One of my favorite soundtrack albums is the one for the 1972 film Cabaret. It also happens to be the very first soundtrack album I ever purchased, after seeing the film as a teen. Not only is Cabaret a great film, I also think it’s one of the best film soundtracks ever, and a fun listen from start to finish.
Cabaret was directed by acclaimed dancer and choreographer Bob Fosse (whose first film as director, Sweet Charity, was a flop). It stars Liza Minnelli as American singer/nightclub performer Sally Bowles, Joel Grey as the androgynous and flamboyant emcee of the Kit Kat Klub, and Michael York as a sexually conflicted English writer and teacher. The film is loosely based on the 1966 Broadway musical Cabaret by John Kander and Fred Ebb, which was itself adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical novel The Berlin Stories, and the 1951 play I Am a Camera. The story takes place in Berlin during the waning days of the Weimar Republic in 1931, when the Nazi Party was rapidly gaining power. Only a few songs from the original stage musical were used for the film, with Kander and Ebb writing new ones to replace those that were discarded.
Because the film contained – for the time period – a considerable amount of sexual innuendo, profanity, references to both heterosexual and gay casual sex, anti-Semitism and abortion, it was initially given an X rating, but later re-rated “Restricted”. Despite those early roadblocks and controversy, the film went on to win eight Academy Awards – Best Actress (for Liza Minnelli), Best Supporting Actor (for Joel Grey), Best Director (for Bob Fosse), Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Sound, Best Original Song Score and Best Film Editing – and still holds the record for most Oscars earned by a film not honored for Best Picture. (The film had the unfortunate timing of being up against the masterpiece The Godfather.)
Unlike many typical musicals where the characters often break into song in various random settings, Cabaret is really more a drama with musical numbers, all but one of which is performed on stage in the Kit Kat Klub nightclub. As such, the musical numbers are what is known as ‘diegetic’, in that they’re used to tell the story narrative through their lyrics. All of the songs are fantastic and memorable, but I’ll touch on some of the highlights. The delightful opening track “Willkommen”, sung by Joel Grey as emcee, welcomes us to the Kit Kat Klub and sets the tone for the film, which is ‘enjoy your life today, because we never know what tomorrow may bring’: “Leave your troubles outside. So, life is disappointing, forget it. In here, life is beautiful. The girls are beautiful. Even the orchestra is beautiful.”
The rousing “Mein Herr” is our introduction to Sally Bowles, who sings of her sexual independence and desire to play the field and remain uncommitted, getting what she wants from men and then discarding them. She blithely gives her latest paramour the heave ho: “You have to understand the way I am, mein herr. A tiger is a tiger, not a lamb, mein herr. You’ll never turn the vinegar to jam, mein herr. So I do…What I do…When I’m through…Then I’m through…And I’m through…Toodle-oo!”
But then she later changes her tune on the hopeful torch song “Maybe This Time”, where she shares her hopes that perhaps this time she’ll have success at romance with Brian, whom she’s fallen for. The song became one of the signature tracks in Minnelli’s repertoire.
Another favorite is the hilarious “Money, Money”, a song celebrating hedonism and all the joys that having a little money can bring. Minnelli and Grey’s vampy, over the top performance and on stage chemistry is delicious to watch and hear, and I love the numerous little sound effects performed by the band.
The one album cut not sung at the Kit Kat Klub is “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” a song that begins as an uplifting ballad extolling the beauty of the German countryside, then transforms into a Nazi anthem celebrating the German fatherland as it enters a new and greater future.
And of course, there’s the wonderful title track “Cabaret”, which appears toward the end of the film. The song sums up once again what the film is about, as Sally Bowles emphatically urges us to live life to the fullest as everything falls apart around her: “I used to have a girlfriend known as Elsie, with whom I shared four sordid rooms in Chelsea. She wasn’t what you’d call a blushing flower…As a matter of fact she rented by the hour. The day she died the neighbors came to snicker: ‘Well, that’s what comes from too much pills and liquor.’ But when I saw her laid out like a Queen, she was the happiest corpse I’d ever seen. / Start by admitting, from cradle to tomb, it isn’t that a long a stay. Life is a Cabaret, old chum, It’s only a Cabaret, old chum. And I love a Cabaret.”
Everything comes full circle in the final track “Finale”, as Joel Grey asks “Where are your troubles now? Forgotten! I told you so“, accompanied by the same jaunty melody we heard in “Willkommen”. But then the tone turns dark and ominous, signaling that these good times are about to come to an abrupt end.