I did a paper in college about how Cabaret was basically the death knell of the traditional musical and, these days, I probably couldn’t back that up (but back when it was much harder to research, I made a pretty good argument) but I’d still argue that it was a harbinger. By being so incredibly successful ( about $250M in today’s money) and utterly abandoning the traditional (and I probably can’t even back up “traditional” given the complex history of the musical) form. But the die was already cast by 1972, if you look at the (few) musicals made, they’re for kids (Snoopy Come Home), they’re historical/fantasy (1776, Man of La Mancha), or the music is ambient (like Lady Sings the Blues or this one). And I think it represented a shift in the ability of people to accept the form. “Nobody bursts out into song,” people say. And so passed musicals that dealt with real issues like labor disputes or racism or just poor life choices.
It’s not really Cabaret‘s fault. But it sure didn’t help.
And the funny thing is that, while I remembered how tight the movie was as a musical, I had forgotten how seamy it is as a drama. The dissolute Sally Bowles (Oscar winner Liza Minelli) strikes up a relationship (after we’re given to think she’s had a string of failed relationships) with the sexually confused Brian Roberts (Michael York) which finds complications with the completely decadent Baron Fancypanzer (Helmut Griem). There’s also a subplot with another fake-romance-gone-real between Fritz and Natalia, which is complicated by the fact that Natalia is a Jewess and it’s 1931 in Germany.
It’s a perfect fit for (Oscar Winner) Bob Fosse who was certainly of the decadent times (the West in the ’70s, not the West in the ’30s) but not oblivious to their portent. And it’s brilliantly done. The music is so thoroughly removed from the action that the Master of Ceremonies (Oscar winner Joel Grey) has no name and takes no part in the actual story—which fact did not keep him from winning the Oscar for best supporting actor. At the same time, it’s part of the woof-and-warp of the film. It would be done many times after this, but never better.
And I had forgotten—and we’re entering spoiler territory here—that our heroine resolves the dramatic tension of the story with an abortion.
It’s an awful, awful period in cinema. (Note that the movie snatched most of the Oscars away from The Godfather, where the hero is a cold-blooded murderer.) It’s still a great movie, and I find if I can spread watching the movies out from this period, I’m not overcome with their ennui and ugliness. (Cabaret is Technicolor, but it’s the under-saturated, “realism” that was typical for the era.) The music is quite good and the campy, ugly cabaret segments are well put together and often cutting.
The kids liked it, but I think they were a bit taken aback.