Cabaret and the Anarchy of The Musical

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Last week I watched Cabaret and was pleasantly surprised. Yes, Liza Minnelli is hard to look at, but her dance moves (choreographed by Bob Fosse) more than made up for that. And, I ask you, who could more convincingly turn Michael York straight?

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So, here is the story of a wanna-be actress living in Berlin in 1930 and working for a swinging night club full of crazy, gender-bending antics. She meets a Gay, wants to bone him, gets rejected, shit happens, they bone. As a couple, they seem to work out great. They are both very forgiving of each other’s foibles (one’s a gay, one’s a slut) and they even sleep with the same man with only minor conflict! Eventually, Liza becomes pregnant, and fooling herself into thinking she could live the domestic life, she and Michael decide to get married. It’s not clear who the father of the baby is, but they both seem excited about settling down until…abortion. Who’s she fooling? She would never be happy settling down and being “just” a mother/wife in some podunk town; Liza has dreams, and she’s going to follow up on them. At the end of the movie, Michael’s studies in Berlin are over and he leaves for England, parting amiably with Liza who will, presumably until the Nazis ruin everything, continue pursuing her acting career.

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Musicals seem to be a hotbed of social upheaval. What is it about the genre that allows this kind of gender-bending, homosexual-loving free-for-all? Is it the idea that if characters can randomly burst into song, they should be able to do other equally absurd things like…dress like men when they clearly have boobies, or be happy and successful sex workers, or fuck two men at the same time without remorse? 

10101977What was nice about Cabaret, as compared to other musicals, is its unconventional ending. Many musicals challenge social norms until the last scene, when everything settles down into proper heterosexual unions. Take, for example, one of my favorite musicals: Paint Your Wagon. Lee Marvin, Jean Seaberg, and Clint Eastwood aren’t exactly a threesome, they’re more of a happy polyandrous union. What other genre can you find something so upsetting to the patriarchy than two dudes willing to take sexual commands from one woman? But, of course, everything evens out in the end, when Lee Marvin decides to leave the two young people alone together. Even a movie as culturally upsetting as The Rocky Horror Picture Show will manage to “right” all of its “wrongs” by the time the credits role.

The theorist Rick Altman talks about this a lot in his studies of musicals. He has pointed out that musicals seem to be open to reversing gender roles and even appearances (cross-dressing, transgenderism, etc), but in the end their moral compasses always seem to point Right. I’m not sure this entirely erases every social upset the films employ, however, as the reversals of gender roles earlier in the films aren’t usually punished. In Paint Your Wagon, for example, the film can end with a heterosexual union only because of their previous polyandry. Without setting up this unusual threesome, Jean and Clint would have never been left so freely to fall in love without angering Lee.

Cabaret2Regardless, it is nice to see a musical that sticks with its guns and remains morally outrageous throughout. Cabaret includes a successful heterosexual wedding, but only between the characters we hardly care about – the ones that bore us. Despite her funny hair and giant teeth, it’s Liza we side with, and we rejoice when she decides to continue with what she thinks is important. It is a triumphant ending. She didn’t give in to society by doing such a boring thing as get married, she is going to move on with her own life. Cabaret allows women to be selfish in ways that are approved by the film. That’s so rare. 

Too bad the Nazis had to be such little bitches.

6 Comments

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6 responses to “Cabaret and the Anarchy of The Musical

  1. Heather

    I was so amazed to find out that my super conservative aunt liked Cabaret (and other liberal musicals). I actually saw Cabaret for the first time with said aunt (she even owns a copy!). My aunt loves musicals. She’s very much into music, she’s a choir director, she’s been in musicals herself, she makes trips to Broadway, etc. But I was surprised that someone so conservative would like musicals like Cabaret. I can’t imagine she would like these movies (and subject material) if they weren’t musicals. Maybe musicals make these liberal stances on issues seem less…threatening. Like if you put liberal issues to catchy songs, they’re less menacing.
    Or maybe the musical format makes it seem more unreal? ‘I’m not really watching a movie that has gay people and talks of abortion, it’s just a musical! It’s a fantasy world!”
    Or maybe my aunt likes music so much that she can’t help but appreciate good music, even if it’s about liberal issues.

    Regardless, there’s definitely something tricky going on with those musicals…

    • I know! Isn’t it great? It seems to work that way with black and white films made before 1960 or so, too. As long as it’s old, more conservative people seem to be way more willing to accept it.

  2. Have you ever noticed that people (a.k.a. Mormons) are much more forgiving of subject matter if it’s presented to them in song?

  3. And by that, I mean “No on Prop 8. campaigns needed more singing.”

  4. Philip Weaver

    Interesting to note: the broadway musical has the male lead as straight.

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