Spoilers for Cabaret
Back when the West-End revival of Cabaret premiered in November 2021 there was some controversy around the casting of Eddy Redmayne – a straight chap – in the role of the Emcee, who had previously been played by queer icons Alan Cumming, Julian Clary, Will Young, Neil Patrick Harris and Joel Grey. Redmayne defended the decision and went on to knock it out the park and win an Olivier award. At the time I was disappointed, thinking yet another queer role had yet again gone to a straight person. Meanwhile, the posters for the show depicted numerous queer-presenting folks (but not Redmayne) and that just felt like rubbing salt in the wound. Zoom forward to last week and I’ve now seen Cabaret. And while it’s a blast one thing it really ain’t is queer.
Clifford Bradshaw is a young, American novelist who arrives in Berlin in 1929. On the train he meets Ernst, a friendly German chap who suggests Cliff seek lodgings at the house of Fraulein Schneider, a lonely, cynical woman. After securing a room Cliff goes to the Kit Kat Klub – a raucous, seedy nightclub full of all sorts and presided over by the mysterious and somewhat menacing Emcee. There, Cliff meets the one and only Sally Bowles, a cabaret performer. It’s not long before they’re living together in Cliff’s room and soon after that Sally realises she’s pregnant, although she’s not sure who the father is. Romance even blossoms for the world-weary Schneider as she falls for her tenant Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit vendor. Act 1 ends with their engagement party which is ruined when Ernst reveals himself to be a Nazi. In Act 2 things go from bad to worse as the Nazis rise to power. Fraulein Schneider breaks off the engagement, Herr Schultz leaves the boarding house, Sally gets an abortion and Cliff leaves Berlin. Life is most decidedly not a cabaret.
It’s a brilliant and tragic musical about anti-Semitism, the Nazis and people’s different reactions to tyranny – particularly those of denial and wilful ignorance. But one thing this musical is not about is queerness, especially as its central relationships are heterosexual – between Sally & Cliff, and Schneider & Schultz. However, in this version Cliff’s sexuality is briefly explored. At the Kit Kat Klub he’s approached by Bobby, a man who he had some sort of relationship with back in London (but it’s all quite vague). Cliff no longer seems keen to pursue things but the pair do briefly share a kiss on stage – the history of this kiss dates back (I think) to Sam Mendes’ West End revival of the show in 1993 and is very much not in the original 1966 version. Later Sally asks Cliff if he’s a homosexual, a question which makes him uncomfortable and he doesn’t answer, leading Sally to take back the question. Beyond this the nuances of Cliff’s sexuality are not explored and Bobby is largely forgotten – making their kiss feel more tokenistic than meaningful, as if the production really wanted to get something ‘gay’ in there despite how straight it is. Talking of straight, let’s not forget the Emcee, about whom there was all that fuss. Tbc!