Saturday, 11 November 2017

Cabaret [1973]

So, after a bit of a gap, Dr Carrie Dunn and I continue my education in musicals with the 1972 film of Cabaret. It's directed by Bob Fosse, who won the Best Director Oscar beating Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather. If you'd told me that before I'd seen Cabaret, I'd have been annoyed on Francis Ford Coppola's behalf. In reality, though Cabaret is as fine a film as The Godfather, just a very different one and Fosse does a fantastic job of balancing all the various elements so that Cabaret turns out to be a brilliant film.

Cabaret has its direct roots in the Kander and Ebb Broadway musical, which debuted in 1966. But that, in turn, was adapted from a 1951 stage play, called I Am a Camera, which in turn produced a film, also called I Am a Camera in 1955. Even that isn't the beginning though. The stage play was adapted from Christopher Isherwood's excellent The Berlin Stories, which are made up of two semi-autobiographical novels Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye To Berlin (1939). Unlike the Isherwood stories, Cabaret makes Sally Bowles* (Liza Minelli) the central character, alongside Brian Roberts (Michael York).

There aren't a lot of songs in the film (for a musical) and all but one of those songs take place inside the Kit Kat Klub, where Sally Bowles sings. And almost all those songs are commentaries on what is happening. Indeed the film is less a musical and more a genuine attempt at a political cabaret. The only song that doesn't take place in the club is 'Tomorrow Belongs To Me', which is sung in a beer garden.

The whole 'Tomorrow Belongs To Me' sequence is a magnificent distillation of the appeal of the Nazi's to the German people. Without hammering the point home it illustrates the almost physical need that the Germans have for the 'pride' the Nazis are offering them. The Nazis crop up in the film directly rarely and when they do they're usually accompanied by violence.

Mainly. the film focuses on Sally Bowles and Brian Roberts as they make their way precariously through Berlin life. There is one other sub-plot, which is the romance between Fritz Wendel (Fritz Wepper) and Natalia Landauer (Marisa Berenson). Fritz appears to be a gigolo and gold digger but actually falls in love with Natalia, who is the daughter of a wealthy Jewish family. I won't go into too much detail about that as spoilers, but it provides a break from Sally and Brian's experiences.

Liza Minelli is astonishingly good at this. As good as her mother is in A Star is Born, but with perhaps less of the weight of her own troubles hanging from her. She's got an amazing voice and presence, which makes Michael York seem a little lightweight in comparison, but that might also be because York doesn't get songs to sing. He's 'just' acting. He's great but Minelli blows everyone away.

The other two performances worth noting are Joel Grey as The Master of Ceremonies, who functions not just as the Kit Kat Club's Master of Ceremonies but the Master of Ceremonies for the film itself really. Then there is Helmut Griem as Maximillian von Heune. the playboy Baron who picks up both Sally and Brian for a short while has fun with them and then heads off to South America leaving them 300 marks as a thank you. There's a conversation with von Heune in the car that

Brian and Sally's relationship goes through twists and turns, ups and downs, but it is always doomed to end because fundamentally Sally holds on to a dream of success that doesn't match the reality of life as a wife in a little cottage in Cambridge with the bi-sexual Brian. Unusually, even though there's the potential for a dark and bitter ending it doesn't really finish like that. In the end, it is two people who would never have met in any other circumstances falling in love but realising like grown-ups that the love itself is not enough.

The film itself though ends more ominously. The Nazis in the audience sit in silence and we say goodbye. The Kit Kat Club and its performers won't be likely to meet the approval of the Nazis. The film is less obvious about this than the stage play from what I've read, which is more explicit than implicit.

So, I thought this was marvellous and that Liza Minelli is just astonishing. Here's a wee clip for you to judge yourselves. It's Minelli singing Mein Herr

And on that note. 

Auf Weidersehen.

A bientot.

*In the books Sally Bowles is British, not American.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Mack & Mabel [Winston Churchill Hall, Ruislip]

This was a production by the Wembley Operatic Society, so not a West End super-production, although Winston Churchill Hall in Ruislip is a surprisingly large theatre that would appear to be a secret to almost everyone but the locals.

I should also confess that my friend - and the Muse of this blog, Dr Carrie Dunn, was in it as part of the chorus - so that's all my biases up front.

I have to say I enjoyed myself. I'm not sure Mack & Mabel is one of the great musicals. The story, which is based on the true story of the 'it's complicated' relationship between silent movie director Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand, a silent movie star. It's a bumpy ride with an unhappy ending, although productions sometimes end with the song 'I Promise You A Happy Ending' and avoid a discussion of the real events.

You could - if you were so inclined - make 'I Promise You A Happy Ending' drip with irony. I'm a sucker for that kind of thing so it is a good job I'm not a director of musical theatre. You can see also why I incline to opera with all its long, dark dying. But, I digress.

Director, Debbie Day, does a fine job with the production though. Not just by getting the best out of her cast but with some of the additional touches - such a silent movie 'clips' etc.

Hang on...I need to go back to the musical itself. I think its problem is it doesn't quite know what it wants to be. This is a subject I think Sondheim would do more justice to perhaps. It's part celebration of silent comedy Hollywood and a mockery of its growing artistic pretentions - see  'I Wanna Make The World Laugh', 'Hundreds of Girls' and 'Hit 'Em On The Head' - for that. And part tragic love story - 'I Won't Send Roses', 'When Mabel Comes Into The Room' and 'Time Heals Everything' but it can't quite decide whether to go down one route or the other.

When I was a lad and the world was in black and white they used to show silent comedy's on the main television channels so I was familiar with Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy. the Keystone Cops etc, which makes me sympathetic to that side of the story. I must have seen films with Mabel Normand in as she worked with Chaplin. Indeed, Chaplin's Tramp makes his debut in a Normand film 'Mabel's Strange Predicament' (1914)

The story of Mack and Mabel themselves is a messy one and Normand's life was a short-ish and scandal-filled one. It's the combination of that and the Hollywood story that makes this tonally odd.

However, the weakness of the musical itself, which had a bumpy ride on its original debut in 1974 shouldn't take anything away from this fun production. And I think fun is how you have to make your final judgements on these things. Did I enjoy myself? Yes, I did.

Carl Quaif is great as Mack Sennett and seems to be enjoying himself immensely. I loved Susan Smith as Mabel. The rest of the cast did a fine job too. Steve Benn's Fatty Arbuckle being a personal favourite.

So, this production has finished now but the Wembley Operatic Society (and societies like it) could always do with support. Their next production is 'Anything Goes' in November at the Winston Churchill Hall in Ruislip.