For Stuart Meltzer, Life IS a Cabaret

Stuart Meltzer. Photo via Facebook.

Nearly 60 years ago, a Broadway classic was born when John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Joe Masteroff’s “Cabaret” opened on Broadway. But what opened on Broadway in 1966 is a show very different from what many people know today. Unlike shows like classic musicals that have been revived more or less unchanged books and scores, Cabaret has seen multiple dramatic transformations in both its book, score, and staging as it was adapted for the screen and then revived on Broadway three times.

“Cabaret” started its life as Goodbye to Berlin, a semi-autobiographical novel by Christopher Isherwood about his time in pre-Nazi Berlin in the 1930s. Gay playwright John Van Druten adapted the novel into the play “I Am a Camera”, which opened in 1951, winning Julie Harris her first (of five) Tony Awards, in the role of Sally Bowles. However, New York Times reviewer Walter Kerr panned that production, with his headline reading, “Me no Leica.”

Harold Prince, fresh off producing “Fiddler on the Roof” purchased the rights to both the Isherwood novel and the Van Druten play. He hired Joe Masteroff to write the book and John Kander and Fred Ebb write the music in the style of Weimar Germany. In form and content, it broke with the musical theatre conventions of its day. There was no overture, the show began abruptly with “Wiilkommen” on an exposed set and the plot that dealt frankly with anti-Semitism and abortion, The show was a hit, winning eight Tony Awards.

Bob Fosse’s 1972 movie adaptation, opened shortly after the stage version (and just three years after Stonewall) and he had the screenwriters (Jay Allen and Hugh Wheeler) return to Isherwood’s source material including homosexuality. Fosse also deleted most of the songs taking place Kit Kat Klub, and songs that became classics, “Mein Herr”, “Money,” and “Maybe This Time.” And, of course, he cast Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles, winning her (and Joel Grey, reprising his role) an Oscar. The movie was an enormous success both financially and with critics. Later stage adaptation incorporated many of the film’s changes into the stage version.

Each version was groundbreaking at its time, and each new revision pushed the envelope a little further. The same can be said for the new production opening at Zoetic Stage at the Arsht Center. Under Stuart Meltzer’s direction, this new production of Cabaret is said to take us down “an even more different path.”

OutSFL: It’s been nearly 100 years since Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, the source material for “Cabaret” was published. What is it that you think makes this piece so relevant to today’s audience?

Stuart Meltzer: Isherwood wrote his observations of a time and place that existed after war and destruction. In times of great change comes people who oppose that change and will stop at nothing including restricting freedoms. The people in Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin wanted to keep that party going as long as they could. They just didn't have the imagination to know that something so evil was on the horizon.

OutSFL: Unlike other classics that seem set in amber, what is it about “Cabaret” that seems to give directors such an open hand when it comes to restaging the show? For example, “Company” was recently restaged with a woman lead, and a gay couple but there wasn’t a fundamental shift in the focus.

SM: That version of “Company” was a special one-time approved change from Sondheim to let the wonderful director Maria Friedman make a woman's choice of partnership. Frankly, the stakes are so much more high with a woman as the lead in “Company” and that is why it worked so well. I haven't seen any other production of “Cabaret” other than the film version. When I say that, people don't believe me. As a director, I typically stray away from how productions are normally presented in the first place. I find that incredibly restricting and uninspiring. I should probably watch a video or something like that sometimes because people way smarter than me have already figured it out. For “Cabaret,” I think directors love the world in which the story is set. They find inspiration in the artistic expressionism of that time, the music being the last breaths of the jazz age and want to figure out for themselves how they can shock an audience just like a Berlin cabaret joint would have back in the 1920s and early 1930s. For me, I just want to tell the story, find the humor and pathos, and let the horrors stand on their own.

OutSFL: Do you see a corollary between Weimar Germany and South Florida today?

SM: I was asked recently for an article in the Miami Herald about the hateful actions of this state's governor and his appalling bubble of hateful people he surrounds himself with particularly as it relates to men in make-up and drag for the stage. All I can say is that the first people to always lose government Republican-controlled funding are the artists and arts organizations because of the truths they portray in their work and the awakenings they contribute to a healthy society. Our country is on the precipice of losing democracy. If that is not attention-worthy I don't know what is!

OutSFL: In early versions, the Christopher Isherwood character was portrayed as straight, then bisexual, which removed him from the danger of being “other.” What are your thoughts on that, and how does it affect the balance of the play?

SM: Christopher Isherwood was a gay man. Much of what we read in “Goodbye to Berlin” and other German tales are his own personal observations and sexual desires and instincts. I understand that when the musical was adapted from “I Am a Camera” the world was a very different place. I think the musical then was more about antisemitism- or a reaction to it as a warning call. The evolution of bringing in the gay/bisexual aspects front and center in the updated version could only have happened after the film version opened the door. Doing a production of “Cabaret” now without the sexual identities of the characters would be disingenuous to the storytelling and a misstep.

OutSFL: I’ve heard that you’ve been able to cast entirely with local actors. That’s a testament to both Zoetic and your reputation. Tell me a little about the cast.

SM: They are all stars. I am very blessed to be able to work with such a dynamic company of artists, musicians, and creatives. Lindsey Corey, who works at Zoetic Stage often, portrays Sally Bowles. When I was in the personal developmental process of creatively putting the artistic ideas together, I knew that Lindsey was the only person I saw in the role — not to say there aren't a dozen other female-identifying humans who couldn't be amazing in the part, but the character of Sally is so much more than "pills and liquor;" she has an open heart and a child-like enthusiasm for the world. For me and my storytelling, Lindsey was a no-brainer. She is a consummate professional and we make each other laugh a lot in the rehearsal room. My first time working with Elijah Word — he is the Emcee and is "fire" on that stage. He is so lovely and so open. Laura Turnbull, one of the greatest actresses anywhere, plays Fräulein Schneider and her leading man happens to be her husband Avi Hoffman. They have been friends of mine for nearly twenty years and they both fill my heart with joy — though I have to admit, I was a little nervous working with Avi because this is the first time we're working together. The Kit Kat Klubbers are so incredible and understanding that I am a mad scientist sometimes. Another newbie for me is the actor Teddy Warren who plays Cliff — he is quite possibly the nicest chap I've worked with in a while — and a fucking good actor. Robert Koutras, Nate Promkull, and Ben Sandomir are back with me after working on Next To Normal last season. They are all stars.

OutSFL: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

SM: I think that the Zoetic Stage production of Cabaret is going to be a party and a half. My husband Michael McKeever is doing scenic design, and he has really thrown himself into the project so beautifully. Herman Payne of Miami City Ballet and New World School of the Arts is our choreographer. and the incomparable Eric Alsford is music directing. I'm very blessed.


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