Set in 1929-1930 Berlin, the John Kander-Fred Ebb musical focuses on the hedonistic nightlife at the Kit Kat Club and revolves around an American writer’s relationship with Sally Bowles, a cabaret performer.
The original Broadway production opened in 1966 and ran for 1,166 performances. A musical theatre performer herself, Augustana’s Shelley Cooper, assistant professor of theatre arts, is directing “Cabaret,” and hopes audiences come away a simple message: “I can be changed by what happens to me, but I refuse to be reduced by it.”
“The singer, Sally Bowles, represents the people who kept their eyes shut to changes in the world around them, and the novelist represents the new (perhaps naïve) American activist who could no longer sit by and watch the government ignore the will of the people,” she said recently. “Today, as activism at both ends of the political spectrum has experienced a renaissance in America, ‘Cabaret’ as a cautionary morality play has tremendous resonance.”
Four principal roles (the Emcee, Sally, Fraulein Schneider and Fraulein Kost) are double cast and will be performed by different actors on different nights. This was to accommodate the growth of the college’s music theatre department and gives a chance for more students to be on stage, Cooper said.
“We have so many talented students at Augustana who need and want opportunities to shine on the stage,” she said. “Double casting gives us that opportunity. Also, theatre in this COVID era, understudies, swings and standbys for roles are vital now more than ever.
“Having more than one person know a principal role is also practical,” Cooper added.
Local 4 reached out to the two actors playing the Emcee (a role immortalized in the 1972 Bob Fosse film by Joel Grey), and here are their reflections on the show:
Eli Bates (they/them), performing Nov. 18 and 20
A senior from Algonquin, Ill., majoring in theatre and music, Bates said when you do a show like this that involves intimacy and important conversations, it’s “necessary that you build a relationship with your fellow actors. We have had such a great time bonding through these party musical numbers, discussing the show and its history,” they said.
“Everyone is so talented and has been working extra hard to pull this show together to make it the sensation it deserves to be,” Bates said. They were very excited to do this show, because it “makes you feel so deeply,” and the Emcee is the ringleader of this “circus of misfits.”
Bates went to Germany this past summer with the Augustana Choir, including seeing Berlin.
“We had the opportunity to visit an old concentration camp, as well as the Jewish Heritage and Holocaust History Museum,” they said. “It was a visceral and humbling experience. Unfortunately, a big piece missing still from a lot of the history is recognizing the many other groups of people who were persecuted during the Holocaust. That is why a show like ‘Cabaret’ is important. It is a reminder of this world’s history that we still can see today.”
Bates said the political climate of the growing Nazi Party in “Cabaret” has similarities to America today.
“One of the first things that were under attack were women’s reproductive rights, which we can see clearly today with Roe v. Wade. There was also an attack on the LGBTQ population. We can see a lot of parallels from the Nazi Party’s tactics today,” Bates said.
“The delegitimization of news, art, media, demographics, etc. There is a constant battle for truth as well,” they noted. “The Nazi Party got very far by spreading ‘alternate facts.’ This can happen at a rate even faster today without time for fact checking and we see it happen constantly with politicians.
“We can see how tolerance of extreme, violent movements only give opportunity for even worse things in the future,” Bates said. “These are the things audiences who see this show should think about. The world is so much smaller with the presence of social media, which can be a danger or an advantage, it all depends on the spread of accurate information. Simplicity is never a friend, the battle for truth is constant and complex, but complexity is the answer.”
Roger Pavey, Jr., performing Nov. 17 and 19
A junior from LeClaire majoring in theatre and graphic design, Pavey said “Cabaret” is timely, dark, but full of so much life.
“And the score, the broad rhetorical scope of the piece, the depth of what ‘Cabaret’ means and is trying to say, is what makes this show so intriguing,” Pavey said, noting the Emcee is a character “unlike any other in the musical theatre canon.”
The role represents much more than just an Emcee, “but is also such a fun and lively character,” he said. “Especially with today’s sociopolitical climate, there is an added rhetorical weight to this character and the whole story. The Emcee, in part, serves as an interpreter for what is happening socially and politically in Germany, and sort of weaves through different people’s stories.
“There are also different layers to the character: there’s the Emcee as the human performer, the Emcee as the persona, and the Emcee as a larger-than-life, singing and moving metaphor that carries us through the musical in an edgy, flamboyant, interpretive way and through the filter of a nightclub act that is always on from the start of the show to the end,” Pavey said.
“Exploring this character has been quite the challenge, but easily one of the most fulfilling experiences.”
He has performed in high heels many times before (Pavey has done drag), so was not intimidated by that, “and neither by the characterization of this role (for the most part — because it is an extremely demanding role). But I did successfully and proudly push myself way out of my comfort zone for this role, transmitting this character through lots of singing and dancing, which I do not have a ton of experience in (and was very intimidated by the thought of singing and dancing onstage before I did this show — but not anymore,” he said by e-mail.
“For the longest time, I did not think I was a musical theatre person (this is my first named singing role in a full-length musical) and this role changed my mind. More than that, the importance of doing theatre and the arts has heightened, and more gravity has been brought to be doing art that matters and says something about our world — and to reflect on our reality in a conversation with this visceral art form,” Pavey said.
This “Cabaret” is also more special since he only has two performances.
“This role is such a dream of mine, and it’s lived up to and exceeded my expectations. I wasn’t expecting to carry so much weight and passion for this character, and also not expect to have such a fun time with it simultaneously,” Pavey said. “The process has been so great for me as an actor.”
The students who are double cast attended every rehearsal.
“We learned the material together, which was nice as we could help each other. But it was also cool because we both play the character drastically differently, and it’s really wonderful to see our different takes on the roles,” Pavey said.
“All of us that are double cast interpret and stylize the show and our characters in such a unique and different way, and I think that’s one of the coolest things of this double casting.”
Many in the cast identify as queer in some way, “and it is empowering to be able to tell this story as a company,” he said. “We all see this show as something much, much larger than just a fun musical (and it is so fun!!), but as something that is relevant for today and now.
“A big thank you to Shelley Cooper for doing this show in the first place — it is so important for our day and time as it tells a story of these people who start of having fun and being free and themselves, and that all changes by the end. It is beautiful and tragic,” Pavey said.
He agreed there are “many terrifying similarities” between the “Cabaret” climate and today’s America.
“Recent anti-semitism is surfacing, and queer people, and laws that target them, are reversing rights and othering these people,” Pavey said. “The audience in this show almost acts as another character and is complicit in the action like so many people were then and are now.
“And I think that’s another big thing about this show: the complicity of its events, and the destruction that caused then and is causing today.”
The performances will be at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and 1:30 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are available on the Augustana website.