Cabaret; London’s rip roaring, heart soaring and endlessly classy musical revival

Elliot Salmon takes us through the recent revival and boost in popularity of the much loved and revered musical Cabaret

When I was asked to write this piece about Cabaret The Musical, I was immediately flooded with thoughts of inspiration. So much so, I kept waking up in the middle of the night with a new point or idea which I quickly added to the notes app on my phone. I haven’t quite stopped thinking about this show and it’s been two weeks. I’ve been a self-proclaimed musical theatre fan my entire life, and as I’ve gotten older, my taste has refined drastically. It is enormously difficult for a show to blow me away now, and yet somehow, Cabaret managed to do so in two hours and forty five minutes. This theatrical revival is a triumph in every way, and I feel eternally grateful to have had a seat in the Kit Kat Club. In order to fully re-immerse myself in the world of Sally Bowles and Emcee, I felt it was entirely necessary to listen to the Cabaret soundtrack as I write. There is so much to say about the theatrical experience I had in London’s West End but first, I think we should start at the very beginning, where the popularity of this story began, with Liza Minnelli herself. 

The year is 1972, the month is February and Cabaret, the movie musical spectacle, directed by none other than Bob Fosse himself, has entered the scene. The story is based on Christopher Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical tales about a Weimer-era Berlin during the Jazz Age. The story was adapted for the stage in 1966 before it became a movie, and had a successful run on Broadway for four years. The movie follows American cabaret singer Sally Bowles (played by none other than Miss Liza Minnelli herself) who meets a British Academic named Brian Roberts (Michael York), who is about to finish up with his university studies. Sally can be described as someone who is sexually adventurous and confident while Brian is unsure of his own sexuality. The pair discover a sense of comfort within one another and eventually become lovers until the arrival of the wealthy Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem) which confuses matters even more for each of them. Their heated love triangle plays out against the rise of the Nazi party and the subsequent collapse of the Weimar Republic. What’s unique about this film adaptation is that the story is partially told through glamorous performances in Berlin's Kit Kat Club, where Sally is destined to be a star. The club is symbolic as it represents a safe haven for both Sally and anyone who dared to live authentically in the 1930’s. There is a tender message of love and acceptance tucked safely beneath the rise of political upheaval that Cabaret doesn’t shy away from. 

It is enormously difficult for a show to blow me away now, and yet somehow, Cabaret managed to do so in two hours and forty five minutes

The movie was an immediate hit, and launched the career of Liza Minnelli, who stole the hearts of audiences across the globe with her first time singing on screen. She even won an Oscar for her enormously nuanced portrayal of Sally Bowles. Her rendition of ‘Maybe This Time’ and the titular song have been etched into the brains of Cabaret fans across the globe for decades. Upon the film's release, American film critic Roger Ebert wrote that "This is no ordinary musical. Part of its success comes because it doesn't fall for the old cliché that musicals have to make you happy. Instead of cheapening the movie version by lightening its load of despair, director Bob Fosse has gone right to the bleak heart of the material and stayed there well enough to win an Academy Award for Best Director”. Similarly, critic A.D. Murphy wrote that "The film version of the 1966 John Kander-Fred Ebb Broadway musical Cabaret is most unusual: it is literate, bawdy, sophisticated, sensual, cynical, heart-warming, and disturbingly thought-provoking. Liza Minnelli heads a strong cast. Bob Fosse's generally excellent direction recreates the milieu of Germany some 40 years ago." Due to the movie's success, the stage musical went on to have many glowing revivals in both the West End and Broadway with each production leaving behind a fabulously memorable legacy.

In May 2021, the London theatre scene was shaken when it was announced that Eddie Redmayne and Jessie Buckley were cast in the beloved main roles of Emcee and Sally Bowles in a new production directed by Rebecca Frecknall. The show is designed by Tom Scutt, choreographed by Julia Cheng with musical supervision and direction by Jennifer Whyte, lighting design by Isabella Byrd, sound design by Nick Lidster and casting by Stuart Burt. In addition to Redmayne and Buckley, the original London cast also featured Omari Douglas as Cliff Bradshaw, Liza Sadovy as Fraulein Schneider, Elliot Levey as Herr Schultz, Stewart Clarke as Ernst Ludwig and Anna-Jane Casey as Fraulein Kost. The highly anticipated revival began previews on November 15, 2021 in the Playhouse Theatre (newly refurbished as the Kit Kat Club) and quickly became London’s hottest musical ticket. A year later, the production won a record breaking 7 Olivier Awards making it the most award-winning revival in Olivier history.

Cabaret has created a unique niche for themselves in that ever since the show's announcement, famous faces from across the globe have joined the cast

The roles of Sally Bowles and Emcee are undoubtedly the most important shoes to fill. After Eddie Redmayne and Jessie Buckley’s phenomenal run, many were left wondering who would step in and take over. Cabaret has created a unique niche for themselves in that ever since the show's announcement, famous faces from across the globe have joined the cast. The show's social media accounts have generated a large buzz since opening. Their Instagram account @kitkatclubldn is the number one location for news and updates about the musical. They utilised this following to build up interest in the main role rotations most recently with the news that It’s a Sin’s Callum Scott Howells and The Handmaid’s Tale star Madeline Brewer would be stepping down and Sex Education’s Aimee Lou Wood and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie alum John McCrea would be taking over from 13 February 2023.

 As if there weren’t already enough incredible things to look forward to when you book your ticket, “Before the show, guests are invited to enjoy the club with drinks, dining and pre-show entertainment all on offer. When booking, guests will receive a 'club entry time' and, for the richest experience and to immerse themselves fully in the club, we encourage people to arrive as close to this specified time as possible.” The website for this hugely popular West End stage revival is scarce with its information. If you are looking for an in-depth trailer for this show, you won’t find one. Every shred of detail is saved for the night. Now, it’s well known (even if we don’t want to admit it) that you can watch almost any bootleg of a show on YouTube. Musical theatre shows have been the victims of prohibited recordings over the years and Cabaret is distinctly aware of that so precautions are in place to ensure that no one can record this exclusive and special night. Upon arrival at the club, your bags are checked before you are handed a sticker to place on the back camera of your phone. Much like Sally Bowles’ first song ‘Don’t Tell Mama’, this production ultimately echoes the exact same sentiment through its secrecy. 

As I departed the Kit Kat Club after seeing Cabaret, I conjured up a glowing review that I immediately shared on my Instagram which read “Cabaret is a rip roaring, heart-soaring and breathtaking production that knocks the wind out of you with every beat. What a treat it was to see this gorgeous musical.” I still stand by this review and I can only hope that one day I will step foot in the Kit Kat Club alongside fellow dreamers to watch Sally Bowles and Cliff Bradshaw’s tale of love and loss unfold once more.