Here, Life is Beautiful
June 4, 2014
This summer, I'm traveling back in time.
Let me back up.
In 2001, I was on winter break from college and my family saw our annual holiday musical. We've been doing this for as long as I can remember--everything from Damn Yankees at the Kennedy Center with Tommy Tune, (notable for when he broke character after the audience started booing a particularly sexist line to say, "Hey, it was 1959!") to Annie 2 with the late great Harve Presnell. (I have no memory of seeing Annie 2, but I do recall spotting Presnell before the show eating dinner.) A love of theater runs deep in my family: both my parents grew up listening to original cast recordings from their parents' generation--South Pacific, Oklahoma, My Fair Lady--and developed an appreciation passed onto my sister and me. We both went to theater camp for years, and in high school I was the head of tech crew (or as my friends and I so coolly called it: Tek Crüe).
Despite being raised on the cast recordings of Guys and Dolls, Bye Bye Birdie, and Gypsy, I was 20 before theater changed my life.
"There was a cabaret. And there was a Master of Ceremonies. And there was a city called Berlin in a country called Germany. It was the end of the world, and I was dancing with Sally Bowles. And we were both fast asleep."
From the minute the curtain rose on Cabaret at the National Theater, I was hooked, transported to Germany in the early 1930s. I watched the Kit Kat Club dancers in awe, and was fascinated by the Emcee and Sally Bowles. Despite my misgivings I was charmed by the American, Cliff Bradshaw, knowing he was our eyes into this strange world. The music was beautiful, funny, heartbreaking, and terrifying--often within the same song. The story was enthralling, and much more risqué than anticipated. Our tickets were center orchestra, but I don't think it would have mattered where we sat. The material was so powerful; I would have been drawn in just the same in the nosebleed section.
And then came the ending:
The Nazis have risen. Cliff returns to America, determined to flee from the uprising. As he boards the train, the Emcee sings us one final song--a reprise of the opening number "Willkommen." Only he is no longer the upbeat narrator who greeted us three hours earlier. He is tired. His clothes are tattered. His voice is hoarse. He tells us he has delivered on his promise at the beginning of the show: "Where are your troubles now? Forgotten? I told you so." A drum rolls. As he bids us goodbye ("Auf wiedersehen, à bientôt "), he turns around and takes off his jacket to reveal a concentration camp uniform. Behind him, the Nazi flag drops. Cymbals crash, lights go out.
As the house lights came up, I sat in stunned silence, unable to move, trying to process what I had just seen. A story of decadence. A cautionary tale wrapped up--literally--in a song and dance. And then, I snapped out of my stupor and started to cry. I turned to look at my mom, who was also crying. The four of us sat there in those beautiful seats a few rows from the stage, and wept.
I spent the rest of my winter break listening to the 1998 revival cast recording. I became obsessed with Alan Cumming and Natasha Richardson's portrayals of the Emcee and Sally. I belted out "Maybe This Time" and "I Don't Care Much," pretending I was back at the Kit Kat Club.
The year before, I had decided to take a break from college. My parents were fine with this (I have really awesome parents) but insisted I continue my education. So I took some classes at the local community college, including one called Literature of the Holocaust. I've always been a big reader, and the class seemed interesting. I had no idea it would be one of the best and most influential courses of my college career.
I went into Cabaret feeling supremely prepared, clueless as to what the evening had in store for me. I had just spent five months reading about rising Germany and the Holocaust-- Eli Wiesel's Night, Maus by Art Spiegelman, countless essays, and (perhaps the most chilling), Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi. I had been to the Holocaust Museum. My final paper was an analysis of films depicting the time period, and I had recently seen several--Schindler's List, Life is Beautiful, Holocaust. Our teacher even had a surprise guest speaker--an actual survivor came to our class and told us how she escaped from a concentration camp. Still none of that had truly prepared me for the beautiful but brutal power of the show, punctuated by that haunting final scene.
When I returned to college, Cabaret became the inspiration for several school projects, including a screenwriting class and a final research paper for English. Most important, a little more than a year after seeing Cabaret, I returned to the community college to make a documentary about my Literature of the Holocaust professor.
Thirteen years after first seeing it, I still think Cabaret is one of the greatest shows ever written. I have since watched the film and seen many productions. While nothing has ever lived up to that first time, it is still profoundly moving. The 1998 cast recording is a staple for any road trip, and no matter how many times I hear it, the reprise of "Willkommen" always brings tears to my eyes. I never pass up an opportunity to see Cabaret or tell someone why it is among the best musicals in American theater. The show has taken up permanent residence in my heart, and while it may not have the same presence in my daily life as it did when I was in college, it can still be easily accessed.
Last fall, it was announced that Sam Mendes was reviving the 1998 production--on which the 2001 production I saw was based--and Alan Cumming would reprise his role as the Emcee.
Remember how I mentioned I have really awesome parents? Guess who's going to the Kit Kat Club on June 28th?
The enormity of this didn't hit me until our tickets arrived and my dad texted me a picture. I was at work, and it's a good thing I was alone because I started crying. This show, this wonderful, scary, amazing show, changed my life. It was my "aha" moment that taught me just how affecting theater can be. I have no doubt that I will cry for the duration of the show. Heck, I will probably start crying once we enter the theater. I'm not sure what the show will bring. Expectations are high, and a part of me is scared it won't live up to the hype.
But no matter the outcome, I have an opportunity few people ever get--fulfilling a lifelong dream I thought had passed. I plan to paint my fingernails green and have a perfectly marvelous time.
Sarah Metz is the NEA’s Media Arts specialist. When she’s not nerding out over theater, she’s reviewing classic TV shows at retrowatching.com. She’s very excited to be seeing the revivals of both Cabaret and Hedwig and the Angry Inch this month.