Life is a cabaret

I don’t remember exactly when I first saw the movie “Cabaret”, but it must have been when I was in my early teens (late 1970s). As a young “soon-to-be” gay boy living in a country town, it was life-changing.

I’ll never forget the scene when it was revealed Brian Roberts “liked men”. It was such an affirming scene for me at such a young age. I then went on to develop a huge crush on the actor playing the role, Michael York.

And of course, there was Liza Minelli in the role of Sally Bowles. I’d already known about Liza through her mother, Judy Garland who I absolutely adored. How could I be anything but gay with such an instinctive cultural pedigree?

And then there was the storyline, set in the Weimar republic years in Germany, as the NAZIs were coming to power. I studied German all the way through to the HSC, along with Modern History, and so my interest in that storyline was heightened.

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen the movie since. However, I don’t think I’ve ever seen “Cabaret” on the big screen before, and that’s part of why tonight’s screening was so special.

Tonight, I went to a 50-year screening of the film, at Newtown’s Dendy Theatre.

As I listened to the response of my fellow cinema-goers, it was pretty obvious they were all fans of the movie too. Everyone knew the famous lines and often laughed out loud before the sentence was finished.

And of course, the thing about seeing these cinema classics now is that the digital “print” is so good. You see none of the imperfections you might have seen when it screened at cinemas back in the 1970s.

The memorable moment when the member of the Hitler Youth led the beer garden crowd in a rendition of “Tomorrow belongs to me” moved me tonight, as much as it did when I first saw it. In fact, a tear rolled down my cheek, as I thought about life then and now.

Over the last few years I’ve become increasingly worried we’re in similar times to that of the 1920s/1930s. The rise of fascism. The scapegoating of groups within society.

The personal issues, too. In 1920s Germany, there was a lot of open-mindedness around sexuality. Though things are probably a little more advanced in many parts of the world these days, there’s still a feeling that we could easily revert back to less tolerant times.

And of course, the music by Kander and Ebb and the performances by Joel Gray and Liza Minelli are awesome.

The story of “Cabaret” is based on the largely biographical works of Christopher Isherwood. The story was then turned into a play, and then into a musical.

Renmark Theatre Group 1991
Though I can’t remember the exact details, I was in an amateur theatrical play during my time in Renmark that might have been the original play. I remember dressing up in gorilla masks for the scene for the song, “If you could see her through my eyes, she wouldn’t look Jewish at all”.

And there’s the signature song. Who could not agree with the sentiment?

I used to have this girlfriend known as Elsie
With whom I shared four sordid rooms in Chelsea
She wasn’t what you’d call a blushing flower
As a matter of fact she rented by the hour
The day she died the neighbors came to snick her
Well, that is what comes from too much pills and liquor
But when I saw her laid out like a queen
She was the happiest corpse I’d ever seen
I think of Elsie to this very day
I remember how she’d turned to me and say
“What good is sitting”
“All alone in your room?”
“Come hear the music play”
“Life is a cabaret, old chum”
“Come to the cabaret”

Songwriters: John Kander / Fred Ebb

After tonight’s cinema screening, I think I’ll watch it again sometime soon.

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  1. Rod McAdam

    It is a wonderful movie. Glad you enjoyed the 50th anniversary screening.
    I have a very different reaction to the ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ scene. Makes my skin crawl knowing what the Nazis would go on to perpetrate. At least, ultimately, tomorrow didn’t belong to them.

    1. James O'Brien

      I hope I didn’t write down incorrectly what I meant about “Tomorrow belongs to me”. It was tears about what the Nazis did, and what I think could be happening now. And the way people can get caught up in things.

  2. Andrew

    My favourite film too. Tomorrow Belongs to Me gives some idea of simple and effective propaganda.

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