Follow TV Tropes


Theatre / Cabaret

Go To

"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 1966 stage musical with book by Joe Masteroff, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, based on several chapters from Christopher Isherwood's autobiographical 1939 novel Goodbye to Berlin, which was based in turn 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, each featuring 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 which 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. The story is set in Germany in 1931. 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.

This musical 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.
  • Adaptational Name Change: The main character goes from Isherwood himself in the original stories to Cliff Bradshaw in the musical.
  • An Aesop: The show demonstrates that politics can and will affect you even if you're politically indifferent. It mainly gets this across with Cliff's arc, when he realizes that his work is being used to fund the Nazi Party despite his own lack of affiliation, and that the Nazis have a vendetta against his lover.
  • 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.
  • Anthropomorphic Personification: It's strongly implied the Emcee is one to Germany itself.
  • Babies Make Everything Better: Cliff tries to convince Sally of this.
  • Bad Girl Song: The song "Mein Herr", in productions which include it, establishes Sally as a Good Bad Girl.
    "You have to understand the way I am, Mein Herr."
  • Beta Couple: Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: Some productions of the revival have the MC jump into an electric fence before he can be sent to a gas chamber.
  • Bowdlerise: The Wham Line at the end of "If You Could See Her" is altered in the original cast recording, with "Jewish" being replaced with "mieskeit" ("ugly" in Yiddish). When the number was televised for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, the line was changed to, "If you could see her through my eyes, you'd trade all your problems for mine!"
  • Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: Two performers at the Kit Kat Klub perform "If You Could See Her", in which a love-struck man insists that his lady — portrayed by the other performer in a gorilla mask — isn't that bad when seen through the eyes of love. The final line of the song reveals the real problem: the lady is Jewish.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: In many productions, the Emcee will interact with those in the front-row seats.
    • In the original production, the Club set had a mirror for this reason.
    • In the 1998 Revival the theatre itself become The Kit Kat Klub, with the company walking though the audience.
    • The 2021 Revival transforms the London Playhouse Theater into the Kit Kat Klub.
  • Broken Bird: Sally. Detailed in "Maybe This Time". The 2021 revival has her undergoing a full mental breakdown during her performance of the titular song.
    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!
  • Broken-Window Warning: After it becomes known that Herr Schultz is Jewish, there is a brick thrown through his Grocery's windows, which convinces Fraulein Schneider to break up with him.
  • 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.
    • While the 2021 versions of "Cabaret" and "Finale" are sung by the same cast members, Jessie Buckley and Eddie Redmayne's performances have Sally and the Emcee undergo Sanity Slippage as their world collapses around them.
  • Crotch-Grab Sex Check: In some productions, this is how the MC tells Victor and Bobby apart. (Maybe Bobby is really a girl?)
  • Darker and Edgier: Every Broadway revival since the original has changed the book and songs to increase the sexual and political reality that the era was.
  • 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.
    • The Revival takes it a step further, with the Emcee stripping off his coat to reveal a prisoner garb, and a Star of David and a pink triangle, indicating that he has been placed in Nazi concentration camp due to being Jewish and gay, and most likely will face the execution line soon. Some performances have him leap forward accompanied by a cymbal crash and a flash of light, implying he killed himself by jumping into an electric fence.
  • Dramatic Irony: Also historical irony. Herr Schultz's prediction that the rise of the Nazis will pass soon enough. Particularly tragic since he is Jewish.
  • End of an Age: The final days of the Weimar Republic and the beginnings of Nazi Germany.
  • Ensemble Cast: The original stage musical doesn't have a true star part in terms of stage time or songs, in part because the Beta Couple of Schultz and Schneider were played by better-known actors than Sally and Cliff. Most subsequent productions, following the lead of the movie, beef up the roles of Sally and the Emcee to make them the clear stars.
  • 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.
  • Femme Fatale: A Deconstructed Trope. Sally thinks she can pull it off, but she really, really can't.
  • 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.
  • Hakuna Matata: The opening number, "Willkommen", and the title song, "Cabaret", are both of the darker life-sucks-but-let's-pretend-for-a-moment-it-doesn't variety.
    Emcee: Leave your troubles outside! In here, life is beautiful... the girls are beautiful... even the orchestra is beautiful!
  • 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!
  • Hotter and Sexier: The 1993 London revival (directed by Sam Mendes) completely reinvented the show by amping up the sex appeal. This is best exemplified by its portrayal of the Emcee, famously played by Alan Cumming: in contrast to Joel Grey's dapper, tuxedo-clad Emcee, Cummings's version is a slinky Walking Shirtless Scene with a far more seductive personality.
  • "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 spends most of the play trying to write a novel and not getting anywhere. At the end, he starts from scratch, writing an opening paragraph that makes it clear he's now writing about his time in Berlin.
