How Cabaret Changed Movie Musicals - VRGyani News and Media


Thursday, August 19, 2021

How Cabaret Changed Movie Musicals

In 1969, the movie musical looked about as dead as a doornail with the release of Hello, Dolly!. The New Hollywood was in full swing by that point, and the appeal of a lavish, expensive musical could not have been lower. Just three years later, however, Bob Fosse swoops in and delivers a movie musical that was that dealt with serious, complicated themes like bisexuality, abortion, and the rise of fascism in pre-World War II Berlin, perfect for the New Hollywood crowd. Cabaret, adapted from the Tony-winning Broadway hit by composer John Kander, lyricist Fred Ebb, and book writer Joe Masteroff, took home eight Academy Awards that year, beating the juggernaut of The Godfather in many of the categories, and remains one of the most acclaimed movie musicals in film history.

Often, the film is labeled as “the musical for people who don’t like musicals.” While ignoring the obvious connotation of people not thinking it is “cool” to like musicals in that statement, the sentiment does ring somewhat true because the film presents storytelling music in an unusual way. Every song in the film Cabaret is diegetic, meaning the music exists as music within the world of the film. Whether a song is performed by Liza Minnelli or Joel Grey on the stage of the Kit Kat Klub or simply being played on a record, a song exists as a song, as opposed to most book musicals where scenes and inner monologues are dramaticized through music. In Cabaret’s original stage origins on Broadway, this was not the case. Some songs were indeed diegetic, but there are also many songs that operate within the traditional book musical style. Fosse made the deliberate decision to remove these numbers from the film, along with changing an immense amount of the show’s story, in his adaptation. To understand what led to this decision, we need to take a step back and look at the history of the movie musical and the film climate of when Cabaret was made.

Though it may seem quaint today, the seismic theatrical event that was Oklahoma! cannot be overstated. The musical by composer Richard Rodgers and librettist/lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II truly put in place what we think of as a musical, a story where the music is perfectly integrated into the material for plot, character, and emotion. While it was not the first musical of this kind, it became exhibit A due to its immense popularity and outstanding critical reception. Prior to this form, musicals, or more precisely musical comedies as they were more commonly known, often were created as a collection of catchy, exciting musical numbers strung together by a threadbare, charming plot in order to get you to the next number. These are the kinds of shows the great Hollywood musicals of the studio system were molded after, from 42nd Street to Singin’ in the Rain to The Band Wagon.

The transition from the stage to the screen makes quite a bit of sense, particularly because each were enormously dance based entertainments. Intricate movement, whether performed directly in front of you or in a well-crafted frame, dazzles the eye, and for film, it was as if a music video had been placed in the middle of your film. Once the stage began transitioning what a musical was to them, Hollywood was slow to catch up, still consistently producing these old school musical comedies a good decade or so after Oklahoma! became a smash hit. Even if a show like On the Town was being adapted to film, which follows in the book musical tradition of Oklahoma!, the filmmakers would essentially strip the show of its book musical roots, keep a few of its catchier songs, and insert a bunch of new ones, turning it into the old school Hollywood dance musical.

Oklahoma! finally received a big budget Hollywood film adaptation in 1955 from director Fred Zinnemann. Rodgers and Hammerstein, by this point, were major heavy hitters with a cavalcade of Broadway smashes and a string of new American songbook classics, and they could demand a lot of creative control, which included making sure that the kinds of changes that would happen in a film like On the Town would not happen with this film. Upon release, Oklahoma! was well received and a box office hit leading to major adaptations of other beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein works like Carousel, South Pacific, and The King and I, eventually expanding beyond the duo’s work to the era’s zenith in the early 1960s with West Side Story. All of these films' presentations mirrored that of their stagebound origins, being a full two and a half to three hours that included an intermission between the two acts. Hello, Dolly! was the death blow to this kind of musical.

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Old Hollywood saw these films' successes in the early to mid-1960s as a green light to continue to pump absurd amounts of money into projects like these, seemingly without any knowledge of the counter culture explosion about to happen. First in 1967, 20th Century Fox releases Dr. Dolittle, a blatant attempt to recapture the Oscar winning magic of 1964's My Fair Lady by reuniting screenwriter Alan Jay Lerner and star Rex Harrison. The production remains a legendarily troubled, including the firing of Lerner, Rex Harrison's less than stellar personality, and all the issues you would think come with a film that utilizes over a thousand animals in the cast. Coming out the same year as The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde, the moviegoing public's priorities radically shifted, and the insanely expensive musical bombed at the box office. Fox opted to give it another swing just two years later with Hello, Dolly!, a film that cost even more than Dr. Dolittle to make. While it did make a tiny bit more money at the box office, the cost of this gigantic production from director Gene Kelly proved far too steep a hill a climb, and in a year where the X-rated Midnight Cowboy wins Best Picture and Easy Rider speaks to a whole generation, Hello, Dolly! looks positively antique.

