Theatre / Cabaret

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"There was a cabaret, and there was a master of ceremonies... and there was a city called Berlin, in a country called Germany... and it was the end of the world."

Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome!
Fremde, étranger, stranger.
Glücklich zu sehen, je suis enchanté,
Happy to see you, bleibe, reste, stay.
Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome,
Im Cabaret, au Cabaret, to Cabaret!
The Emcee

Cabaret is a stage musical based on a set of short stories by Christopher Isherwood (collected in Goodbye To Berlin), which in turn were based on real events and people. It also drew enormous influence from I Am A Camera (1951), a straight play based on Goodbye to Berlin. Cabaret itself was adapted into a film of the same name in 1972. No two versions of this story are the same, all starring wildly different characters, or different versions of the same characters, and following different events. Hell, even the musical itself differs somewhat in content based on what revision you're talking about.

With a sinister but attractive glint in his eye, the Emcee invites us into the decadent provocative world of the cabaret. It's 1929. Sally Bowles, a middle-class lass from Chelsea, London, is working as a singer at Berlin's Kit Kat Klub in order to live the thrilling life the city is supposed to offer. In enters Cliff Bradshaw, a young American writer who comes to Berlin seeking inspiration for his novel, and Sally soon determinedly moves to join him in his room in the boarding house run by Fraulein Schneider (played by Miss Lotte Lenya in the original cast). Their fellow lodgers include the cheerful yet promiscuous working girl, Fraulein Kost, and the gentle, aging Herr Schultz.

As the Nazi clouds gather, Sally, now with child, is still determined to show the world what a good time she is having. Defiant and brave, she either cannot or will not hear the threatening noises around her, yet the others can.

Schultz courts Fraulein Schneider with old-world courtesy and they become engaged. However, he is Jewish; when Nazi sympathizer Ernst Ludwig breaks up their engagement party, the weary landlady is obliged to let her dreams of marriage go.

Cliff finds he has been almost unwittingly smuggling Nazi funds for Ernst, and is beaten up when he refuses to continue the dangerous work. It's time to leave Berlin, but poor self-obsessed Sally can't let the party end. Back in the Kit Kat Klub, the Emcee introduces an ongoing pageant of delusional depravity, a commentary on the "mask of normalcy" people are wearing during the Nazi era.

The movie was directed by Bob Fosse and won eight Academy Awards, including for Fosse's direction, Liza Minnelli's performance as Sally and Joel Grey's as the Emcee. It is particularly notable for dominating the awards in the year of The Godfather, though the latter's comparatively few awards (three) still included Best Picture.


This musical provides examples of:

