What Version of ‘Cabaret’ Did Damascus Theatre Company Select? by Keith Tittermary

Damascus Theatre Company presents Cabaret. Music by John Kander; Lyrics by Fred Ebb; Book by Joe Masteroff; Based on the play I Am A Camera by John Van Druten and Stories by Christopher Isherwood. Originally produced and directed by Hal Prince. Cabaret plays from February 15 – 24, 2013 at the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab at Olney Theatre Center.

(from left):Carl Williams, Jason Damaso, and Amanda Spellman. Photo by Elli Swink.
(from left): Carl Williams, Jason Damaso, and Amanda Spellman. Photo by Elli Swink.

A quick history lesson: Christopher Isherwood traveled through Germany from 1929 – 1933, in which time he got inspiration for the stories “Goodbye to Berlin” and “Mr Norris Changes Trains,” which would be published collectively in 1945 as The Berlin Stories. In 1951, John Van Druten adapted that into the play “I Am A Camera,” starring Julie Harris as “Sally Bowles” (and later made into a film in 1955). In 1966, Cabaret would open on Broadway, starring Joel Grey, Jill Haworth, and directed by Hal Prince.

Since then, Cabaret itself has undergone a number of revisions. The Academy Award winning Best Director (Bob Fosse), Supporting Actor (Joel Grey) and Actress (Liza Minnelli) 1972 film is probably the most accurate adaptation of the source material (Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider are inventions seen only in the musical and thus eliminated from the film). In addition, the movie is considered a tour de force for Liza Minnelli, and she has a number of additional songs. (Although, the biggest misconception is that Kander & Ebb wrote “Maybe This Time” for her, when in fact they wrote it for Kaye Ballard in the early 1960’s as a stand-alone number).

There were two major stage revivals: 1987, directed again by Prince and starring Grey (and a young Alyson Reed); and the very popular Sam Mendes production from the Donmar Warehouse (1993; Broadway, 1998). The first revival, largely keeps the original show intact, but some notable differences: the elimination of “Meeskite” and “Why Should I Wake Up,” and the addition of “I Don’t Care Much,”  “Don’t Go” and “The Money Song” – combined with a brief version of “Sitting Pretty.” There are minor adjustments to the book as well.

The Mendes production is vastly different.  Gone is all of “Sitting Pretty” plus “Meeskite,” “The Telephone Song”, and different arrangements of almost every other song. Added are the films songs: “Mein Herr,” “Maybe This Time.” plus a complete “Money Song.” This version is also much darker and the underlying sexuality of Cliff is more prevalent. Mendes also chooses to set the entire theater in The Kit Kat Klub, which prior stage adaptations were traditional proscenium theater style.

Now that bring us to my production produced by Damascus Theatre Company. I put a lot of thought into which version I would do, and I spent a lot of time researching the reasons behind all of the changes, and then reading all of the different versions.

I have to admit, that part of my decision was due to the fact that almost every production of the show you see today is a recreation of the Mendes version. I wanted to put my own stamp on it, but as I told the cast in a rehearsal: probably the biggest reason is because of “Meeskite.”

“Meeskite” is a fun “parlor” song as it stands, but becomes great when you have a capable Herr Schultz. In the original production, Schultz and Schneider  were played by Jack Gilford and Lotte Lenya. Just from listening to the Original Broadway Cast recording, you can hear Gilford’s masterful rendition of the song, and hearing Lenya perform the two Schneider numbers is probably the best part of that recording.

Performance of the song aside, “Meeskite” is important as a plot element. During the engagement party, Schultz, a little drunk, is very uncomfortable by the presence of the Nazi, Ernst Ludwig. In an attempt to lighten the mood of the party, he performs “Meeskite” in a traditional parlor song style. Schultz tells us the definition of “Meeskite” is Yiddish for “ugly, funny-looking.” He then tells us a story of a meeskite, a funny looking boy who meets a funny looking girl, falls in love, and has a baby, who is “gorgeous.” The final line of the song is:

“Anyone responsible for loveliness, large or small, is not a meeskite at all!”

This one line holds so much truth, that I had to do this version.

(Clockwise from left)Leah Schwartz, Tonya Pleasants, Jason Damaso, Debbi Patton, Kedren Spencer, and Megan May. Photo by Elli Swink.
(Clockwise from left): Leah Schwartz, Tonya Pleasants, Jason Damaso, Debbi Patton, Kedren Spencer, and Megan May. Photo by Elli Swink.

In the 1930 Weimar Republic, where our story takes place, we are a mere 3 years away from January 30, 1933, when Hitler took over Germany and was crowned Chancellor. We all know the rest of the story. Hitler outlined in Mein Kampf that the Aryan race was superior and that all other races and the mentally disabled were considered sub-human. In other words: a “meeskite.”

Schultz, in one small line, tells us that everyone is special. It is at this moment in the play that the characters decide whether or not they are supporting the Nazis, or more importantly, standing idly by and not do anything (as Schneider tells us later in “What Would You Do?”).

In our production, utilizing the original script and score, plus setting the audience in the Kit Kat Klub, we have made the piece our own, with our own unique little spin. To better meld the show together, our cast is visible through a majority of the show, and the cabaret scenes and book scenes are integrated seamlessly. In addition to this, I have chosen to place the show in the round, to better blur the lines between the audience and the stage. There are times when the actors are sitting at the tables with the audience members, and at various times interacting with them as well. In our Cabaret, the audience is a character just as every other member, and we hope you can become part of that!

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