As Theater Latté Da readies its “Cabaret,” original composer John Kander remembers how the musical has evolved over the decades.
John Kander calls it “Sam’s version.”
In 1993, director Sam Mendes put his stamp on a new production of “Cabaret” at London’s Donmar Warehouse. Kander, who composed the original music, helped Mendes push the musical forward in its sexual reality (the male lead is gay) and its embrace of the audience (breaking down the fourth wall) and backward in its dedication to original intentions (Sally Bowles was not a great singer).
Mendes’ production, enhanced on Broadway by Rob Marshall, has become the template for directors, including Peter Rothstein, whose “Cabaret” opens at the Pantages Theatre in Minneapolis on Saturday. It is a co-production between Rothstein’s Theater Latté Da and Hennepin Theatre Trust.
Rothstein has his own ideas, too, for this complex and difficult musical, which has become overshadowed by Liza Minnelli’s portrayal of Sally Bowles in the 1972 film. Overall, though, Rothstein hopes to “honor the Mendes version.” In 2011, Frank Theatre, with director Wendy Knox, staged a “Cabaret” clearly influenced and patterned on the Donmar production.
Kander recalls playing “What if?” with lyricist Fred Ebb, playwright Joe Masteroff and director Harold Prince as they put together the musical based on the play “I Am a Camera” and Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories.” The stories involved Bowles, a mediocre British singer, her bisexual lover, Cliff (modeled on Isherwood), a landlady who was dating a Jewish merchant and the looming menace of National Socialism.
Rather than use a traditional book form, the creators drew on the milieu of Isherwood’s Berlin to establish a club that would be part of the story but also a metaphor of what happens when societies turn away from brutal realities. The central figure would be a slightly mysterious Emcee at the nightclub.
“We didn’t see clearly what the device would do until we got to doing it,” Kander, 86, said in a phone interview from New York. “I remember Joel [Grey, the original Emcee] saying after the first performance in Boston that he went out there thinking he was a charming man and found the audience recoiling — and it came as a surprise to him. When he realized that, he said, ‘I’ll use it.’ ”
When “Cabaret” opened on Broadway in 1966, Kander recalled, Grey was fifth-billed in the show. His performance on stage and then in the 1972 film (Oscar for supporting actor) elevated the status of the Emcee within the cast.
Mendes raised the stakes considerably with Alan Cummings, whose Emcee at Donmar had an overtly ambiguous sexuality and who asserted himself more than Grey’s cunning enigma. Cummings repeated the role in the 1998 Broadway revival.
“When we originally invented the Emcee, we thought he would tie together the story and give atmosphere,” Kander said. “We didn’t know until he was on stage what a powerful presence he was.”
Rothstein, who calls the role one of the most complicated in all of musical theater, has cast Tyler Michaels, a rising musical talent for Latté Da (“Spring Awakening”) and Chanhassen Dinner Theatre (“Fiddler on the Roof”).
“He’s a provocateur, he’s omnipresent with theatrical power that no one else has, but he is not controlling other characters,” Rothstein said. “He’s naughty, and at first we don’t mind him messing with us. But then he gets creepy, and we say, ‘I don’t want to be at this party anymore.’ ”
The character of Sally (Kira Lace Hawkins in the Latté Da show) also has evolved, primarily because of Minnelli’s performance.
“Because Liza sang so well, people have a false picture of who that girl is,” Kander said of a character originally written as an ordinary performer who fancies herself a great singer. In the original, she had only four scenes, but the part grew.
“It’s a trick to find someone who is powerful enough to keep us interested and at the same time to delude us into thinking she’s a great star,” Kander said. “It always takes some work to pull that one off.”
Rothstein acknowledges that difficulty, although he said he intends to make a nod to the needs of musical theater with Hawkins, who is a real singer.
“She has four numbers in the first act,” Rothstein said. “We knew we needed a singer there, and there had to be a reason for Cliff to fall for her. We’ve decided it’s because of her electric energy on the stage of the Kit Kat Club.”