  • Affably Evil: Ernst seems to be a very cordial person, offering Cliff work and recommending a boarding house... up until the audience sees the swastika armband.
    • Depending on the production, the Emcee can seem to be this at times.
  • Babies Make Everything Better: Cliff tries to convince Sally of this.
  • Beta Couple: Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider
  • Bi the Way: Cliff, in any version more recent than the original (Bowdlerised) production script.
  • Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: "If You Could See Her"
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: In many productions, the Emcee will interact with those in the front-row seats.
  • Broken Bird: Sally. Detailed in "Maybe This Time".
    Sally: Everybody loves a winner
    So nobody loved me
    Lady Peaceful
    Lady Happy
    That's what I long to be!
    Well all the odds are
    They're in my favor
    Something's bound to begin!
    It's gotta happen
    Happen sometime
    Maybe this time I'll win!
  • Camp Straight: The Emcee is often portrayed as this.
  • Cheshire Cat Grin: The Emcee is frequently shown sporting one; Joel Gray's portrayal is a noteworthy example.
  • The Cover Changes the Meaning: Depending on what version you're watching; some stage productions have "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" sung by Hitler Youth boys, as in the movie. Others have the reprise sung by Nazis, but the original sung by a young, gay Cabaret boy, often a racial minority.
  • Crotch-Grab Sex Check: In some productions, this is how the MC tells Victor and Bobby apart. (Maybe Bobby is really a girl?)
  • Dark Reprise: "Wilkommen" gets one in the finale.
  • Discussed Trope: "If this was a movie, you know what would happen?"
  • Downer Ending: Cliff leaves Berlin heartbroken, Herr Shultz and Fraulein Schneider break up, Germany slides into Nazi tyranny and Sally and everyone else will quite likely suffer the consequences.
  • Dramatic Irony: Also historical irony. In possibly the only use of It Will Never Catch On for Tear Jerker effect, Herr Schultz's prediction that the rise of the Nazis will pass soon enough. Particularly tragic since he is Jewish.
  • Epic Rocking: The reprise of "Tomorrow Belongs To Me"
  • The Everyman: Played mostly straight with Cliff.
  • Fanservice: The Stripperiffic outfits for the Kit Kat Klub Girls and Boys. Justified in that it is a cabaret.
  • Fanservice Pack: The Emcee in the revival. Joel Grey's slinky, androgynous portrayal had previously been the standard, but the character as played by Alan Cumming really, really started servicing the fans, with a Stripperific redesign and a more blatantly bisexual characterization, including a shadow-curtain threesome with both sexes during the "Two Ladies" number.
  • Gratuitous Foreign Language: Many of the phrases in the opening number "Willkommen" are sung in manner.
    Emcee: Willkommen! Bienvenue! Welcome!
    Fremde! Étranger! Stranger!
    Glücklich zu sehen! Je suis enchanté! Happy to see you!
    Bleibe! Reste! Stay!
    Willkommen! Bienvenue! Welcome!
    Im Cabaret! Au Cabaret! To Cabaret!
  • Grapes of Luxury: Fraulein Schneider treats Schultz's gift of a pineapple as more luxurious than diamonds or pearls.
  • Greek Chorus: The Emcee, though for the most part his songs are only tied in thematically, and don't directly comment on the action.
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: Sally Bowles, on the other hand, doesn't.
  • Gratuitous English: Many of the phrases in "Willkommen" are sung in Gratuitous German, then in Gratuitous French, then in Gratuitous English.
  • Hard-Drinking Party Girl: Sally Bowles. Her drinking increases as the play goes on.
  • Hideous Hangover Cure: Prairie Oysters, which involves raw eggs and Worcestershire sauce together. Drink it from the toothpaste glass and it tastes just like peppermint!
  • "I Am" Song: "So What" for Fraulein Schneider.
  • Interactive Narrator: Played with in the Emcee.
