Time for another Notes from a Composer rerun, or repost, this time a double feature from last April on the convention of breaking into song in musicals, and how cleverly the movie version of Cabaret subverted that convention. This post will be followed by another on how I address this convention in my musical Speakeasy.
How Cabaret circumvented the “characters breaking into song” musical trope
When people who say they hate musicals explain why they hate musicals they usually fall back on this well-worn reason: it is unrealistic that characters just break into song and dance; this doesn’t happen in “real life”. I find this a rather eye-rollingly lazy reason to reject musicals as an art form. Do we reject comedies because in real life people generally don’t engage in hilarious dialog and pratfalls? Do we reject action films because in real life all those extreme stunts just don’t keep occurring like that? Do we reject horror films because there is just no such thing as zombies and mummies and vampires (never mind that they are a reflection of our subconscious desires just as much as a song is in a musical). If you hate jokes, fine, reject comedies. If you don’t want to watch violence, fine, reject action films (like my mother-in-law does). If you hate being scared, for heaven’s sake, avoid horror movies. And if you don’t like music, avoid musicals. But if you do like music (and really, most everybody does), it doesn’t make sense to reject all musicals just because people sing in them. People breaking into song in musicals is as much a suspend-your-disbelief integral element as all the other suspend-your-disbelief elements we accept to enjoy genres of art, or even the basic tools of the language of cinema, like editing, lighting or musical scoring. Or as one blog post I found that goes into great detail defining various musical tropes puts it: “Musicals have songs in them – just go with it.”
That said (or vented), there is at least one musical that most stringently circumvents the “characters breaking in to song” trope. Cabaret is chock-full of brilliantly realized musical numbers, but all of them are performed “realistically” within the context of a performance actually happening as naturally as any other interaction between characters in the real world. If you absolutely must avoid suspending your disbelief at seeing “characters break into song” when “in real life” they wouldn’t, couldn’t ever do that, then I invite you to watch the movie adaptation of Cabaret. It also just happens to be one of the greatest musicals (or movies) ever made.
The stage version of Cabaret, a big hit on Broadway in 1966, was a traditional musical where characters would burst into song. It also included scenes in the Kit Kat Club, a seedy Weimar Berlin cabaret, where the creepy Master of Ceremonies (played by Joel Grey on stage as well as on screen), the Kit Kat Girls and Sally Bowles (played by Liza Minnelli in the movie) would perform numbers that would comment on the musical’s narrative. These numbers were therefore not suspend-your-disbelief moments of characters breaking into song unrealistically, but real life performances at the Kit Kat Club, which was as much a real setting of the musical as the boarding house where Sally resided.
When Cabaret was adapted for the screen in 1972, the producer Cy Feuer, the director Bob Fosse and the screen writer Jay Presson Allen agreed to cut all the “character breaking into song” numbers. Every musical number would almost exclusively be performed in the Kit Kat Club, as an actual performance that could be witnessed by the cabaret’s audience. Some popular melodies from the stage version would be either cut or heard through other realistic means, as when Sally puts on the phonograph to play an instrumental version of “It Couldn’t Please Me More” to dance seductively for Brian, or when “Married” is heard sung in German as “Heirat”, also on the phonograph, while Sally and Brian are planning their future life together.
Additional songs not heard on Broadway were introduced to the movie version, like “Mein Herr”, “Money Money”, and “Maybe This Time”, all of them now so popular that the recent stage revivals of Cabaret are a hybrid of both the original stage version and the movie, incorporating these songs.
With almost every musical number being a performance at the Kit Kat Club, the notion of these numbers acting as sly commentary on the narrative, pioneered in the stage version of Cabaret, became even more pronounced. “Willkommen” not only introduces you to the denizens of the Kit Kat Club, but also shows Brian (Michael York) arriving in Berlin. While the introduction of Sally Bowles and her sexual history is deftly handled with the cynical “Mein Herr” number, when she and Brian transition from friends to lovers Sally is shown sensually back-lit singing “Maybe This Time” at the club, intercut with moments of romantic bliss between the couple. When Sally meets the filthy rich Maximilian, the movie segues to her and The M.C. performing the famous “Money, Money” number.
Sally and Brian’s evolving relationship with Maximilian occasions the M.C. touting the advantages of threesomes in “Two Ladies”. Fritz confessing his love for the Jewish heiress Natalia, as well as his own secret Jewish identity results in the M.C. soft-shoeing with a Gorilla in a tutu, singing “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes”.
The one musical number sung in full not at the Kit Kat Club (and not playing on the phonograph) would be the masterfully chilling “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”, sung live at a beer garden in the German countryside, as realistically as any performance on an outdoor stage might be.
