If there were such a thing as Desert Island Films, the one classic movie I would rescue from the briny is the dark 1972 musical Cabaret. I recall as a boy being told I was too young to watch Cabaret on television which was naturally red rag to a bull. When I finally did see Cabaret in my early teens it seduced every sense and was ‘truly shocking’.
As Sally Bowles, Liza Minnelli performs on the edge of her nerves displaying raw talent. She embodied the divine decadence of Weimar Berlin and the life of the demi monde as they danced on the precipice blinded to the rise of the Nazis. As ingenue Brian, Michael York was at his most beautiful and entirely convincing as a complex young man who could seduce both Sally Bowles and the sexy blonde Baron, Max.
The scene in Max’s schloss when Sally, Brian and Max are dancing in circles together having bathed in champagne is some of director Bob Fosse’s best work. As the gramophone record ends the menage smile drunkenly into each other’s eyes and for that split second one didn’t know who was going to kiss who. The sense of illicit sexual promise still sends a shiver down my spine.
Kander and Ebb’s score is dazzlingly clever and the concept of cabaret mirroring life never hits a false note. Money Makes the World Go Round became an anthem of mine and it is only at the grand old age of forty-four that I understand the truth in the lyric. Money does indeed make the world go round but happiness tends to elude those who pursue it.
Cabaret is my national anthem and go-to karaoke number because I can sing it with conviction and because Liza sings in my key. I still believe no good can come of sitting alone in your room when life is waiting on the other side of the door. I am a creature of the night but also wake-up at sparrow’s fart to write however ‘trooooly messy’ the previous night has been.
Before the rise of the Nazis, Germany was a haven for gay men. In the early 1930s Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden were regular visitors to Berlin because it promised an endless supply of pliant boys. Cabaret is a very loose adaptation of Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin. When Isherwood saw Cabaret he said that if Sally Bowles was half as talented as Liza Minnelli the Kit Kat Club would have been standing room only.
But I connect to the talented Sally singing in a tawdry cabaret with its weary, blowsy female band, the girls/boys of the chorus line and Joel Grey’s puckish, sinister Emcee who performs the numbers that drive the story and seems to know that hell will eventually be unleashed on this underworld of delicious sin.
Cabaret has its sentimental moments but they are counter-punched swiftly. Spoiler alert, the quixotic Baron discards his playthings Brian and Sally. Sally aborts the baby she knows she is too much of a child to raise and Brian returns to Cambridge leaving Sally to chase another friend of a friend of a director from movie studio Ufa. Sally leaves Brian at Berlin’s central station with a backward wave of her chartreuse green fingernails.
My admiration for Sally reaches its peak when she dismantles the dream of familial bliss in Cambridge where Brian teaches by questioning how long it would be before she went off and disgraced herself in a local pub. Then she questions – without finishing the sentence – how long it will be before Brian falls into another man’s bed. ‘So it’s just as well’ Sally shrugs.
I think the message of Cabaret is found in the lyrics to Sally’s femme fatale number Mein Herr: ’a tiger is a tiger, not a lamb’. Love can’t change human nature however willing either partner is to correct what might be considered imperfections. If Brian slept with men before he fell for Sally it’s a pretty safe bet he will do so again. If Sally uses sex to propel her talent to a bigger stage, she sure as hell isn’t going to let Brian stop her until she gets there.
I have been pondering the nature of love rather a lot of late having fallen hook, line and sinker. It is early days yet but we both made a pact that honesty was the best policy. We basically cleared the decks of all that was, ahem, colourful in our pasts and nobody reached for the sal volatile or headed for the door backing away with a nervous smile.
Can you remember that play I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change? Never a truer phrase was coined about terminally flawed relationships. You don’t go to bed with a tiger and expect to wake-up with a lamb now do you? I for one would be awfully disappointed if I did. You have to love somebody for what they are not what you think you can make of them. Men who want to play pygmalion are dangerous and the relationship doomed to failure.
I would like to think that Sally Bowles did get a screen test at Ufa, made a strange and extraordinary film and took ship for Hollywood where she gave Clara Bow a run for her money. And as for me, I still want to taste the wine, hear the band, blow my horn and start celebrating. Life can be a cabaret as long as the man you’re with wants to come along not sit alone in his room. Until next time…