  • Ironic Echo: All over the place in the last few scenes, which collectively comprise a darker mirror image of the first few scenes.
  • I Should Write a Book About This: Cliff's novel.
  • Last Note Nightmare:
    • "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" on the 1998 Broadway Cast Recording is already kind of creepy since it's intentionally made to sound low-quality and distorted. Then it stops and the MC harshly whispers the last two words. At least they give you a few seconds to brace yourself.
    • Also from the 1998 cast, there is the beginnings of a lovely reprise of "Married" between the sweet old couple. Which is then promptly interrupted by a brick being "thrown" through a shop window. Well, there go all the good feelings.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Sally Bowles. Just look at the image above!
  • Mr. Fanservice: The Emcee is frequently presented as such, but Alan Cumming's portrayal really stands out and tends to ramp the Emcee's sexual side Up to Eleven
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Sally tries to be a Manic Pixie for Cliff, but her determined spunky optimism and unwillingness to grow up make her ignore the threat of Nazism and drive Cliff away from her.
  • Mood Whiplash: In the revival in the final song, Emcee rather suggestively starts to remove his coat, revealing a prison uniform.
    • At the very end of the reprise of "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," the Emcee moons the audience, showing he has a swastika painted on his ass. You want to laugh, but the context is so horrifying.
    • As mentioned in the Wham Line section, the end of "If You Could See Her."
  • Most Writers Are Writers
  • Movie Bonus Song: "Mein Herr", "Maybe this Time" and "Money Money".
  • Musicalis Interruptus: In the scene where Fraulein Schneider considers ending her engagement with Herr Schultz and he attempts to reassure her, there is a moment when he seems to be succeeding and they start a reprise of the song they sang when he proprosed — which is interrupted after a few lines by somebody throwing a brick through Herr Schultz's window, ending the song and the engagement.
  • One True Threesome: "Two Ladies" is about an in-universe example between the Emcee and two of the Cabaret Girls. In some versions, it's the Emcee, a Cabaret Girl and a cross-dressing Cabaret Boy. In all versions, it's Fanservice.
  • Opening Chorus: "Wilkommen" featuring the Emcee and the Cabaret Performers.
  • Sidekick Song: Though Herr Schultz isn't exactly a sidekick, "Meeskite" has a lot in common with other Sidekick Songs.
  • Small Start Big Finish: "Maybe This Time".
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: "We have no troubles here!" Alan Cumming's delivery of the line, coupled with his facial expression, only makes the lie more obvious.
  • Those Wacky Nazis: Zigzagged. The main Nazi sympathizer in the show is Ernst Ludwig and by all accounts starts out a pretty decent fellow but the higher the Nazis rise in prominence, the more obsessed he becomes. Same with the menace the Nazis represent, it's more subtle and in the shadows, growing uglier until the end when they can't escape it.
  • Truck Driver's Gear Change: Happens in the majority of the songs.
  • Villain Song: "Tomorrow Belongs To Me" for the Nazis. It was so realistic and of the spirit that it got the (Jewish) producers accused of anti-Semitism!
  • Welcoming Song: "Wilkommen".
  • Wham Line: "But if you could see her through my eyes... She wouldn't look Jewish at all."
  • White Sheep: Show Within a Show example: the Mama of Don't Tell Mama seems to be the only family member not involved in something seedy, as her daughter is a dancer at a seedy nightclub, her husband is a customer of the nightclub, her brother or brother-in-law is her daughter's agent for the nightclub, her mother or mother-in-law is also a dancer at the nightclub, and her son is involved in something bad enough that her daughter 'will squeal on him' if he squeals on her.
  • Window Pain: A Nazi throws a brick through Herr Schultz's shop.

