Anyone who has seen a version of the musical “Cabaret” will recall the dazzling, provocative world of the Kit Kat Club, a fictional nightclub in pre-World War II Berlin. At the top of the show, a vivacious emcee, originated by Joel Grey, beckons us inside enticingly. “We have no troubles here!” he promises. “Here, life is beautiful.”
The iconic musical, created by Kander and Ebb with book writer Joe Masteroff, offers an intoxicating glimpse into Weimar decadence. The Kit Kat Club’s star performer, Sally Bowles, and her paramour, an American novelist named Cliff, appear to be almost fantastical, offering each other — and the audience — a taste of wish fulfillment. But there is a second narrative in “Cabaret,” a subtler presence that is equally essential to the work. It is the story of a Jewish character, the show’s only one, who personally experiences Germany’s shifting tide.
Herr Schultz, a humble Jewish fruit vendor who quietly and sweetly woos the owner of his boardinghouse, Fraulein Schneider, is a supporting role, yet one could argue that the show’s themes rest on his shoulders. As anti-Semitism builds throughout the narrative, Herr Schultz’s relationship to Fraulein Schneider, a gentile, is increasingly at risk, as is his own security. Carrying this role in the current revival of the musical, which opened last week at Studio 54, is theater veteran Danny Burstein who takes on his 15th Broadway role with this performance.
While this production features the same director, Sam Mendes, and the same co-director/choreographer, Rob Marshall, as the award-sweeping 1998 revival, Burstein asserts that he and his fellow actors have been given ample freedom to explore new dimensions to their characters. “Sam and Rob are genius guys who keep adding new things,” Burstein tells The Jewish Week in a recent phone interview.
Much of the musical’s aesthetic does follow the 1998 version, including a transformation of Studio 54 into the decadent Kit Kat Club, complete with cabaret tables and colored fringed lamps. But there are new elements to this version, most notably an entirely new cast, save for the emcee, reprised by Alan Cumming.
As Burstein began to envision the character of Herr Schultz, he found himself picturing the Jewish European photographer Roman Vishniac, whom Burstein had met once as a teenager. “I thought about the look I wanted,” he says, “I shaved my hair back and grew a mustache [like Vishniac]. And I wanted Herr Shultz to walk differently. He’s older than I am. I wanted that feel. It’s a guy who works 14 hours a day, so he has a different walk. I like discovering all those little nuances.”
Burstein also found personal resonance in portraying a Jew living in Germany during those turbulent years. Burstein “knew a lot about this particular time anyway” but spent additional time doing research about European Jewry and the ascent of Nazism. “I think anybody who’s Jewish has a natural curiosity and a responsibility to know about it.”
Though, at a certain point, he adds, “I had to stop doing my research because my character is absolutely sure that this will all pass. He can’t know that all that tragedy is going to happen. In fact, he’s positive it’s not going to.”
The narrative of “Cabaret,” based on the play, “I Am a Camera,” which itself was based on Christopher Isherwood’s novel, “Goodbye to Berlin,” shows Herr Schultz’s relationship with Fraulein Schneider blossom until the mounting animosity against Jews threatens his business and his prospects for marrying the woman he loves. Sally Bowles — played in this production by film actress Michelle Williams — may get the heartbreaking musical number near the show’s end, but it is Herr Schultz who experiences Berlin’s dismantling most acutely.
This isn’t the first time Burstein has taken on characters that are guided by their Jewish identity: just last year he played Matt Friedman in Lanford Wilson’s “Talley’s Folly.” The actor admits that what excites him most are characters that are entirely new to him and that “terrify” him when he takes them on. Now a four-time Tony nominee, he has played such varied roles on Broadway as Aldolpho in “The Drowsy Chaperone,” Buddy Plummer in Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies,” the boxing trainer Tokio in Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy, and, most famously, Luther Billis in Lincoln Center Theater’s 2008 revival of “South Pacific.”
This past theater season has also provided Burstein with an immersive experience in German characters and their accents. “This has been my German year,” he says. “I had to have a German accent for ‘The Snow Geese’ earlier this season with Mary Louise Parker, and then I went right into ‘Die Fledermaus’ at the Met. And each vocal coach that you work with has a slightly different attitude toward what the German accent should be. Your biggest fear is that you sound like one of the bad characters from ‘Hogan’s Heroes.’”
Beyond the accent and physical characteristics, Burstein, the son of a Jewish father and Costa Rican mother who identifies strongly as a Jew, has worked on illuminating Herr Schultz’s experience as a Jew in the presence of prejudice. A particularly dramatic moment for his character occurs at a party hosted by Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider in honor of their engagement. A guest of theirs arrives, and as he removes his overcoat, a Nazi armband is visible on his sleeve.
“Sam [Mendes] is very smart,” Burstein observes. “He doesn’t need big swastikas everywhere to let you know, ‘This is bad.’ It’s just a guy who takes off his overcoat. It’s so smartly written. And so simple. He takes off his coat and he’s wearing that damn armband, and then everything you thought and everything you knew has changed.”
Reflecting on the musical as a whole, Burstein says, “Ultimately, it’s a cautionary tale. Don’t be naïve to the evils around you. Participate and take part in what is going on in your government. Don’t be silent.”
As Burstein sees it, what makes Cabaret, or any show for that matter, a “Jewish” musical is more about the emotions that ripple outward. “It’s the humor,” he says. “It’s the minor keys. It’s just a sound. It’s a longing, a pathos.”
“Cabaret” is playing at Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St. For tickets, call (212) 719-1300 or go to cabaretmusical.com.