The song is sung by an angelic looking blond Nazi youth, first singing a cappella, then accompanied by the local brass band and some more Nazi singers. Chillingly, as if the song were a generally known folk song, one by one the patrons at the beer garden get up and sing along. It doesn’t look like characters unnaturally breaking into song like in traditional musicals, it looks like people being realistically swept up by the passions of the moment in a political rally, and it is a stunning piece of cinema.
All the musical numbers in Cabaret are excellent examples of musical cinema at its best, in the performances, cinematography, the editing and the musical staging by Bob Fosse. Never does one feel short changed by a feeling of “just” watching filmed stage performances. There is a strong cinematic verve in each number. And yet, unlike many filmed “stage performances”, as from the golden age of studio musicals of the Busby Berkley era (where maybe Fred Astaire and co. might nominally be performing in front of a Broadway audience but then the musical number would grow amazingly big and elaborate in a way that could never be physically attempted on an actual Broadway stage), all the musical numbers in Cabaret still look like they could be performed live on that small stage in the real Kit Kat Club.
And this realism allows for some startling cross cutting between performance and the harsh realities of 1930’s Berlin. A silly Bavarian face-slapping and foot stomping dance in the club is cross cut with a man being beaten to death by Nazis outside in an alley. A goofy goose stepping chorus line accompanies young men chanting “Jude” (“Jew”) outside Natalia’s home and killing her dog. A fiery red-lit Can-Can dance at the Kit Kat Club punctuates the moment Sally has an abortion. Musicals are often about escape, but Cabaret, even with all the fun and music and “leave your troubles outside” escapism of the Kit Kat Club, still makes it impossible to leave behind the troubles of early 1930’s Berlin and the growing understanding of greater horrors still to come.
Sally Bowles’ final number Cabaret is the epitome of swoon-worthy star-turn solo showstoppers, but it is also our disillusioned farewell to that character, followed by the M.C. not even being able to say “good-bye” before bowing out through a curtain while the camera pans across a distorted mirror to reveal a swastika armband in its reflection: the world of the cabaret is now over, a new horrible world order is taking its place. Strong stuff for a musical, and arguably made stronger by the fact that the movie, with all those musical numbers, feels as realistic as any drama about the era could be.
Cabaret is the first movie musical to so strictly avoid having characters “break into song” and is still the most rigorous movie musical to stage every number within a realistic context. Ken Russell’s adaptation of The Boyfriend just a year earlier in 1971 came close to avoiding the characters unrealistically breaking into song by setting almost each number either as an actual performance as it is happening during a sparsely attended 1930s London matinee performance of a musical called The Boyfriend or by having these numbers elaborately re-imagined by the Busby Berkley-esque Hollywood producer Mr. DeTrille while he is watching that matinee performance.
Still, there are 2 or 3 numbers in The Boyfriend that are performed in traditional “characters breaking into song with music playing out of nowhere” mode. So Cabaret really is the first to do it completely, as well as not resort to the “character imagining the musical number” trope, which will serve Bob Fosse very well in his next great movie musical All That Jazz (with Roy Scheider as a fictional Bob Fosse imagining his heart operation and death as an elaborate anesthesia-induced hallucination,) and will also serve Bill Condon and Rob Marshall very well when they respectively write the screen-play and direct the movie version of Chicago (with every musical number which is not actually performed “live” on some stage only existing in the fevered imagination of show-business obsessed Roxie, played by Renee Zellweger).
Cabaret arguably marks the end of the traditional studio musical era and the beginning of the modern movie musical era. Yet as notable as Cabaret’s accomplishment is in the realism with which it films its musical numbers, it should be noted that this innovation didn’t kill the “characters breaking into song” trope nor render it hopelessly old-fashioned from then on. Although some successful modern movie musicals like Hairspray or Mamma Mia would treat the trope with a wink and a nudge, as if to say “yes we know it’s a musical and a bit silly, but isn’t it fun?” (and there’s nothing wrong with that), there will still be modern musical movie masterpieces like Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair that employ the trope in a traditional manner, while still being modern, innovative, tonally integrated and successful movie musicals in their own right.
Perhaps what Cabaret has irrevocably changed for anyone who makes musicals is that we can no longer just thoughtlessly accept the notion that people break out into song simply because that’s what people in musicals do. Because of Cabaret there is a greater awareness amongst those who love and make musicals about the ways songs are performed in musicals, and the effect these performances have. Which means musical makers are more mindful of the choices to be made when presenting musical numbers. Which tropes or rules of the genre shall be employed and how, and which should maybe be left out or tweaked in any particular musical? It is a discussion and decision I myself had to engage in when planning my musical Speakeasy and which I shall talk about in my next blog post in just a few days.
