The CM Performing Arts Center greets audiences with a sneaky “Willkommen” this month with its latest production of Kander and Ebb’s classic mid-20th century musical “Cabaret.” The musical was last performed on the CM stage in 2004 at the end of Broadway’s provocative revival starring Alan Cumming. Now, nearly 20 years later, CM’s first director, Andrew J Beck, is ready to bring audiences an eerily timely take on the poignant and unapologetically sinister music.
Mr. Beck – a prolific actor and director across Long Island – is no stranger to “Cabaret.” He starred in three separate productions of the musical, but now he is fulfilling his desire to direct the play.
“I wanted to direct it, especially in a theater as special as this, because it has an important and unique message and delivering that message is very cathartic,” he said. “Controversial, contentious theater that pushes boundaries is what excites and attracts me and Cabaret is definitely one of those shows.”
“Cabaret” opened on Broadway in 1966 under the direction of Harold Prince, who would earn his place as an icon in musical theater history with acclaimed credits such as Sweeney Todd, Evita and Phantom of the Opera. Based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, the musical is set in the squalid Kit Kat Klub on the eve of Hitler’s rise to power in Weimar, Germany and depicts the intertwined stories of a cabaret singer, a writer American and residents of Berlin.
Despite its eventual success and respected place in musical theater history, the show faced heavy criticism for its “immoral” subject matter upon its arrival on Broadway. However, it paved the way for the future of concept musicals with an overriding central message over the plot. The musical would find new life through Bob Fosse’s film adaptation starring Liza Minelli and subsequent revivals – the first, also directed by Prince, in 1987 – which allowed the creators to overhaul the show, ultimately improving the play.
Evidenced by the revival directed by Sam Mendes in 1993, which put the entire show on the Kit Kat Club stage, the musical proved to be a play that lends itself to innovation. Mr Beck said he approached the material with the musical’s origins in mind. He explained that Kander and Ebb “drew a lot of inspiration from old German cabarets and musicals” and the theatrical techniques of Bertolt Brecht, the influential German playwright. Mr. Beck focused on using “Verfremdungseffeckt” – defined by alienation and distancing – in his direction.
“It forces an audience to really take a step back and intellectualize what’s happening on stage,” he explained. “When you see a character breaking the fourth wall or seeing an actor change the scene, those are examples of that distancing. We use that technique a lot in this show. History, history and numbers intertwine to create this frightening and infernal universe.”
Despite its Jazz Age setting, Mr. Beck suggested that the politically motivated musical remains relevant in the current climate where discussion of fascism is ongoing in the media.
“The characters in this musical are having a great time in this place of debauchery, while all around them Nazism is growing and political unrest is around the corner,” he said. “Some figures know this and are vigilant, some are indifferent to it, and some are powerless to prevent it from greatly affecting their lives. The disenfranchised Germans were calling for political change at this point and this fascist figure promised that ‘he would fix it all.
Mr. Beck said he was delighted and grateful to have the opportunity to conduct “Cabaret” at CM in particular. He has acted in 5 productions there and considers the theater a “very supportive space”.
“CM is a very special theater for me.”
“Cabaret” takes place at the CM Performing Arts Center in Oakdale from September 17 to October 1
Tickets are available on CMPAC.com