First of all, my apologies for the disruption to SteynOnline for a few hours earlier today. Strange. You hammer the corruption and thuggery of the United States Government, and next thing you know your website disappears. I may be doing the NSA et al an injustice. Last time this happened to us, it was a DOS attack from Iran. But, given the rapprochement of Washington and Teheran over Iraq, who knows?
Back to business:
On Friday, Shia LaBeouf, a celebrity with whom I was not hitherto familiar and could not have reliably spelled, was arraigned in a Manhattan court after "disrupting" a performance of Cabaret at Studio 54 starring Alan Cumming. I don't know what happened, but this particular version of Cabaret, with Cumming in Joel Grey's old role of the emcee, is always a wee bit in danger of getting out of hand. It includes a little audience participation, and two decades ago at its premiere in London the Second Act I was invited up on stage to take a twirl around the floor with Alan Cumming in leather pants with cutaway buttocks. Mr Cumming, that is. My own bottom was fully tailored. I took him in my arms, but he whispered, "Let me lead" â€“ the control freak. Anyway, I got great reviews. "The boy done well," wrote Michael Coveney of my cameo in The Observer. Since then the production has acquired the habit of identifying any celebs in the audience and asking them up for the Act Two opener. I don't know if that's what Mr LaBeouf was being eyed up for, but he never made it. His Act One unsought audience participation was so disruptive that he was escorted from the theatre at intermission.
At any rate, for our somewhat late Saturday-night showbiz excursion, here from the Steyn archives is my conversation, just before the opening of that production in 1993, with Cabaret's creators, John Kander and the late Fred Ebb:
Most musicals are flops; some are hits; and a select few go beyond that to embed themselves in the cultural vocabulary. Think of Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles, greeting every caller to her dressing-room with "Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome", or the "Spitting Image" 1987 election special, with Mrs Thatcher leading the Tory Party in "Tomorrow Belongs to Me"; or Madonna appropriating Liza Minnelli's hair, vest and "Maybe This Time" pose for her current Girlie Tour. And beyond any specific words, music or images of Cabaret, the show itself has become a shorthand for its time and place. Christopher Hitchens reviewing a biography of Stephen Spender: "Anyone who has seen Cabaret can read several of the succeeding chapters at speed." And not just a few chapters of some book, but the entire late Weimar era.
In the almost three decades since the original production, John Kander and Fred Ebb have stacked up an impressive catalogue. On Broadway, they're presently represented by Kiss Of The Spiderwoman; on the Hit Parade, Sinatra's No 1 Duets album contains the umpteenth recording of their "New York, New York". But Cabaret was their second show and their first success and, according to Fred Ebb, "Without it, I doubt I would have had a career."
Ebb, incidentally, writes the lyrics, though, as Kander points out, after 30 years of professional monogamy, it seems a little ridiculous to break the partnership down into its component parts. Still, just for the record, which comes first? "We work in the same room at the same time and we improvise," says Kander. "Fred might have a line or I might have a rhythm, but he would never hand me a lyric and I would never hand him a melody. So neither of us is ever presenting the other with a problem, saying, 'Here's something I really like, now go solve it.' We screw it up together."
They always write the opening number first - in defiance of conventional Broadway wisdom, which says you should leave it to last, because by then you know what the show's about and, besides, the original curtain-raiser always gets junked and replaced (witness Annie, Guys and Dolls, etc). "The reasons you give for writing it last," says Ebb, "are exactly the reasons why we do it first - to define the show before you begin writing it. It's like a court of law: first you get up and say I'm going to prove to you this man is guilty, and then you proceed to do so. But you state your case up front."
"With Cabaret, we were trying to find the piece, to write our way into it," Kander remembers. "The first thing we wrote was 'Willkommen' and the very first thing that ever happened was that little vamp." Kander is routinely hailed as the champ of the vamps, those little musical figures that, when they work, really kick-start a song - the "dum-dum-da-de-dum" at the front of "New York, New York" is his surefire killer. "When you find something you like, it tells you about the direction you want to go in. I don't mean you go through the process in a doped-up haze, but you have to trust your unconscious."
Cabaret contains a pretty literal illustration of what he means. While working on the show, Ebb had a dream in which Joel Grey came out on the set of Hello, Dolly! and danced with a gorilla in a tutu. "That's great," said Hal Prince, their director. "You've got to get it in the show." So Joel Grey came out and danced with a gorilla in a tutu. "If you could see her through my eyes," the song concluded, "she wouldn't look Jewish at all."