Hollywood is about five to seven years behind the New York theater scene in when they get their screen adaptations out to cinemas, and Cabaret premiered on Broadway in November of 1966, making 1972 exactly the right window to put it on the big screen. The issue was that between those six years, the film business had completely turned on its head, and making a traditional stage to screen adaptation was out of the question, particularly for a musical so grounded in real world atrocities. Coming off of a flop of a traditional adaptation for his directorial debut in Sweet Charity, Bob Fosse felt this most of all.

The New Hollywood had gritty realism, and often these films took on-the-ground approaches to unsavory, charismatic characters, like The French Connection and Five Easy Pieces. Breaking out into song is about as far away from realism as one can get. Deciding to make all of the music diegetic works as a perfect compromise between having outstandingly choreographed musical numbers from Fosse and never breaking the rules of the real world with music. Rather than using the music directly for plot purposes, the Kander and Ebb songs act as a musical echo to the story being told.

While the use of music was a deliberate adaptive change, sometimes changes come from other forces, such as a producer insisting a certain person must be cast. In this case, Liza Minnelli was slated to play Sally Bowles by producer Cy Feuer even before Fosse was brought on as director. While normally the use of an actor would simply be to serve the material, Minnelli brings with her a lot of mega star power around her to utilize. In the stage show, Sally is English, so in order to maximize Minnelli’s innate charisma and not burden her with an accent, Sally is now American, which in turn changes her co-lead from American Cliff Bradshaw to Englishman Brian Roberts (Michael York). Sally’s introductory number “Don’t Tell Mama,” which contains many cadences and words distinctly not American, is replaced by a new song called “Mein Herr,” which was also written specifically to maximize Minnelli’s vocal talents as a singer. Kander and Ebb also dig up “Maybe This Time,” an old song of theirs, to insert into the film to give Minnelli another show stopping solo.

Another hallmark of the New Hollywood was a focus on younger people and their issues. The two main subplots of the film, the first concerning the bisexual love triangle between Sally, Brian, and Max (Helmut Griem) and the second the class-crossing love story of Fritz (Fritz Weppel) and Natalia (Marisa Berenson), both do not appear in the stage musical. These two storylines come from the 1951 play I Am Camera by John Van Druten, which is based on the novel Goodbye to Berlin by Charles Isherwood. While both serve as the source material for Cabaret, I Am Camera invents these two storylines which Masteroff chose to omit when creating the musical.

On stage, this time is spent with the middle aged couple of Fraulein Schneider, a Gentile woman who runs Sally’s boarding house and is given a passing mention in the film, and Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit salesman. Not only does cutting these characters and plot line eliminate a decent chunk of the non diegetic musical numbers of Cabaret, taking away this sweet but doomed relationship between two people in middle age makes way for some spicy bisexuality with hot, young people, certainly a more boundary pushing subject more in line with the revolutionary films of the time. Also excised from the film is the character of Ernst Ludwig, a smuggler Cliff meets on the train into Berlin who succumbs to the Nazi Party. With the added world building scope film brings, seeing the rise of fascism simply from environments and images does the work that character has to do in the show.

In terms of fidelity to the source material, Bob Fosse’s Cabaret flies quite far afield from the show that thrilled Broadway audiences. Its adaptational choices, while in a new era of moviemaking, harken back to those pre-book musical Hollywood spectaculars with how much it changes the source material. The film simply commits to its own rules and is executed brilliantly. Rarely does one ever see a complaint about its adaptational choices, a very popular thing to do in regards to movie adaptations. In fact, songs written for the film have subsequently been incorporated into productions of the show, either as new inserts or even replacing original songs. The merits of an adaptation of a work, even a beloved work, do not come from how much or how little it adheres to that source material. An adaptation’s success or failure lies entirely on its own terms. This is why a remake of Cabaret would be an entirely worthwhile endeavor for a filmmaker, whether they wish to stray just as far as Fosse or do everything in the show they were unwilling to do. Fosse and his collaborators perfectly executed strong adaptational choices to make the exact right movie musical for the year 1972. The New Hollywood needed "the musical for people who hate musicals," and Cabaret fulfilled that need.

KEEP READING: 'In The Heights’: Watch The First 8 Minutes Of The Hotly Anticipated Musical

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