New Year's Eve, Berlin, 1929.
Desire, decadence, despair.
Cliff, a struggling writer, escapes conservative middle-America in the Kit-Kat Club where gaiety is strictly enforced, where the outrageous and raunchy are celebrated, and where the outside world is ignored. There is inspiration to be found in the lives of his new neighbours: with their struggles, squabbles, adventures, and blossoming romances.
But a new and chilling wind is blowing through the streets of Berlin.
There was a Cabaret and there was a Master-of-Ceremonies and there was a city called Berlin in a country called Germany and it was the end of the world.
In 1929 the young British poet and novelist, Christopher Isherwood, travelled to Berlin to join his friend and mentor W.H. Auden on a short visit. Delighted by the sexual freedom he discovered in the capital of the Weimar Republic, and the opportunities it provided him to explore his homosexuality, Isherwood eventually stayed in Berlin until 1933. He taught English, partied, fell in love with a German boy named Heinz, and kept a detailed diary with the intention of using it as inspiration for his later writing.
Immediately upon leaving Berlin, Isherwood intended to write a huge, melodramatic, novel in the style of Balzac entitled "The Lost" which he felt sure would be able to capture the stories of his characters - many of whom were deemed outcasts by respectable society, and many of whom would be doomed by the rise of the Nazi party - during those last few years of the decadent and decaying Weimar Republic. Luckily for us, Isherwood was unable to write his huge sweeping novel. Instead, he produced the novellas: Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939) which are often published together as The Berlin Stories. These stories show just how much inspiration Isherwood drew from the real-life people around him, many of whom were later identified.
It was in Goodbye to Berlin that the characters of Sally Bowles, the "divinely decadent" cabaret singer, and Fraulein Schroeder, the caring landlady, first appeared. Here, also, were characters such as Natalie Landauer, the Jewish heiress, and Peter and Otto, a gay couple, who would stand to lose most during the coming Nazi regime. Even the title "Goodbye to Berlin" shows that Isherwood felt that the city he loved had been inextricably lost to Hitler.
Isherwood and his lover Heinz had left Germany in 1933, but Heinz was deported back in 1937 where he was convicted of draft-evasion and sentenced to prison. In 1939 Isherwood, together with his friend Auden, left Europe for America in what was seen by many as a flight from danger on the eve of the war. Isherwood did not hear from Heinz until 1945, when he discovered that Heinz had been forced to fight for Germany throughout the war, but had survived, and eventually escaped home from a POW camp. In Isherwood's words, "As I read and reread this letter, the feeling began to work through me painfully and joyfully, like blood through a numbed leg, that Berlin - or, at any rate, the Berliners - still existed, after all."
In the summer of 1951 the playwright John Druten decided to adapt one of the stories from Goodbye to Berlin - that of Sally Bowles - into a Broadway play which he entitled I Am A Camera after one of Isherwood's lines in the story: "I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking." The production was a huge critical success, and garnered many awards, including a Tony award for Best Leading Actress for Julie Harris who portrayed Sally Bowles. In fact, Isherwood later stated that, "Miss Harris was more essentially Sally Bowles than the Sally of my book, and much more like Sally than the real girl who long ago gave me the idea for my character."
Both I Am A Camera and The Berlin Stories were inspirations for the 1966 musical Cabaret, which has now become so famous that most of us are not even aware of the earlier versions of the work. The 1972 film version of Cabaret starring Liza Minnelli achieved yet more success when it won eight Academy Awards. In fact, the film version differs quite considerably from the stage version as the writers added several story-lines back in from The Berlin Diaries. Certainly, though, it does seem that within our cultural milieu the image of Cabaret and of Sally Bowles has become inextricably bound to that of Liza Minnelli.
In this current version, we aim - while staying true to the work of John Kander and Fred Ebb - to cast our sights back a little further to those original inspirations, and to Isherwood, who, on a 1952 return-trip commented, "Hadn't there been something youthfully heartless in my enjoyment of the spectacle of Berlin in the early thirties, with its poverty, its political hatred and its despair?"