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Cabaret on Broadway – what went wrong?

I’ve been writing about theatre and the industry for almost 10 years, attempting to be true to the spirit of what I love about shows and the people who make them.

I am also a fan of repeat visits to shows – this week, I went back to Bridge Theatre’s exuberant and immersive Guys & Dolls and returned to Sheffield’s across the decades musical Standing At The Sky’s Edge (for the fifth time). Both are examples of excellent British Theatre – world class, great storytelling and immaculate production values. Truly.

Anyway, whether here or on Twitter, the reader is in on my thought process. And I often write at first sight, or from memory. 

This, of course, has an advantage: excitement, and immediacy. But it also has resulted in my worst vice as a writer / reviewer: excess, both in damnation and praise. No doubt errors creep in as well as faulty recollections.

When I look at what I wrote about Cabaret in 2021, (‘The show of a lifetime..’) the adjectives are overblown and I now realise that I was caught up in a starry post-lockdown fizz. I succumbed.

Furthermore, I returned to the show as recently as Christmas, this time with Jake Shears and Self Esteem in the title roles. I admired a lot of it. Honestly, though, the bubble had burst. 

Then there was the grindingly smug Kit Kat Club pop-up bar in Selfridges. They can take our cash – but I can now never take them seriously.

The West End production of Cabaret won seven Oliviers, including Best Actor and Actress in a Musical for Redmayne and Jessie Buckley, and Best Musical Revival.

When Cabaret opened in London in 2022, he was joined in the cast by Jessie Buckley as Sally Bowles.

In New York, that role has been taken by Gayle Rankin, who is nominated for the Tony for best actress in a leading role in a musical’s

Across the pond, however, the New York transfer has sharply divided critics. Greg Evans for Deadline wrote: “The promise of an overwhelming theatrical event just never quite makes good on itself, certainly not with Rankin’s teary, intentionally overwrought delivery of the title song. We get it. Sally isn’t meant to be a big star. I’d still rather hear Liza.”

Jesse Green of the New York Times observed that the production “many fine and entertaining moments”, but says: “a misguided attempt to resuscitate the show breaks its ribs.”

Green adds: “Cabaret has a distinctive profile already. The extreme one offered here frequently defaces it.”

In a bizarre guest column for Variety titled ‘Some Critics Don’t Understand the ‘Cabaret’ Broadway Revival. Young Women Do’, Meena Harris wrote: “But at Frecknall’s direction, Gayle Rankin powerfully embodies what is undeniably a Sally of 2024. When she sings the show’s title number (which takes place in this production after the character’s offstage abortion) we see a modern Sally: raw and real; more than likely in emotional and physical pain. She doesn’t sing, dance or exist to please others—including, it should be said, us in the audience. Instead, we see a woman who in spite of everything, has chosen herself. A woman who has chosen to survive.”

Well, now. British and American men are responsible for all the evils in the history of the world.

Cabaret is based on Goodbye to Berlin, the British writer Christopher Isherwood’s collection of stories and character studies set during the end of an era (Weimar) as the Nazis are on their way to power.

On balance, it is not an ode to survival; the material is hard and unsentimental. Glossing over the rise of fascism within the show and the public’s implicit involvement is quite something.

The bare bones of this production stumbling on Broadway, however, is greed and timing. A pair of top-price tickets cost $1,552. But then this is what late capitalism looks like, wherever in the spectrum it rears its head. In late capitalism, you should be grateful to the wealth creators to be paid at all.

On this occasion, Americans saw through it. Earlier this week, the starry production received nine Tony nominations in total – the fourth-most nominations, but it must sting that Rebecca Frecknall’s direction wasn’t recognised. Upon reflection, it is true that all the joy has been sucked out of the show.

Against this backdrop, in an interview with the Financial Times, West End Producer Sonia Friedman explained this week: “I’ve got Merrily We Roll Along on Broadway at the moment doing $1.6mn-$2mn a week. You can’t do those sorts of numbers here. But in London if a show is selling 60 per cent of tickets you can survive. In New York if you’re doing 60 per cent you’re done.”

Meanwhile, over the coming months, there are are a large number of seats for Cabaret at all pricing levels. To keep it running and to break even producers will need to hope for headline Tony wins. They may also want to keep Eddie Redmayne as the box office draw for a little longer than planned before parachuting in Jake Shears.

This is is one of the season’s biggest productions — costly, because producers remade the August Wilson Theater into the Kit Kat Club. 

Anyhow: Columnist SES/SUMS IT UP at Substack and Yank Kevin Sessums mused recently: “London is a bit more, well, endearingly provincial in its idea of what is defined as decadent. This production in London presents decadence but never really discerns it nor does it embody it. But there is a singularity to it.”

Finally, I wouldn’t want anyone who subscribes to this newsletter or indeed the blog to take it as complete guide to the theatre.

But it is a guide to the variety of pleasures that are available, from the fun to be had, to the shows to swerve to the overwhelming emotions that are drawn upon recalling great work. 

It’s OK to change your mind. Perhaps in light of World Events, this Cabaret is simply tone deaf.

So, life is disappointing? Err! Forget it!