During the try-out in Boston, a rabbi wrote to the authors saying that the ghosts of six million Jews were begging them not to use that last line. More pressingly, real live theatre parties were considering cancelling their bookings. "It was the first show where we had a crack at success - not just John and me, but Hal, too - and we were all more frightened than we might be today. But they were threatening to close us down before we opened, taking ads out accusing us of anti-Semitism. So, because of the pressure, I changed the punchline to what I thought was a very weak line. I'd thought our intention was very clear, but even in the movie, when Bob Fosse shot the song, if you notice, 'She wouldn't look Jewish at all' is said with absolutely no accompaniment; Joel just whispers the line. And that's so, if Bobby had any trouble from people, he could substitute the line without getting the musicians back in. He was still afraid."
By the 1987 Broadway revival, Prince, Kander and Ebb could afford the courage of their convictions. It's a moment of pure musical theatre: the emcee sings the final line; we laugh, because it's the last line and it's where the laugh should be, and then we catch ourselves in the huge on-stage mirrors; and the laugh dies instantly, as we realise what we're laughing at and the number gets some awkward, shamed applause. Kander and Ebb saw it as a theatrical way to make a point about the ease with which you can create a climate of acceptable bigotry. "I'm very proud of that reaction," says Ebb, "and it's exactly what the mirror means in Cabaret: that we're all capable of this."
Unfortunately, musicals are such an artless art that the better you do your job, the less credit you get. Ask all those people who apparently believe "Ol' Man River" is a 19th century Negro spiritual, as opposed to something Kern and Hammerstein cooked up to fill a hole in the first act of Showboat. Similarly, when Cabaret called for an ostensibly innocent pastoral hymn to German nationalism, the boys turned in such a plausible doppelgĂ¤nger that it was immediately denounced as a real Nazi anthem. "The accusations against 'Tomorrow Belongs to Me' made me very angry," says Ebb. " 'I knew that song as a child,' one man had the audacity to tell me. A rabbinical person wrote me saying he had absolute proof it was a Nazi song."
"What's really awful," adds Kander, "is when it's taken for what it doesn't mean. I can remember a Jewish boys' camp calling us excitedly for permission to use the song in their camp show. I thought to myself, 'I don't think they quite get this.' "
These days, the problem's the opposite of what it was in 1966. Because we all know what Cabaret's about, the temptation for directors is to pull out all the Nazi stops from curtain-up. Gillian Lynne's 1986 London production was swastikas-a-go-go, with a scene even Springtime for Hitler might balk at: Wayne Sleep tap-dancing to an interpolated hit of the period, "Deutschland ĂĽber Alles" (no, Kander and Ebb didn't write that one). The authors are intrigued to see what Sam Mendes does in his new production at the Donmar, but, by now, they're relaxed enough to know the material can look after itself*.
Back in the Sixties, Broadway writers still came in pairs: Strouse and Adams (Bye, Bye, Birdie), Bock and Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof), Coleman and Leigh (Little Me). All broke up in varying degrees of acrimony, and today most partnerships are one-night stands. "He's the new Lorenz Hart, I tell you," a composer will say of his latest lyricist at the start of rehearsals. Two months later, he's combing the fine print and lining up replacements. Kander and Ebb are occasionally damned as "the nicest guys on Broadway", but, for two meek mild-mannered types, they're the only theatrical superheroes to have survived with their long underwear intact. "One reason why they've avoided the career slumps that almost everyone else has had is simply that they've stayed together," Alan Jay Lerner once told me. "A composer and lyricist grow together."
"Even when we write lousy, Fred and I always have a good time," says Kander. A framed crossword puzzle in his home neatly encapsulates the restraint of their ambitions and the root of their success. The answer reads: "John Kander". Above is the clue: "Partner of Ebb".
*With hindsight, they weren't that relaxed about the production. At the time of the interview, they hadn't seen Alan Cumming in rehearsal. A few days later, I ran into them, and they had. John Kander was "working with Alan" on the songs, and professed himself calm. Fred Ebb was less sanguine: "They say, 'Oh, but you should have seen his Hamlet.' Fine. Let him stick to Hamlet." Fred died a few years ago, by which time Cumming's performance had been a smash on both sides of the Atlantic, and Mendes' re-invention of Cabaret had become the standard interpretation of the show. I'd be interested to know whether Fred ever revised that initial opinion.
~Mark talks to John Kander and Fred Ebb and many other top writers, performers and stagers in his acclaimed classic, Broadway Babies Say Goodnight. Personally autographed copies are exclusively available from the SteynOnline bookstore.