While it may be over fifty years since it first made an appearance on Broadway, Cabaret remains a fierce and meaty piece of musical theatre. A landmark show that re-imagined musical conventions of the time, it not only went on to win numerous awards, it also spawned the 1972 film starring Liza Minnelli, Michael York, and Joel Grey.
Based on the novel Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood, Cabaret is set in 1931 Berlin, which is transitioning from an avant-garde cultural centre to the epicentre of the beginning of Hitler’s regime. In this world, Cliff, a struggling American writer arrives in Berlin, finding himself inside the Kit Kat Klub. Overseen by a strange and gender-bending Emcee, the hard-living entertainer Sally Bowles performs nightly with a raucous ensemble who tantalize the crowd, urging them to leave their troubles outside.
The latest group to undertake Cabaret is New Westminister’s Royal City Musical Theatre. In this Q&A with director and choreographer, Valerie Easton, and Andrew Cownden, who plays the Emcee, we find out more.
This interview has been edited.
Cabaret seems to have more adult themes then is typically seen in Royal City Musical Theatre (RCMT) productions. Do you have to make edits or tame it down for your audience?
Valerie Easton: The fact that there are, as you say, mature themes represented in Cabaret are very much an issue in the current social and political climate. And many of these themes have been seen before in RCMT shows, including A Chorus Line, West Side Story, and South Pacific.
All scripts and great pieces of theatre are open to interpretation. I don’t think we have to tame it down, as it were, because the script speaks for itself and the era of the piece.
In some recent productions there has been a tendency to go for shock value that really isn’t part of the script, but the vision of the director. The script itself has remained basically the same since the original Broadway production, and the wonderful movie version directed by Bob Fosse, with changes to some of the musical numbers.
You work a lot with big cast shows, mixing professionals with up-and-coming, and community actors. What draws you to that combo?
Valerie Easton: I love working with the combination of semi-professional and professional casts. We are lucky to have a lot of graduates from theatre programs around the province, and it gives them a chance to work alongside professionals in the business, and get a chance to see and be a part of their process. It also lets me see the up-and-coming talent, and sometimes find a surprise or two.
What sort of research did you do for Cabaret?
Valerie Easton: I have done this show a few times, but I continue to find interesting facts from documentaries and books. We have particularly considered the cabaret culture of the twenties and in the years leading up to the beginning of the Nazi movement. “Before the Deluge”, a portrait of Berlin in the 1920s, has been very helpful.
What is your hope that the audience is going to experience?
Valerie Easton: Occasionally, a musical comes along that breaks the barriers and causes the musical theatre world to change. This was one of the first to tackle sensitive material of a serious nature and considering that it is 52 years old it is still able to provoke thought about our society.
So, along with a fabulous story of imperfect people, I hope the audience can appreciate Cabaret for one of the best Broadway scores and experience an audience can have.
Tell us a bit about your character?
Andrew Cownden: The Emcee is a conspirator between the audience and the action on stage. His role is based on Weimar Republic era cabaret hosts called “conférenciers”, known for their political and social commentary. All his lines consist of showbiz patter directed to the audience. There’s no telling for certain where he falls politically or emotionally. This makes him open to interpretation, which is one of the reasons why this role is so often prized. I feel lucky to have the opportunity.
What is it like to step into such an iconic role first made famous by Joel Grey, and then redefined by Alan Cumming?
Andrew Cownden: It’s intimidating. People will come to this show with expectations. I dislike disappointing people, but good art is about making bold, definite choices, and such choices will always upset someone. It can’t be avoided.
Things are still baking in the rehearsal hall, but for now our Emcee is leaning more toward the Joel Grey side. I’m playing with how far I can take the darkness, creepiness, and menace.
You are known for playing comedic, fun roles, but the role of Emcee is a sexually charged character. What is it like to play such a role?
Andrew Cownden: The sexuality in the show, where the Emcee is concerned, is broadly comic. There is much leering and waggling of eyebrows; all stuff in my typical wheelhouse.
The only thing that feels unusual for me is the frequency of physical touching, vis-a-vis expressions of sexuality in the blocking and choreography. My chief concern in rehearsal, therefore, has been to make sure everyone is consenting and comfortable at all times, and to keep checking in.
What has been the most fun you have had in rehearsal so far?
Andrew Cownden: Probably choreographing the kick-line number at the top of the second act. I don’t get to feel like a Rockette very often, so it’s a special thrill. And I’m looking forward to dancing in character shoes (low heels). Pray for my ankles.
Cabaret opens at the Massey Theatre in New Westminster on April 12 and runs through April 29. Visit http://royalcitymusicaltheatre.com for tickets and information.