That Controversial Cabaret Lyric Change
By Peter Filichia —
At one point during my listening to the terrific reissue of the 1968 original London cast album of Cabaret, I suddenly thought of Gladys Troupin.
She was the pianist at the hotel at which I worked in 1966. In October of that year, I urged her — as well as everyone else I knew – to see this new, wonderful musical called Cabaret that was trying out at the Shubert Theatre in Boston.
And everyone loved it – except Gladys.
The day after I knew she’d attended, I sought her out. When she saw me, she scowled. “Didn’t you like it?” I said even before she uttered a word.
“So much of it was very good,” she said with an approving swoop of the head. “But they’re going to have to change that line.”
My brow furrowed. “What line?”
She was surprised that I didn’t know. “The one where the man implies that a gorilla is Jewish.”
She was, of course, referring to “If You Could See Her,” the song that started the third act. (Yes, Cabaret was in three acts during the early days of its Boston run.) The Emcee, sung by Joel Grey — the comparatively unknown who was stealing the show — sang and danced with a gorilla on stage at the Kit Kat Club. He was expressing his love for the animal. “She’s clever; she’s smart; she reads music,” he insisted. “If you could see her through my eyes,” he concluded, “she wouldn’t look Jewish at all.”
The line hadn’t bothered me – but then again, I’m not Jewish. So when I’d seen the show, I’d viewed the lyric as incisive. That the Emcee felt free enough to say it in public – and knew he wouldn’t get in trouble (but would get laughs) for likening a Jew to an animal – showed how staunchly Germany was turning anti-Semitic.
I thought about informing Gladys that the line was written by a Jew (Fred Ebb), set to music by a Jew (John Kander), sung by a Jew (Joel Grey), staged by a Jew (Ronald Field) and approved by the show’s Jewish director (Harold Prince). But she wouldn’t have been mollified. “They’re going to have to change that line,” Gladys reiterated. “They’ll just have to.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that that was not going to happen.
Wrong again, as I learned about two months later when the original Broadway cast album of Cabaret was released. In the first of what would be hundreds of listens, I heard Joel Grey sing about his girlfriend gorilla, “She isn’t a meeskite at all.”
Obviously, Gladys wasn’t the only one who’d found the “Jewish” lyric offensive. Many attendees had apparently been incensed enough to complain, and Cabaret’s Jewish staff had decided not to risk infuriating any more. So they referenced “Meeskite,” a charm song that Jewish character Herr Schultz (Jack Gilford) had sung earlier. In it, he explained that “‘Meeskite’ means ugly, funny-looking.”
Years later, when I interviewed Joel Grey, the first question I asked him was how he felt about the lyric change in “If You Could See Her.” He told me in no uncertain terms that he was furious with it. More to the point, he said something that had occurred to me by my third or fourth cast-album listen: The Emcee and/or his writers wouldn’t use a Jewish word in a German cabaret; it wouldn’t be politic. Besides, an increasingly Aryan audience wouldn’t be expected to know the word “meeskite.”
Less than a year later, when the hardcover libretto of Cabaret was published, it included a curious notation after “If You Could See Her.” While the lyric “She isn’t a meeskite at all” was there, there was also this notation: “Alternate: ‘She wouldn’t look Jewish at all.’”
Now I’d read plenty of these Random House librettos over the years – from Anyone Can Whistle to Wonderful Town – and I had never seen such a notation in any of them. When those shows had dropped lines or lyrics during their tryouts, they didn’t bother to include them in the published text. This double-listing seemed to suggest that Ebb and perhaps others connected with the show had been reluctant to change the lyric.
Six years later, the Tony-winning Cabaret became a movie directed by Bob Fosse. I remember that the arts editor at the Boston Globe had decided to have its drama critic, Kevin Kelly, who knew Cabaret from its Boston debut, review the film. Like most everyone else, Kelly loved it for being even more brave and shocking than the stage show had been. What Kelly also mentioned was that Fosse had reinstated “She wouldn’t look Jewish at all” as proof that the director had made a hard-hitting film.
Well, yes and no. Fosse couldn’t have used “She isn’t a meeskite at all” because he’d dropped the song “Meeskite” en route to removing most every other “book” song from the film. With no Herr Schultz to instruct audiences in advance what the word “meeskite” meant, Fosse would have confused moviegoers if he’d used the revised lyric.
And, as my buddy David Mitchell reminded me, Fosse had Grey whisper the words with no musical accompaniment, so that if the studio heads complained, he could easily replace them. They didn’t and the lyric stayed.
On the other hand, Fosse could have easily asked Ebb to come up with yet another line. Or perhaps he did, and Ebb might have refused. Whatever the case, this may well have been the first time since Boston that any audience had heard “She wouldn’t look Jewish at all.”
Or so I thought, until I heard the new reissue of the London cast album of Cabaret. Here’s Barry Dennen as The Emcee brashly singing “She wouldn’t look Jewish at all.”
Now one could argue that the lyric was dropped in New York because of its vast Jewish population. Hard as it may be to believe, in 1966, New York had a greater Jewish population than Israel. But London in 1968 had an immense Jewish population, too. So why was the line deemed inappropriate for Broadway but acceptable for London?
My theory – and that’s all it is, mind you – is that a vast majority of London theatergoers at Cabaret had lived through the World War II German blitzes that had decimated their city. While the vast majority of Americans had no love for Adolf Hitler and his policies, the British had substantially more reason to hate him. Thus, anything that suggested how terrible Hitler was would trump a possible insult of the Jews.
There are some other changes in the original London cast album, which I’ll elaborate next Tuesday. At the moment, I’m still savoring one of the comparatively few cast albums that stars two Oscar-winners.
One of them had already won her Oscar when Cabaret opened in London: Lila Kedrova, who was given the 1964 Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress for playing Madame Hortense in Zorba the Greek. For this London Cabaret, she was given the role of Fraulein Schneider that Lotte Lenya had originated on Broadway.
The other star would have to wait thirty years before winning her Best Supporting Actress Oscar. She received it for portraying Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love. Yes, Judi Dench played Sally Bowles in the London Cabaret. While some may find that hard to believe, she’s rock-solid fine. That’s something else I’ll tell you about next Tuesday, too.
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.