When I knew that I would be visiting Paris again I knew that the opportunity to see Kander and Ebb’s ‘Cabare’t at the Folies Bergere was too delicious to miss. Although he did present a version at the Donmar Warehouse, in 1993, the Sam Mendes Broadway production has never made it to London, so I was pleased to finally get the chance to see it. Albeit in Paris. Albeit in French.
The Folies Bergere is to Paris what the Palladium is to London and the Palace to New York. The home of variety. In it’s 130 year history it has played host to many of the great French and international stars. The legendary Maurice Chevalier, Anna Pavlova, Josephine Baker and Mistinguett are just a few, not to mention the Palladium’s own Tiller Girls. As French “variety” often leant towards cabaret performers, “Les Folies” is a perfect location for ‘Cabaret’, if not it’s spiritual home. I was, however, concerned that the setting would be too glamorous for the shows second rate cabaret bar setting, but the fact that the fascia of the theatre could do with a little sprucing up, and there is the odd bit of internal paintwork that needs administering to, works very much in it’s favour.
Upon entering I discovered a massive, and opulent, foyer painted in aqua with the most enormous brass chandelier I have ever seen, along with two magnificent carousel-style horses. The grandiosity of the foyer made it seem like an “event” even before I had entered the auditorium, and the venue seemed to echo with the ghosts of the past, all adding to the experience. Also the way the auditorium has been transformed for this production is no less spectacular than the front of house. The stalls area had been set out with chairs and tables, with a lamp on each, to give the ambience of a cabaret bar. As walk ways went into the house at circle level it was difficult to work out exactly where the Folies ended and the stage set began. It seemed to slip so seamlessly from one to the other. The sign for the Kit Kat Klub seemed particularly appropriate for Paris as it is reminiscent of Guimaud’s art nouveau metro stations. All in all the design, along with the real life features, were amazingly evocative of what a down at heel Berlin cabaret bar would be like.
Shortly before the show was due to start a discordant violinist took to the stage, to be joined by a Chicago-esque male cast member clad in a dark trousers and an open waistcoat. Kit Kat Klub girls and musicians (for they were often one and the same) all came forward as the band members began to tune up. As one guy stretched another pinched his bum and one of the girls engaged in her own rather provocative stretches, all giving a foretaste of the ambiguity that was to come. As the mood began to set it was evident that I was in for a very good night’s entertainment. And this was still ten minutes before the show was actually due to commence.
As I looked around the audience I noticed many male/male couplings, proving that even though musical theatre is less popular in France than the UK and USA, it does prove to be a draw for gay society – although given the nature of this production it’s hardly surprising. I also noticed the strange “aisle” seats that they have which fold out from the end of rows to maximise potential numbers. Of course these also serve to prevent people nipping out to the loo, and they would no doubt fall foul of London fire regulations!
So to the piece itself. It of course begins with the multilingual ‘Wilkomme’n , performed by the Emcee along with the chorus giving a raunchy foretaste of what’s to come. We get our first sighting of, American writer, Cliff Brayshaw as he meets the enigmatic Ernst Ludwig on the train to Berlin, and it’s Ludwig’s suggestion that he seek out Fraulein Schneider’s boarding house. Schneider is asking for more for the room than Cliff can afford but in the end she decides it’s of little consequence and lets him have the room ‘Qu’importe’ (‘So What’). What follows are two of the “performance” songs from the Kit Kat Klub that pepper the evening and sometimes comment on the action in a subtle– or not so subtle - way. ‘Ne Dites Rien A Mama’n (‘Don’t Tell Mama’) is followed by (written for the movie) Mein Herr. It’s not long before Cliff finally meets the Kit Kat’s star turn, Sally Bowles, who shortly after they meet turns up at his flat claiming to be destitute. So begins the romance (and co-habitation) between Sally and the bisexual Cliff. All in all it’s ‘Les Plus Merveilleux Des Bonheurs’ (‘Perfectly Marvellous’). A sub plot develops between Schneider and another tenant, fruit shop owner, Herr Schultz. Schultz offers her the delicacy of ‘Un Ananas’ (‘It Couldn’t Please Me More (Pineapple)’) and a romance develops. Cliff becomes involved in helping Ludwig learn English and, inadvertently, in some rather dubious financial dealings (‘Mone’y) . Later Cliff becomes aware of Ludwig’s Nazi leanings as, at the Schneider/Schultz engagement party, he informs Schneider that an engagement would be foolish as Schultz is a Jew – ‘Demain N’Appartient Qu’a Moi’ (‘Tommorrow Belongs To Me’) . In the meantime Sally enjoys life in her own merry oblivion, not realising what’s occurring around her. As the shows second act continues our characters begin to face some stark decisions. Shortly after Schultz has a brick thrown through his window, Fraulein Schneider makes a difficult decision about their future together. When Sally discovers she is pregnant Cliff offers to take her back to America with him to raise their child away from the horrors that are unfolding in front of them. Sally, forever naïve, fails to see how politics should stop them having the fun life they have in Berlin as she truly does believe that life is a ‘Cabaret’ . Behind Cliffs back, Sally makes a big decision about her pregnancy which succeeds in terminating her relationship with Cliff. Cliff leaves for Paris, with Sally remaining in Berlin. The evening closes as it begins with the Emcee singing ‘Wilkommen’.
