"People kept calling me and saying, `There's a production in London you've got to see,'" the genial Masteroff said by telephone from New York one day last week. "So I went. I was shocked to see the changes (Sam Mendes) made, changes in the book. Some of the songs were cut, new ones were added. It was a Cabaret for the '90s."
Shocked, maybe, but delighted. Mendes, the wunderkind of English theatre who would later make a splash with the movie American Beauty, had stripped away the Hollywood veneer that glossed up the 1972 film. His new Cabaret was raunchy and desperate, reflecting the urban debauchery of the last days of Weimar Germany, just before Hitler took power. Gone were the cute bowler hats and flashy dances of the Bob Fosse movie. Mendes' dancers painted junkie track marks on their arms, and lasciviously conveyed the sexual ambiguities of the Berlin underworld. The show was intensely theatrical--the London version had the audience sit at tables and play the part of the Kit Kat Klub patrons--but it was also more historically accurate.
"I wasn't in Germany in the '30s," said Masteroff, a Philadelphia native who did prodigious research on the period when he first wrote his text. "But it was a raunchy time. It was like Sodom and Gomorrah, the end of the world. Everything was coming to an end."
The Mendes production moved to New York in 1998, where it won a string of Tonys and such sterling accolades as this one from New York Times writer Michiko Kakutani: Mendes' reworking "conclusively demonstrates that Broadway musicals can be treated like Shakespeare and other classic texts, that in the hands of a gifted director they can be repeatedly reimagined and made to yield new truths."
The road show of Mendes' Cabaret arrives in Tucson Tuesday night, for a six-day run at the UA's Centennial Hall. The crucial part of Sally Bowles, the troubled showgirl played by Liza Minnelli in the movie, "is as unwholesome a part as was ever written," Masteroff said. Yet it's here taken on by Kate Shindle, Miss America 1998, cast against type. "She's very funny and so beautiful and so tall--she has to fight against that." And while the Sally in Masteroff's version is a singer of small talent who manages to hold her job for other reasons, Shindle "is a wonderful singer. We say in the play that she's a bad singer, but she isn't!" Jon Peterson, a Brit who's played in every musical from A Chorus Line to Cats, is the pivotal emcee, the part so memorably taken in the movie by Joel Grey.
Rob Marshall gets credit as both co-director and choreographer. His new dances, distinct from Fosse's, are "superb."
The story of Cabaret recounts the fortunes of two couples, an American writer who meets Sally at the Kit Kat Klub, and a German widow who falls in love with a Jew. The tale has had at least six incarnations thus far. The author Christopher Isherwood published his fictional Berlin Stories in the 1930s. After the war, playwright John Van Druten transposed the short stories into a drama called I Am a Camera, which opened a successful Broadway run in 1951; a movie version came out in 1955.
By the mid-'60s, Masteroff was in New York, where he moved after an Army hitch in World War II. He had just written the book for the musical She Loves Me, directed by Harold Prince. Prince brought Masteroff to see a musical someone had put together based on the Van Druten play.
"But the book wasn't good enough, and Hal and I were not crazy about the songs" he recalled.
Within months, Masteroff had written a new book, and lyricist Fred Ebb and composer John Kander had come up with songs now so familiar they've entered the mainstream: "Cabaret," "Money" and "Two Ladies." They were inspired, Masteroff maintained, by the "music of the period, Kurt Weill and so on." The 1966 Prince Cabaret so disturbed audiences at first, Masteroff remembered, that "In the Boston tryouts people were walking out in the first 10 minutes. ... It was very shocking at the time. It was very brave of us in the '60s to be doing a musical about Nazism, about abortion."
Masteroff finds it nothing short of amazing that the story's latest incarnation has so moved contemporary audiences. "There is an endless fascination with the period," said the writer, now 80 years old and at work on a new musical about Jimmy Durante. "If you had told us in the 1966 that 35 years from now, it would still be cooking, we wouldn't have believed it."