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Mark Shenton: Where are the Cabarets and Follies of today?

Will Young in Cabaret at Milton Keynes Theatre. Photo: Pamela Raith Will Young in Cabaret at Milton Keynes Theatre. Photo: Pamela Raith
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In the course of four days recently I saw two productions of Kander and Ebb’s 1966 Broadway musical Cabaret – first the current national touring version, based on a 2006 West End revival directed by Rufus Norris, the other a third-year student production at ArtsEd – and I was struck by how a 51-year-old show can still seem so bold and radical.

It’s the combination of form and content, something that Kander and Ebb truly excelled at – they employed a similar technique in shows like Chicago and The Scottsboro Boys. This musical lives up to its title: “life is a cabaret, old chum”, goes the title song, and, set in a louche Berlin cabaret club, it has presentational songs set in the cabaret itself, with other narrative songs about its characters’ day-to-day predicaments that advance the plot.

It’s a similar trick to the one that Stephen Sondheim (and his book writer James Goldman) pull off audaciously in Follies, except in that work, the songs are often simultaneously presentational and expository of the characters’ inner lives.

Perhaps it’s hardly surprising that Cabaret and Follies were both originally directed by Harold Prince. He also applied his vivid sense of theatricality to other popular successes such as Evita and The Phantom of the Opera and all the other landmark Sondheim musicals of the 1970s, including Company, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd.

It was partly the symbiosis of the creative genius of the composers and writers, and his own interpretive genius that made each of those shows into the ground-breaking events they were. The same was true of the contributions of director/choreographers like Bob Fosse (Sweet Charity, Chicago), Michael Bennett (A Chorus Line, Dreamgirls) and Tommy Tune (Nine, Grand Hotel) that established some of the masterpieces they co-created.

But it was also bold producers who backed their visions in each case. Big musicals have always been expensive, but when shows like the magnificent Groundhog Day this year can cost (and lose much of) $18 million, the stakes are even higher. No wonder that producers tread warily around the already-familiar, instead of breaking new ground. Even that show thought it had bought itself some insurance thanks to the familiarity of the title, though Tim Minchin’s glorious achievement was to add further layers to its telling.

When I posted a comment about how impressive Cabaret remains half a century later, director James Baker – who directed the brilliant production of Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry’s Parade that put Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre on the map, as well as Yank! that transferred to the Charing Cross – posted a reply: “That’s partly a great thing and partly concerning. I think it’s a sign that musicals need to be braver in their content and response to a contemporary world. We need riskier new musicals that push the form and challenge audiences with greater agenda.”

It may not be happening enough, but it is happening: just think of London Road, Next to Normal and of course Hamilton. Another that began performances in the West End this week is Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. It really pushes the envelope.

But there’s also still a place for nakedly commercial shows, too: Bat Out of Hell was a massive hit at the London Coliseum over the summer (and is set to return in 2018), while next up on Broadway is SpongeBob SquarePants, adapted from the television show of the same name.

No, they’re not going to be Cabaret – but not every show can be.