The film provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Attractiveness:
    • More of a vocal example; in the original Christopher Isherwood stories, Sally has an unremarkable, even squawky voice. That doesn't work so well for the main character of a musical...
    • In the revival, Natasha Richardson played her with a suitable voice, but with added tired inflections that managed to fit both ways. (The 2014 revival with Michelle Williams took this even further.
    • Subverted in the film's famous dance scene with Sally and the bentwood chair. Minnelli and Fosse worked hard to show the typically untrained technique and stereotypical moves that an enthusiastic amateur like Sally would have used. Minnelli - a trained dancer - later claimed that rehearsing these jerky, exaggerated moves seeded many of her later arthritis problems.
    • In the movie the elderly Beta Couple Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider are replaced with the much younger Fritz and Natalia.
    • Also, the character of Natalia in the original book is a not especially attractive teenage schoolgirl, rather than a beautiful young woman.
  • Adaptational Nationality: Sally is British in the original play, but American here.
  • Adaptational Sexuality: Brian Roberts is straight, unlike his book counterpart, who is gay.
  • Adaptation Name Change: The lead male character (played Michael York) is called Brian Roberts rather than Cliff Bradshaw. His job is also changed from writer to English teacher.
  • Bad Girl Song: Sally's first song is "Mein Herr", which establishes her as a Good Bad Girl.
    "You have to understand the way I am, Mein Herr."
  • Bad Guys Do the Dirty Work: Max views the Nazis as a bunch of thugs, but useful for getting rid of Communists. He remarks upon this as he, Sally, and Brian drive past a dead body covered in a prayer shawl underneath a Nazi banner.
  • Beta Couple: Fritz and Natalia.
  • Better as Friends: Sally goes after Brian but when he confesses that he may be gay, they agree to remain friends. Then subverted when it turns out he's Bi the Way - and Sally becomes the first girl he enjoys sleeping with.
  • The Blind Leading the Blind: An innocent virgin asks Sally Bowles for advice on whether her feelings are true love or mere lust, since Sally is 'a woman who is giving her body often to men'. Sally, who is really 'as fatale as an after-dinner mint' can only shrug helplessly.
  • But Not Too Bi: The main male character, who is Straight Gay in the book, reveals himself to be bisexual in the musical, but we never do see him having an exclusive relationship with another man.
  • Book Ends: Begins and ends with the distortion of the Master of Ceremonies, then off the Nazi audience.
  • Comically Missing the Point: When Natalia tells Sally about Fritz making a pass at her, she describes him as having no respect for her father's couch.
  • Downer Ending: Less blatantly then the play indicates, but the final image of the blurry mirror reflecting the cluster Nazi soldiers sitting among the crowd suggest that this is so.
  • Dramatic Irony: The movie takes place in Germany in 1931. Throughout the movie, we see the Nazi party becoming more and more prominent, though not all of the characters do. The end of the film is Sally blithely performing before a crowd of armband-wearing Nazis, though the audience knows even that will end in time.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Fritz and Natalia. Though how long it will last is not too clear...
  • Ethical Slut: Sally starts out as a straight example, before evolving into a deconstruction. Both she and Brian engage in Triang Relations with a bisexual billionaire, causing friction in their relationship. She ends up pregnant but decides to abort the baby, feeling that she couldn't be mother material. It's instead implied that she wants to continue her partying lifestyle, which is ultimately shown to be empty and just escapism.
  • Fanservice: Liza Minnelli in a sexy black leotard, gyrating around a chair and singing with Audio Erotica - the song "Mein Herr" is full of it.
  • Fan Disservice: The raggedy costumes, caked-on makeup and amateurish choreography strongly downplays, if not outright removes, any potential eroticism in the cabaret Chorus Girls. Coupled with the Emcee's creepy leering, the nightmarish editing and cinematography, and the overall setting of pre-Nazi Germany, the numbers overall come across more sad and sleazy than sexy.
  • Gag Echo: Sally draws a comparison between Fritz romancing Natalia and an animal stalking its prey. She suggests he needs to 'pounce' to get Natalia to notice him. Much later, Natalia tells Sally about Fritz making a pass at her on the couch. Sally awkwardly says "he pounced".
  • Informed Judaism: Both Natalia and Fritz, although in his case he was actively trying to hide it.
  • Kick the Dog: Some Nazis kill Natalia's dog and leave it on her front porch.
  • Large Ham: Liza Minnelli's Sally Bowles, whether it's just from her excessive drinking or her personality. But she's a very OTT person.
  • Little People Are Surreal: Subverted: Sally, trying to shock Brian, asks whether he's ever had sex with a dwarf. Brian calmly responds with, "Yes. But it wasn't a lasting relationship."
  • Madonna–Whore Complex: Played for Drama. Sally would be the Whore, while Natalia is the Madonna. Natalia has to go to Sally for advice on sexual matters, while Sally herself angsts about whether a 'Whore' like her could ever become a good wife and mother.
  • Money Song: "Money Money", sung by Sally and the MC about how money "makes the world go round". Sung while Sally is enjoying being romanced by a rich bachelor.
  • Mood Whiplash:
    • Within the one song. "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" starts with a simple boy with a great voice singing. But when the camera pans back to reveal his Hitler Youth uniform and everyone in the audience joins in together, it gets extremely creepy.
    • Really there are quite a few of these. There are numerous small set pieces that show the Nazis taking over Berlin that add a feeling of dread to the happy talk of the characters, like the radio with Nazi propaganda or the swastika posters. Then there are the cabaret songs which cut between the upbeat music and darker scenes, such as a man being beaten perhaps to death.
    • Another scene cuts between the MC and some of the Kit Kat Club Girls doing a jaunty dance, and a bunch of young men sneaking into Natalia's yard in order to throw her dead dog against her door, all while chanting "JUDEN! JUDEN!" It is around this time that the MC and the girls switch their hats around, which now look like soldiers' helmets, and march offstage...
  • Movie Bonus Song: "Mein Herr", "Maybe this Time" and "Money Money".
  • Musical World Hypotheses: All the songs take place in a night club, with the single exception of "Tomorrow Belongs To Me", a patriotic song that a boy sings to a luncheon, with the diners joining in for the last chorus.
  • "Not If They Enjoyed It" Rationalization: Played with. Fritz - under the advice of Sally - 'pounces' on Natalia one afternoon. Natalia describes herself as initially being shocked but quickly realising she enjoys it. Although it straddles the line, there's no reason to think Natalia couldn't have rejected him if she wanted to - or that Fritz wouldn't have stopped if Natalia made it clear she wasn't interested.
  • Not-So-Harmless Villain: Nazis.
    Brian: You still think you can control them?
  • Quieter Than Silence: The credits roll in complete silence.
  • Really Gets Around: When Sally gives Natalia the German word for 'fornication', Brian has this to say.
  • Reveal Shot: Tomorrow Belongs To Me. Starts out as a nice song, and then you start to see the swastikas...
  • Shirtless Scene: Brian is shirtless in a trip to the lake house, in the first instance that implies Maximilian has an attraction to him.
  • Silent Credits
  • Sophisticated as Hell: "I think your paper and you party are pure crap, sir!"
  • Triang Relations: Sally/Maximillian/Brian are in a Type 8 relationship, although it's far from harmonious.
  • Wham Line:
    Brian: Oh, screw Maximillian!
    Sally: (primly) I do.
    Brian: (chuckles) ... so do I.
    (Sally's eyes widen in realization)

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