Recently, I remembered how I began the essay in some of my college applications, including the one that presumably helped secure my admission into the University of Virginia, where I studied history along with a healthy dose of dramatic literature. I had just seen the Tony Award-winning revival of John Kander and Fred Ebb's Cabaret, which charts the rise of Nazism in pre-World War II Germany while exploring the themes of love, self-preservation, self-sabotage and regret. In her final moments on stage, the performer Sally Bowles tells her lover, as he prepares to leave both her and Germany, "Dedicate your book to me." She sits broken, staring off into the distance, accepting her self-selected fate but making one final plea -- to the world, really -- to be remembered, not to fade into oblivion. In that core-shaking moment, I was struck by a sense of profound self-identification, as a young man on the precipice of adulthood, stymied by fear and insecurity. And upon reflection, I came to appreciate, for the first time, the theatre's ability to transcend the confines of pure entertainment.
As everyone seeks out the answer to what the 'it' show of this Tony Awards season is, there are three reasons why audiences should be directed to Studio 54 to see Roundabout Theatre Company's remounting of that same profoundly affecting revival -- and none of them have to do with the brilliance of director Sam Mendes and co-director and choreographer Rob Marshall; Alan Cumming's definitive Emcee; or Michelle Williams's devastating performance as Sally, which is so period-specific and beautifully rooted in the text that its detractors make me want to scream. The reasons are, instead, theatre's ability to serve as the following:
Social commentary. Through Sally, Cabaret sheds light on the Western fascination with fame as self-worth, attention as validation -- a notion that resonates perhaps even more deeply today than when the musical premiered in 1966 or in 1998, when the revival under discussion opened on Broadway. After all, we are currently living in an age defined by pervasive reality television, digital technologies and social media that seem to promise us all our own respective "15 minutes" in a spotlight. Sally is a broken soul, but, in her mind, adoration from something, someone -- anything, anyone -- will make her whole again, until life circumstances force her to face reality.
A window into history, contextualizing emotionally a certain time and place. Different periods and peoples can be understood and appreciated only if they are emotionalized, highlighting the constants of the human condition. By seeing its impact on raw personal portraits with which I empathized in Cabaret, the atrocities of Nazism and the dawn of the Holocaust resonated with me in a way that the cold, detached, facts-based textbook treatment of the subject does not allow.
A stark reminder that we see what we choose to see. Cabaret is fascinatingly structured, mirroring the societal infiltration of Nazism in the 1930s. It is insidious in its nature. As an audience, we are swept up in the decadence, debauchery, passion and lust that is presented. There are warnings scattered throughout of the malice that is about to descend upon us, but, in true Sally form, we ignore until we are trapped, witnessing the implications of a willful ignorance that we made a conscious decision to espouse. Upon visiting the rebirth of this revival a few weeks ago, I had a confidence in knowing that, as global citizens, we are too well-informed today to allow human rights atrocities of such a grand scale to occur. Then, one word gravitated to the forefront of my mind: Syria.