SPEAKEASY and the “breaking into song with music out of nowhere” musical trope
Alice goes through the Looking Glass
JANE (puts the Drink Me bottle back onto the little table):
How much hooch will I have to down before I get to the Wonderland?
(singing) WHAT ARE THESE DRINKS THAT I’M DRINKING
THESE THOUGHTS I AM THINKING
WHAT WHERE AM I NOW?
Oh. I’m singing! Fun!
Elsewhere John is wandering alone in the maze.
I wonder if I’ve changed somehow?
(singing) WAS I THE SAME WHEN I GOT UP THIS MORNING
BUT IF I’M NOT WHO AM I NOW?
I can’t be the same. I’m actually singing. I don’t do that, do I?
The above is an excerpt from the musical Speakeasy – the Adventures of John and Jane Allison in the Wonderland, a Roaring Twenties adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books featuring two Alices, the newlyweds John and Jane Allison. Jane has just “gone through the rabbit hole” at the same time John has slipped “through the looking glass”, and they find themselves in a magical dream world where time and space and identity don’t follow regular rules (to read more about Speakeasy, you can access additional posts about the musical by selecting “the Speakeasy Chronicles” in the category sidebar).
In addition to the mind bending shifts of time and space as well as the shifting understanding of who they are that John and Jane experience while in the Wonderland dream, they also experience the actuality of music accompanying their activities and the seeming normalness of they themselves and the people they meet easily breaking into accompanied song. Which of course is rather convenient for the drama, as Speakeasy is a musical.
During the excerpt above, John and Jane, in separate areas of the magical world they slipped into, for the first time experience themselves unexpectedly warbling snatches of song, and remark upon it. Jane finds this amusing, but John is a little more alarmed.
Eventually Jane will meet up with Roberta White (Speakeasy’s version of Alice in Wonderland’s White Rabbit), who will consciously start up a jazzy song by snapping her fingers and calling out “Hit it!” to an invisible but responsive orchestra. John will meet Julian Carnation and three gay florists (Speakeasy’s version of Through the Looking Glass’ Red Queen and Flowers). Before they regale John with a song of their own, Julian will remark upon the orchestra playing the introductory measures: “And there’s the cue. We’ll make our point musically.”
After that John and Jane will be deeply enough immersed in the strange rules of time, space, and music of this world to turn their initial snatches of melody into a questing song of their own, Curious Colorful Night:
Is it really necessary to justify characters breaking into song this way? No. Speakeasy is a musical. And if there is a single most salient element of musical theater it is that characters break into song. On the other hand, at least ever since the movie version of Cabaret filmed every musical number realistically, i.e. as a naturally occurring performance (see previous blog post), it behooves creators of musicals to at the very least consider the “rules” of musical performance in any particular musical and how traditionally and/or uniquely they wish to apply them.
When I imagined the protagonists of Speakeasy going “down the rabbit hole” and “through the looking glass” into a magical dream world, I wanted the effect to be as dramatic as The Wizard of Oz switching from black and white to color when Dorothy steps out of the farm house into Munchkinland. Why not include the act of characters breaking into musical numbers as yet another strange feature of the Wonderland fantasy, as much as the odd shifts of time and place and identity are? Once the first couple of references to this strange new behavioral oddity are made (as described in the first paragraphs of this post) the story of Speakeasy can happily rattle on as a full on musical with singing and dancing as much an unremarked upon part of “reality” as everything else strange and marvelous in Wonderland. At least until the Allisons wake up from this dream in the end.
Which doesn’t mean however that the beginning of act one (after an opening number set in the Wonderland) is completely without songs. I just took some inspiration from Cabaret and made sure each number in the “real world” was performed as songs would be performed in the real world. Jane may put a record on the phonograph or her neighbor Roberta may turn on the radio. A song (that just happens to reflect upon the action in John and Jane’s apartment) plays, and the audience is allowed a glimpse of the singer performing said song in the radio or recording studio. No character is “breaking into song” unnaturally. We hear and see a song performed by a professional singer in front of a microphone.
The same rule applies at the end of act two, when John and Jane wake up from their strange mutual dream. They find themselves back in their apartment, unsure about what has happened to them, unsure even if it was a shared experience their spouse is aware of or just a dream they dreamed alone. But when the radio is turned on, they hear Chet Cheshire, the master of ceremonies of the Wonderland nightclub singing a very particular song, a song they remember from their dream. It gives them the courage to sing out loud themselves for the first time in the real world, and to share the truths they have learned about themselves in the Wonderland, to “speak easy” about themselves to one another for the first time.
PS: To hear more Speakeasy demo recordings, go here.