Well obviously I have only given an outline of the plot, and a handful of the musical numbers, but I will mention a few personal highlights. The whole Schneider/Schultz sub plot is beautifully done and gives a real heart to the piece. I loved (understudy) Sylvie Neyraut as Schneider who looked a little like Glenn Close and evoked Edith Piaf for me. In a perfectly balanced performance she managed to convey the dilemmas her character faced quite touchingly. ‘Un Ananas’ was great fun – so touching that something , now so commonplace as a pineapple, was once considered exotic enough to be a romantic gift. Also the word Ananas is so much more musical than the pineapple so musically the French lyric improves upon the song. Delphine Grandsart was wonderful as, a brazenly teutonic, Fritzie Klost with an apt mixture of vulgarity and bawdiness – looking astonishingly like British actress Sarah Parish. As Sally, Claire Perot was the perfect balance of vulnerability and pizzazz that the role requires, shining in ‘Peut-Etre’ Bien’ (‘Maybe This Time’) as well as with the Kit Kat girls in ‘Mein Herr’. Her static version of the title song worked brilliantly as well, and really did stop the show. The only part of the show that I felt was overshadowed by the movie was ‘Mone’y, solely because the film version of this is an iconic moment in movie musicals and very hard to forget – even though the stage version was staged brilliantly. As the Emcee David Alexis (also an understudy) was brilliant from the outset, with just the right touch of the sinister, also managing to convey the characters ambiguity in a very sexualised performance without resorting to all out campery. In this production the Emcee rightly takes the final bow as, although he is a spectator to the main action, he comments on the proceedings in a way that lends definition to them. As ‘Cabaret’ goes this has to be the definitive version and it’s no surprise that it ran for almost six years in its Broadway production. It manages to effectively tell of a particular time and place in history when the decadence of the Weimar Republic began to fade to be replaced by the austerity and horrors of the Third Reich. All in all this production of the show manages to entertain and provoke in equal measure, Mendes’ vision subtly conveys the horror of the oncoming war without ever resorting to prurience. He leaves the raucousness and obviousness for the Kit Kat Klub production numbers and deals with the rest of the piece on a very human level. The show is at it’s most powerful at it’s stunning finale. I am not going to describe this in depth, but for the moment when the Emcee introduces the band during the reprise of ‘Wilkommen’ only to discover that the music is playing but the band isn’t there. Nothing hits the pieces message home more than this incident, which reflects the real story of how many bands and orchestras found their numbers depleted while the largely Jewish musicians vanished from sight.
Well Paris isn’t Berlin. However, as I left the theatre and headed into the night I passed a kosher butchers on the street at the side of the Folies, and within moments passed a group of orthodox Jews, leaving me to ponder how different life would have been there sixty five years ago. To view a show such as ‘Cabaret’ in a city that was under Nazi occupation during the war gives it a whole added dimension. How many similar stories played out there , for real, in the war years? Was there a real life Sally Bowles at the Folies Bergere perhaps, and indeed how many of the performers there suffered in the same way we were lead to believe that the Kit Kat Klubs musicians did? It was with these thoughts that I returned to my hotel after seeing not only a marvellous production of a classic musical, but possibly one of the best productions I have ever seen of any musical.
The movie of ‘Cabaret’ tells the same story in a different way and with some different characters, yet it is none the less effective and rightly considered to be one of the all time great screen musicals. Buy the DVD and the CD – both worth a listen. Should you be looking for a recording you could of course get the Paris recording which is now available, but failing that the Broadway version with Alan Cumming and Natasha Richardson is pretty definitive. Of the many other recordings we do of course have Dame Judi Dench as the West End’s first Sally Bowles on the original London cast album. Judi isn’t nearly as vocally effective in this role as she was in “A Little Night Music” however, although her version of “Don’t Tell Mama” is wonderful. In the nineties JAY/TER recordings issued a “complete” version with Jonathan Pryce and Maria Friedman. Both perform well but the highlight has to be, in her return to the piece, the afore mentioned Judi Dench. This time she takes on the role of Fraulein Schneider and her rendition of ‘So What?’ Is as good as it gets.
From the point of view of the Nazi Occupation of Paris I would recommend Irene Nemirovsky’s wonderful novel , ‘Suite Francaise’ – which (although it only contains the first two parts of an uncompleted five part sequence) gives a chillingly evocative impression of the period. I truly believe that you could not imagine these events unless you were actually there. Nemirovsky was there in fact and sadly did not survive the war following her internment. .
I would also mention the French movie, Andre Techine’s ‘Strayed’ (‘Les Egares’) starring Emmanuelle Beart and Gaspard Ulliel. Like ‘Suite Francaise’ it deals with the plight of the Parisians as the fled their homes because of the imminent arrival of the Germans. Well worth seeing!