Mandy Moe Pwint Tu
This fall, the Tennessee Williams Center will see the return of the 1966 hit musical Cabaret to its stage. First performed in the fall of 2000, it has been 18 years since Sewanee has mounted another production of the musical, but in light of the Tennessee Williams Center’s 20th anniversary, the theatre department decided it was high time Cabaret made its much-anticipated comeback.
“It came to me that I would be the one given the opportunity to direct a musical,” said Jim Crawford, associate professor of theatre. “I initially was not inclined to choose Cabaret, because I thought I would do something that hadn’t been done here. But the way people spoke about Cabaret, I had the impression that it was done a few years ago, because people spoke of it with such fondness.”
This Sewanee production will be directed by Crawford and will involve the collaboration of the departments of music, theatre, and dance. Music professor Prakash Wright is adapting the songs for the Sewanee Jazz Ensemble, which will be the pit orchestra; artist in residence Kallen Esperian will work with the soloists on their parts; and Cesar Leal will oversee the entire production.
“We all decided to be brave and jump in the pool together even though it’s more logistically difficult,” said Crawford. “The students seem thrilled about it so I’m happy about that.”
The musical itself will take place in the black box theatre at Proctor Hill, but Crawford plans to remove all the risers and have the audience sit at tables and chairs that will be set out, as if they were at the cabaret. One end of the space will be the cabaret stage; and on the other end will be the boarding house.
“The audience will have to look back and forth at what’s happening in the two worlds at the same time,” said Crawford. “It’s a wonderful show to do environmentally.”
Cabaret is set in 1931, just as the Nazis are rising to power. The play follows a young American writer, Cliff Bradshaw, who will be played by Tristan Ketchum (C’21), as he gets involved in the cabaret world. The show centers on his romance with the English cabaret singer Sally Bowles, who will be played by Karissa Wheeler (C’19), as well as the ill-fated romance between Herr Schultz, played by Finn Gallagher (C’21), and Fraulein Schneider, played by Lydia Klaus (C’19).
Klaus worked this summer alongside Jennifer Matthews in preparation for Cabaret, first as assistant costume designer, and then as dramaturg, when her research into the Weimar Republic became extensive. She read the script several times, and then read Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, a collection of short stories that inspired the musical.
“In Goodbye to Berlin, [Isherwood] felt the need to self-censor because he was gay and he didn’t want to explicitly state that,” said Klaus. “He was trying to achieve an objectivity that no human can ever have. It left him feeling removed from the action. But he then wrote another piece called Christopher and His Kind, which was essentially laying everything out that he could remember about the experience, correcting everything as best to his knowledge that he could, being as open as he could about his experience.”
“The early ‘30s in Berlin were a fascinating period in history because it was such a sexually liberated place,” adds Crawford. “There was more acceptance of homosexuality in that society than there would be for another 40 years anywhere.”
According to Klaus’s research, Berlin was home to over sixty establishments that were open throughout the city. The Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, operating from 1919 to 1933, was also founded in Germany, which was, as Klaus explained, “one of the first attempts to study sexuality without being repressive and judgemental about it.” Of course, all of this crumbled when Adolf Hitler came into power.
“It’s one of those musicals that does something so interesting with the relationship of music and dance to the story of the play, where it’s the musical numbers are great fun but they also become this metaphor for something really disturbing going on,” said Crawford. “The audience has the experience that is parallel to the characters in the play, where they enjoy the hell out of the music and dance and they start to lose track of what’s going on in the society around them, which is that the Nazis are rising to power.”
Although period-specific, as with all great works of art, Cabaret contains lessons that can be “applied to virtually any age.”
“I don’t want there to be a one-on-one correspondence to anything happening in this country, but it is absolutely a show about how we are all capable of entertaining ourselves to death and not paying attention when our liberty is being taken away,” said Crawford. “How people want to apply that is up to them.”
Cabaret will run at the Tennessee Williams Center from October 26-28 and November 1-3.