Sugar Rush

Life is no Cabaret, my friends.

An animated cartoon by German humorist Walter Moers that's causing a fair amount of international controversy shows Hitler sitting on the toilet in his bunker as the Allies move in, grumbling that the war isn't fun anymore, no one's listening to him, and it's all Churchill's fault. Later, wherever he turns -- as he looks into the mirror or slides into a bathtub full of suds -- he sees a horde of rubber duckies wearing Hitler mustaches mocking him in song: "Adolf, you old Nazi pig, don't you see it's time to surrender?"

I find the cartoon funny, but an awful lot of people don't: How can Moers make fun of the architect of the Holocaust? I'm guessing these people are also troubled by The Producers, with its hilarious and show-stopping "Springtime for Hitler."

Since I've no objection to either of these works, I'm not sure myself why Cabaret, a musical created in 1966 and based on Christopher Isherwood's stories of Berlin in the '30s, bothers me -- but I find that it does. Perhaps it's the disjunction between the toe-tapping music and the horror of the approaching cataclysm, though this jarring disjunction is precisely the point. Perhaps it's because the musical seems to make a connection between the homosexuality at the Kit Kat Klub and fascism, a connection common in some virulently homophobic literature (which also denies that gay people were killed in concentration camps). Perhaps it's less the show itself than the uncomprehending response of some members of the audience ("That was fun," I heard a woman say to her husband as I left). Or perhaps I've been oversensitized by my summer trip to Slovakia, during which I sought out every scrap of information I could find on my refugee father, who died when I was four. I also sat in a pleasant Bratislava apartment with my 78-year-old cousin, Lucka, and her 80-year-old friend, Margaret, who served us Nescafé and vanilla ice cream. The setting was exactly what you'd expect: dark wooden furniture, lace-edged doilies, sepia photographs. The conversation was pleasant and polite. But I could feel the strength of the bond between these two women, best friends, who shared books and music and met for coffee every week. They were both widows. They had both survived Auschwitz.

Melinda Dickson as Sally Bowles in Cabaret.
Melinda Dickson as Sally Bowles in Cabaret.

Earlier, I had spent several evenings mining Lucka's memories, writing down every detail she could remember about our family, communicating in a mix of her broken English and my fractured German, waving our hands around, consulting the dictionary and laughing a lot. She was voluble and expressive, happy to talk about our Austrian grandfather and his two St. Bernards, Hedy and Cesar; her childhood years above her parents' little shop; the small, all-Jewish school she went to; the thrill she felt on her first visit to Budapest -- even though she was fleeing Nazi persecution -- where she, a country girl, danced with young men and experienced her first opera. She talked about how she and her mother -- my aunt Ida -- had been betrayed by a woman in the house where they were hiding. But every time she reached the point where they arrived at Auschwitz, she stopped. She was tired. It was late. "We'll finish tomorrow." And finally, as my visit was coming to an end and there was no escaping some kind of resolution, she said, "Then it was finished. We were in Auschwitz, and you've read all about that."

I had, and I still do. Book after book, hardening myself against an emotional response. When I got home I bought a new history of Auschwitz -- or at least one I hadn't read before -- but the thing had come too close. I had to stop reading after twenty pages.

That bond between Lucka and Margaret was their shared understanding, and the fact that it never needed to be spoken of.

Cabaret is centered on a very young English chanteuse by the name of Sally Bowles, who sings in a seedy Berlin nightclub called the Kit Kat Klub. Although most of the songs -- by John Kander and Fred Ebb -- are bouncily irresistible, they're also debauched, with an unsettling undertone of menace. The central figure is the sexually ambiguous, apparently all-powerful Emcee, played at Littleton Town Hall by Nick Sugar, who also choreographs and directs. Sugar might have been born to play this role. He makes the character a mocking, sexually ravenous omnivore -- boys, girls, men, women, it's all the same to him -- with an undertone of sadism and an overlay of irony. The Kit Kat dancers are pale and ravaged, writhing kids undone by violence and drugs.

Sally Bowles meets up with an aspiring American novelist -- the usual innocent abroad -- called Clifford Bradshaw, and inveigles her way into the cheap room he rents from a Fräulein Schneider. Sally's a waif and a naif, ignorant of politics, greedily self-absorbed, and Clifford finds her fascinating. The two of them enjoy the delicious decadence of Weimar Germany together, but eventually his growing awareness of evil and danger and her self-destructive willfulness doom the relationship.

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