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"What Would You Do?" : A Queer Utopian Vision of “Cabaret"

Seinen, Jonathan

In 1966, John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Joe Masteroff’s now classic musical "Cabaret" premiered on Broadway. An innovative piece of theater that combined conventional book scenes with metaphoric cabaret numbers representing the rise of fascism in 1930s Germany, "Cabaret" also stands out as an example of the significant role of a director in the development of a new musical. Director Harold Prince challenged his collaborators to make the production, set in the past, resonate in the present moment, asserting that the political changes that came to Germany with the rise of Nazism could also happen in 1960s America. Sam Mendes brought the next significant take on the musical to Broadway in 1998 in an intimate and sexually-charged production, reconfiguring the theater itself into a 1930s cabaret space.

In 2019, I directed a production of "Cabaret" as my Columbia University MFA Theatre Directing Thesis Production. Following the lead of Prince, I used the vision of a queer utopia to make the work resonate with a twenty-first century audience. Working against a post-war convention of conflating queerness and fascism in depictions of Nazism, this thesis paper traces how my production reconfigured the cabaret as a real space of LGBTQ+ community and resistance. Inspired by works such as José Esteban Muñoz’s "Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity", Jack Halberstam’s "The Queer Art of Failure", "Divine Decadence: Fascism, Female Spectacle, and the Makings of Sally Bowles" by Linda Mizejewski, and Robert Beachy’s "Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity", this thesis paper traces my investigation into the presence of minoritarian sexual and gender identities in Weimar era Berlin and my study of recent movements in queer theory. Through these sources, alongside a directorial approach that emphasized non-hierarchal and accountable collaboration, I sought to create a process that echoed the radical and inclusive welcome we were to present on stage. This glimpse of a queer utopia, and the reimagining of the character of Sally Bowles as an activist leader, aimed to ask an audience of today: if faced with similar catastrophic forces, “What would you do?”

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Theatre
Thesis Advisors
Bogart, Anne D.
Degree
M.F.A., Columbia University
Published Here
May 22, 2020

Notes

Keywords: Harold Prince; Fred Ebb; José Esteban Muñoz; Jack Halberstam; LGBTQ+ Theater