Dench’s throaty voice may not seem inherently musical. As noted critic Sheridan Morley reported, “She has an unusual croaky voice which sounds as if she has a permanent cold.” But Sally Bowles was the type to believe that, to quote Mame Dennis, “sex and guts made you into a star.” So the future Dame does very well in playing a very different dame here.

She pleads her case in dialogue in “Perfectly Marvelous,” and giggles when she convinces Cliff to take her in. There’s genuine disgust when she sings “What good?” in the title song. She has a nice conspiratorial tone when she admits, “As a matter of fact, she rented by the hour.” Let me reflect what the Mirror said: Judi sings her way to a hit! And now that we know that voice from so many stage and screen appearances, hearing it sing is fun.

Now onto the only role in the show that can boast of winning two Tonys and one Oscar for its actors: The Emcee, originated by Joel Grey and reinvented by Alan Cumming. In between came Barry Dennen. During “Willkommen,” you’ll hear him say the word “bee-yoot!-iful” with a genuine lilt to the word’s second syllable. It is, in fact, the precise way that Cumming sings it on the 1998 Broadway revival cast album. Now no one’s accusing him of stealing. Cumming was only three years old and living in Aberfeldy, Scotland when this London production opened. There’s no reason to believe that the album ever made its way to Cumming’s home before it went out of print. Still, this album proves that Dennen got there first.

Cliff is played by Kevin Colson. Most of us didn’t know who he was until 1990, when he showed up on Broadway as the aging lover and late-in-life father in Aspects of Love. Here his voice is obviously more youthful, and it’s fun to hear it before it turned mellow and more mature.

Three years after Peter Sallis was proclaiming his happiness in being “A Married Man” in Baker Street, here he is as Herr Shultz greatly anticipating being “Married” to Fraulein Schneider. She is portrayed by Lila Kedrova, who’d won an Oscar three years earlier for her Madame Hortense (a/k/a Bouboulena) in Zorba the Greek. Fifteen years hence, she’d play it in the revival of Zorba. (Hmmm, considering that in early 1968, Cabaret’s director Harold Prince cast her in Cabaret, why didn’t he use her when he staged the premiere of Zorba in late 1968? Gotta ask him that the next time I run into him.)

Kedrova sings with a good deal of little-old-lady charm. Fans of vibrato and trills will rarely feast as much as they will on Kedrova’s take on the character.

While the original Broadway cast recording clocks in around fifty-four minutes, the London edition offers five minutes more. For those who like extra dance music, here are quite a few additional measures added to both “The Telephone Song” and “Sitting Pretty.”

There are also a few extra lines of dialogue from Joe Masteroff’s Tony-winning book. The Emcee has some introductory lines in both “Two Ladies” and “Sitting Pretty.” Cliff, during the final cut, has some trenchant lines that have him admitting his naiveté. He answers the question that he’d earlier posed in song: “Why Should I Wake Up?” In the interim, the Nazis had provided the answer.

And then there’s a reprise of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” which is a most telling one. It occurs immediately following “Meeskite,” a Jewish-themed song sung by the Jewish Herr Schultz at his engagement party. This recording includes the reaction at song’s end, where there are a few “awwws!” of approval – but polite applause. Many of the guests, you see, are now members of the anti-Semitic Nazi movement.

And that brings us to the reprise of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” which was not included on the original cast album. When we first heard the song, it was a slowly rendered ballad with a wistful dream quality. Now, some time later, it’s become a confident and strident Nazi anthem.

If we’d had this on the Broadway cast album, we would have heard a Tony-winning performance. For the anthem is started by Fraulein Kost, the role that won the prize for Peg Murray. Alas, it would be the only Tony-winning Featured Actress in a Musical performance that went unrecorded in the entire decade. Here it’s sung with relish by the appropriately named Pamela Strong.

In addition to the controversial lyric “She wouldn’t look Jewish at all” which we discussed last week, there are other notable lyric changes in “So What?” Fraulein Schneider’s philosophical song to Cliff and “It Couldn’t Please Me More,” in which Herr Schultz gives Fraulein Schneider a pineapple as a gift. I’ll tackle those next week for reasons I’ll divulge at that time.

In the meantime, enjoy. Masterworks Broadway has for years offered you a pair of Cabaret albums. Now it provides another. Twosies beats onesies, but nothing beats threes.

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com.and www.mtishows.com. His books on musicals are available at Amazon.com.