    Cliff: 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... and I was dancing with Sally Bowles... and we were both fast asleep.
  • It Will Never Catch On: Played for drama with Herr Schultz's prediction that the rise of the Nazis will pass soon enough. Particularly tragic since he is Jewish.
  • "I Want" Song: "Maybe This Time", when she realizes Cliff is starting to fall in love with her, Sally allows herself to hope and believe that she's finally found the right man for her.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Sally is naive, frivolous, and may be very selfish, but she does mean well, and while she may suffer from a Lack of Empathy, she can very well sympathize to peoples troubles and try to cheer them up.
  • Lack of Empathy: Sally's problem, she means well, but she has trouble connecting to the genuine problems that people are facing during the rise of the Third Reich in Berlin, and instead pushes for everyone to live life believing that if they ignore them, they'll be happier for it. The entirety of her show stopping Title Song is all about this.
    Sally: What good is living alone in your room,
    Come hear the music play,
    Life is a Cabaret old chums,
    Come to the Cabaret,
    Put down the knitting,
    The book and the broom,
    Time for a holiday,
    Life is a Cabaret old chums,
    Come to the Cabaret!
  • Last Chorus Slow-Down: "Cabaret" slows down to begin the final strain ("Start by admitting from cradle to tomb"). After a few bars, it starts picking up speed again as Sally rallies her desperate optimism.
  • 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.
      • This is because on stage the MC is playing the song on a Gramophone.
    • 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.
  • 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.
  • Money Song: "Sitting Pretty/The Money Song" is a quintessential example.
  • Mood Whiplash: In the revival in the final song, Emcee rather suggestively starts to remove his coat, revealing a concentration camp 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.
    • The end of "If You Could See Her."
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Cliff is a writer and is trying to write a novel.
  • 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.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Sally Bowles. Just look at the image above!
  • Multilingual Song: The lyrics to "Wilkommen" have phrases that are spoken or sung in German, then repeated in French and English.
  • 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.
  • The Musical Musical: The story revolves around the cabaret in which Sally performs, and many of the numbers are performed in-universe as part of the cabaret.
  • 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 the Budapesti Operettszinház production, the threesome is between Sally, Cliff, and the Emcee. In all versions, it's Fanservice.
  • Opening Chorus: "Wilkommen" featuring the Emcee and the Cabaret Performers.
  • People Puppets: The 2017 UK tour version had "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" performed by ensemble members dressed as puppets in lederhosen, with their strings being pulled by the Emcee standing on a high platform. At the climax of the song, the puppets pull out pistols and shoot themselves in the head.
  • Polyamory: "Two Ladies" is about a ménage-a-trois style household - one lady does the cooking, the other makes the bed, while the Emcee is the family breadwinner. It parallels the threesome of Sally, Cliff and Max.
    • The nature of Cliff and Sally's relationship may be interpreted as an open one (at least initially), given that they've been together for several months before Sally discovers she is pregnant, and is uncertain as to who the father is. This interpretation is made less ambiguous in the 2017 UK tour version of the show, as Cliff sings "Why Should I Wake Up?" while moving between various sexual partners' beds - namely Sally, a pair of cabaret girls and one of the cabaret boys.
  • Quirky Girl, Quirky Tux: Sally Bowles may wear the fishnet variant in some of the numbers. The Emcee may play with the trope by wearing the tux (or at least pieces of it), but also while wearing very feminine make-up. Sally is a quirky person who lives by her own rules and is the star attraction of the Kit-Kat Club Cabaret. The Emcee gets honorable mention for wearing a tux in a way that flouts gender norms.
  • Ret-Canon: Productions since 1972 often incorporate one or more of the songs ("Maybe This Time", "Mein Herr", "Money Money") that were added for the movie.
  • Seven Minute Lull: Herr Ludwig loudly proclaims to Fraulein Schneider that her husband-to-be, Herr Schultz, is "not a German" after discovering he is Jewish. The din of the party immediately dies down as everyone turns to stare.
  • 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". The song starts soft because Sally is contemplating about her relationship to herself in the mirror. Over the course of the song she starts singing more forcefully and with bigger notes, ending with some long belts. The accompanying instrumentation gets louder as well.
  • 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.
  • That's All, Folks!: At the end, the Emcee (who introduced the show with "Willkommen — Bienvenue — Welcome") sings, "Auf wiedersehn! À bientôt!" The implied last word, "Goodbye!", is never sung (but sometimes spoken as he takes his final bow).
  • 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.
  • Three-Way Sex: The subject of the "Two Ladies" act at the cabaret.
  • Too Broken to Break: Fraulein Schneider is implied to be this in her "I Am" Song, "So What." The gist of this song is that she's lost so much in her life, such as a luxurious house, that the promise of Cliff not paying enough for his room in her boarding house just doesn't matter.
  • 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: The final line of "If You Could See Her" recontextualizes the whole song: "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.