Monday, June 22, 2009

Great Musical Moment: Cabaret

Set in 1931, there are two themes that are running parallel to each other in the movie. The first is, of course, the political turmoil in 1930s Germany with the rise of Nazism. The second sees the time as an era of sexual decadence and moral anarchy. Nothing is wrong, nothing is right. Either people are too poor or too rich. Old structures and ideas are disappearing and new ideas are emerging quickly on the horizon. All this and more is explored in “Cabaret” with a mix of style, splendour and yet, an acute consciousness to the underlying issues. There is beauty here but with a bleakness and honesty that is bold and brilliant! Bob Fosse (also the man behind the much-celebrated “Chicago”) deserves maximum credit for demolishing the existing clich├ęs of musicals and providing us in “Cabaret” with a work that, even 35 years later, is fresh and daring in ideas.

The movie is strewn with one great moment after another. Each song symbolises the stage at which the story is. The narrative is different from the usual musicals and somewhat similar to “Chicago.” It is particularly bold in exploring the area of alternate sexualities in cabaret numbers. And ultimately, the fun and life of the cabaret numbers is stands in stark contrast to its historical and political setting. The performances, particularly those of Liza Minelli and Joel Grey (for which, both won Oscars) are passionate and uninhibited. There is an authenticity throughout (partly arising from the fact that it was in fact shot in West Germany) which accentuates the impact of the glamour and the grime.

Arguably, the greatest moment in the film is the final song. As Liza Minelli is singing “Cabaret” on stage, it may be easy to assume that it represents the song, dance and cheerfulness of the cabaret. However, there is a much stronger emotional under-current to the song when seen in the context of the rest of the film. Liza Minelli’s performance, while entertaining, represents not happiness, but a sense of impending doom. The song has an underlying tone of anguish, loneliness, disappointment and frustration. The most obvious link one could draw is the rise of the Nazis. The political threats are being quickly dealt with and the popular sentiment is in their favour. Nothing seems to stop them from gaining power. Conservatism is quickly taking over the liberal sentiment. The stage at which its characters are only reinforces that view. *spoiler!* Sally (Liza Minelli) has just had an abortion and been left by Brian (Michael York) who has gone back to England. She no longer enjoys the affections of the Baron anymore either. The Jewish couple is doomed although they may not realise it just yet.

What makes the song truly a great musical moment is the fact that it represents all of the above sentiments and lays bare the futility of its attempt to divert one’s attention from what is really happening to the world. A solo performance with little gloss of any kind unlike the other songs of the film, it is easily the most powerful moment when seen in the context of the rest of the film. Liza Minelli’s superlative performance and Bob Fosse's direction are the reason why "Cabaret" remains an enduring classic. A truly great musical moment.


  1. Interesting.. although I've never heard of the actors :P

  2. Lol. Go to IMDB. Liza Minelli is the daughter of Judy Garland who was the girl in the Wizard of Oz.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.