By Annette Hinkle
Other than “The Producers,” Mel Brooks’ over the top farcical take on Hitler’s regime, there haven’t exactly been a lot of Broadway musicals that have dared to tackle the horrors of Nazi-era Germany.
But “Cabaret” has … and it manages to do so in a way that treads the difficult tightrope of ribald entertainment and stark reality. Tonight, “Cabaret” opens as part of a three weekend run presented by Center Stage at the Southampton Cultural Center under direction of Michael Disher — who readily admits that he likes musicals that make him think.
“I really don’t go for a lot of mindless fluff,” says Disher. “I prefer musicals that have a tendency to mean something. ‘Cabaret’ fulfills that need.”
John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “Cabaret” (with book by Joe Masteroff) premiered on Broadway in 1966 and is set in the seedy Kit Kat Klub in 1930s Berlin. Led by the gay Emcee, the club is frequented by shady patrons who come to spend time with a collection of bawdy dancing girls, prostitutes, raucous musicians and singers of questionable repute. There are plenty of song and dance numbers full of social commentary, saucy one liners and lots of laughs. But off-stage, the dark clouds that are gathering on the horizon for Germany, and all of Europe, can’t be shaken off as simply as a feather boa.
Virtually every performer in this venue will one day soon be on the list of undesirables that Hitler hopes to eradicate.
Disher has directed “Cabaret” for East End audiences before — nine years ago at Southampton College when it was Long Island University and he was head of the theater department. He likes having the chance to go back and do it all again — with hindsight, of course.
“When I have the opportunity to do a show again after a period of time, I find the material to be richer, because I find my understanding to be deeper,” he says. “I think age does provide that.”
Not only is Disher coming back to the material with additional life experience, so too are some of the actors in this production.
“One of the interesting things about this cast is I have several actors who had done shows at Southampton College — four students at the college are back again to do this show,” notes Disher. “Their approach is so much richer because it’s nine years later and they’re nine years older. It’s different looking at something at age 20 and then again at 29 or 30.”
With the advances that have come along in Internet searching in recent years, Disher has also been able to learn more about 1930s Berlin and add depth to his own understanding of the time period in which “Cabaret” is set. For example, Herr Schultz, the Jewish fruit vendor in the play, has a reputation for selling the finest produce in Nollendorfplatz — and through his research, Disher learned something he hadn’t realized before about the neighborhood.
“It was an area in Berlin in the ‘30s where every Bohemian, artist homosexual and actor lived,” explains Disher. “It was a very decadent 1930s Greenwich Village. This kind of cements who these characters are. Everyone in Nollendorfplatz was someone Hitler wanted to get rid of. You begin to realize he not only killed six million Jews, but six million Christians too.”
“Cabaret” is actually based on “Goodbye to Berlin” a novel penned in the ‘30s by Christopher Isherwood, and Disher notes that because it has the factual events of the era behind it, it makes for an intriguing musical. Though the performers are aware of the fear and unrest around them and poke fun at Berlin’s political scene on stage, they themselves have not yet been directly targeted. Some characters recognize what’s happening and look to flee the country, but others are content with their life and feel Hitler’s rantings will pass them by.
“I think the conceit was really terrific,” says Disher. “Here you have characters who are steeped in historical events, and this whole entertainment unit — which was vaudevillian with shadings of gypsies and circus people — side show performers who provide the social commentary on what is happening to these people and what is about to happen to them.”
“Many of the people who were put in concentration camps came from those clubs,” adds Disher. “They were identified as Jews, homosexuals, or prostitutes — it was absolutely brutal.”
Disher notes that while he feels there are other musicals that have the depth of “Cabaret” — specifically Stephen Sondheim’s work — and those that highlight real life conflicts between cultures, like “West Side Story,” few of them can approach the historical significance of what was going on in Europe in the 1930s.
“Let’s face it, Nazi Germany is just this huge blight on history, and some people are made uncomfortable by it,” says Disher. “But it is history and we can’t go back and change it. It’s done. It’s a fait accompli.”
“Interestingly enough, cabaret really takes the audience on a journey,” he explains. “They can sit through these musical numbers that are hysterical, then sit back and go, ‘Oh, maybe that’s not so funny.’”
“There’s a cosmetic approach at how we look at things then there’s the backstage reality,” says Disher. “It’s my kind of show – one for thinking people.”
Center Stage’s production of “Cabaret” runs July 22 through August 8 at Southampton Cultural Center, 25 Pond Lane, Southampton. Directed and choreographed by Michael Disher, the play features musical direction by Robert Peterson. To emulate a cabaret, bar drinks will be available for purchase during the show, and seating will be available at café tables. Showtimes are Thursdays to Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m. Ringside table seating is $35. General admission is $25 ($12 for students). Call 287-4377 to reserve.
Top: Shannon Gilson, Jack Seabury, Anita Boyer, Vincent Carbone, Christine Martinez, Cassia Klimiuk, Edward Martinez, Sophie Vanier, Matthew Petrucci, Bethany Dellapolla.