Considering my lifelong obsession with World War II, Hitler, and the Holocaust, I guess it was only a matter of time before I’d see my daughter goose-stepping across a stage giving a Nazi salute. Relax—this wasn’t an episode of teenage rebellion, and she’s not dating a neo-Nazi. Leah is simply appearing this weekend in a local theatre production of “Cabaret.”
It’s a mostly high school cast (Leah is one of the few 8th graders), so unlike many of the two dozen musicals she’s performed in, this script has not been extensively doctored to make it more “suitable” for children. To be honest, I’m usually uncomfortable with this theatre group’s unnecessary censorship (no one ever dies in their plays no matter how weirdly that affects the story) but I must say my mouth was agape during some of the scenes of Weimer Republic debauchery. Nothing was left out of this production: abortions, ménages-a-trois, prostitution, and all manners of sexual preferences and appetites. Oy! Leah plays Frenchie, one of the Kit Kat girls working in the seedy Berlin club alongside Sally Bowles. The depraved MC (brilliantly played by a 17-year-old) bids a Wilkommen to everyone at the beginning of the show and introduces each Kit Kat girl in turn, Rosie, Lulu, Frenchie, and Helga:
Rosie is so called because of the color of her cheeks! [slaps Rosie’s bottom]
This is Lulu. Oh, you like Lulu, huh? Yeah? Well, too bad! So does Rosie!
You know, I like to order Frenchie on her side. On your side, Frenchie! [Frenchie lays down on her side]
Helga is the baby. I am like a father to her! So when she's bad...I spank her. And she's been very very very very bad!
Are you calling Child Protective Services yet? Don’t worry, I'm turning myself in.
Outside it is windy, but inside it is so hot! Every night we have ze battle to keep ze girls from taking off all of their clothing. Don't go away—who knows? Tonight we may lose ze battle!
They did cut one introduction from this scene, thank God, when the MC introduces a Kit Kat girl named Texas (“Yes, Texas is from America! Mmm-hmm. But she’s a very cunning linguist!”).
The show was very well done and had a live orchestra on stage, complete with tuba and accordian. I’m a huge fan of the movie version of “Cabaret.” It’s a wonderful film that deserved the eight Academy Awards it won in 1972. I remember seeing it for the first time at the fantastic but now torn-down Granada Theatre in Chicago. But as great as the movie is, in many ways the play is more powerful. And far more authentic to the story of Christopher Isherwood and his muse Sally Bowles. Most of the play’s plot and characters were tossed out for the movie. It quickly became a star vehicle for the up-and-coming Liza Minnelli (which is why the British Sally was Americanized).
But these characters are all back in Leah’s show. I was especially moved by Fraulein Schneider, the desperate owner of a boarding house who starts an improbable but sweet romance with Jewish fruit store owner Herr Schultz. They get engaged and are very happy until the specter of the encroaching Nazis destroys their relationship. I also liked Fraulein Kost, the hooker bringing sailors into the boarding house much to the horror of the once proper Fraulein Schneider. And the chilling Nazi Ernst Ludwig, who sports the first swastika seen in the play. Leah said that the theatre company had to sign a waiver at the costume rental place in order to get the Nazi armbands. Costume shops aren’t allowed to rent them out unless the customers can prove that they are doing a legitimate play featuring Nazis. I guess they’re afraid of Nazi paraphernalia landing in the hands of actual Hitler supporters.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that when I was exactly Leah’s age, I made my acting and singing debut in “Cabaret.” Where, you ask? A local Chicago theatre? As part of the Von Steuben High Drama Department? Nope. In my father’s basement. In the early 70s my dad, who was in the security business, had a “portable” videotaping system (it weighed about 100 lbs!), a black-and-white reel-to-reel machine that used expensive half-hour tapes. Instead of playing outside where we belonged, my odd group of friends decided to mount and record our own version of “Cabaret.” We built sets, made costumes with whatever we could find (I remember my mother’s go-go boots and ice skating outfits appearing on some of the Kit Kat girls), and we ad-libbed our way through the whole show.
My friend Helena starred as Sally Bowles. Helena is now a special effects maven and was recently accepted into the Motion Picture Academy. She and her husband will be attending the Oscars in two weeks. I wish I could show up on the red carpet with a DVD of Helena’s bravura performance. I remember her tears when she told her lover she’d had an abortion because she just couldn’t give up her career (our “Cabaret” was recorded just a few weeks after the Roe v. Wade decision). I played the MC and mustered up as much degeneracy as a goody-two-shoes like me possibly could. Perhaps I should be grateful to the thief who stole those videotapes out of my garage several years ago. Or let’s say, you should be grateful, otherwise I’d probably be posting clips.
Our entire cast of “Cabaret” was Jewish, except for our Polish Catholic friend Dana who we forced to play all of the Nazis in the story (forgive us, Dana!). (Leah told me that in her show, the one Jewish character, Herr Schultz, is played by the only non-Jew in the cast.) Oy, if my orthodox relatives only knew what we were doing down there I would have had quite a talking to. I remember aping the Heil Hitler salute with Dana as we belted “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” the scene that shows how the Nazis are gaining more power in Germany.
The branch on the linden is leafy and green
The Rhine gives its gold to the sea
But somewhere a glory awaits unseen
Tomorrow belongs to me!
Now Fatherland, Fatherland, show us the sign
Your children have waited to see
The morning will come
When the world is mine
Tomorrow belongs to me!
The babe in his cradle is closing his eyes
The blossom embraces the bee
But soon says the whisper—Arise! Arise!
Tomorrow belongs to me!
Terrifying. I got the goosebumps when Leah’s Jewish friends sang this song last night. The number was written for the play by John Kander and Fred Ebb but it was so well done in the style of a German march that it is often confused for an actual Nazi anthem, including by scary White Power groups who sing it at their meetings.
I was very impressed by Leah’s show but there were times I wanted to run out to the stage and provide some brief lessons in German history. I think many of the plot points flew over the heads of some of the younger audience members. I’m not sure they understood the political backdrop of the play or the terrible conditions in Weimar-era Germany that led to the power grab by Hitler’s thugs. Some seemed clueless about why the Jews were being singled out by the Nazis or why Herr Shultz didn’t just follow Sally’s boyfriend Cliff back to America. Will it hurt the flow of tonight’s performance if I walk up to the stage during each set change and give short lectures on the fundamentals of National Socialism?
We took Leah out to dinner after the first show. She had changed out of her costume but was still wearing her heavy makeup and false eyelashes. I worried that I’d get stopped by the authorities but, this being Los Angeles, she didn’t even stand out at the restaurant we went to. We were sitting next to a guy who had shaved his head except for two spikes of dyed red hair made to look like horns. Oy.
I think that overall, this is the best production that Leah has ever been in but I look forward to more age-appropriate fare. Fat chance, though. Last night I saw posters in the theatre advertising their next production: “Rent.” My favorite show that Leah did there was “Annie” a few years ago. She played the lead and it was refreshing to see her in a show with such wholesome topics as the Depression, orphan abuse, attempted murder, and the unbridled greed of fat-cat capitalists. Oh, for those innocent days.
Now that I think of it, “Annie” and “Cabaret” take place at exactly the same time in history. Did anyone ever think of combining the two shows? I can imagine a killer medley of Nazis screeching “Tomorrow belongs to me” while Leah counters with a hopeful, “The sun’ll come out, tomorrow!”