I must have seen the 1972 movie Cabaret 30 times. I watched it with people who didn’t like musicals, a guy who thought Liza Minnelli looked like a duck (whom I don’t talk to anymore), kids so young that I started trying to explaining the Weimar aesthetic, only to realize halfway through that I had to tell them who Hitler was first. Still, I had never seen him on stage, and at the time the current West End production started I thought I probably wouldn’t, being averse to super-expensive tickets on principle. It’s a weird objection. I am in favor of performing artists at the top of their game being well paid, and I strongly support that the performing arts break even. I just can’t spend £200 on something that lasts such a short time.
Mr. Z finally convinced me with a PowerPoint presentation plotting the units of human pleasure against the number of birthday gifts it could represent. By the time night fell, I was so taken with the business that I stepped out in a mink stole belonging to MZ’s great-great-aunt The 12-year-old disapproves of fur, of course, but I argued that she was over 100 years old, so no matter how you sliced her, those minks would definitely not be alive.
It was the night of one of Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak’s debates. So while Truss was showing off her new plan to create hyperinflation – telling the world that everything would be fine, because she would be in charge and she believed in Britain – I was watching Money, Money. You’ll remember the lyrics, of course: “When you got no shoes on your feet/ And your coat is paper thin/ And you look like you’re thirty pounds underweight.”
It sounded so historic, that song. Imagine that, kids, times were so lean that even the gypsy classes were hungry and couldn’t afford shoes. Imagine inequality so fierce that some people owned yachts while others literally died of hardship. I really couldn’t imagine a time when we would just call it “autumn”.
There are things I had forgotten about Cabaret, or maybe I just never joined the dots. Much of this proto-fascist skirmish played out in sex, a visceral Nazi distaste for permissiveness, deviance, androgyny, homosexuality – met and refuted by a highly experimental cabaret class who had connections sex on stage when maybe it should have been community organizing.
The choreography, by the way, is incredibly hot. I really couldn’t tell you which of the dancers was male and which female. Then in the meantime, there was almost a real-life toilet riot. The toilets had been unisex in a really ambiguous way, which resulted in all the young women using both toilets and washing their hands in front of the urinals, and all the old women standing in a very long queue and very angry, and all the men were apologizing, to everyone.
When they performed the death drive anthem, Tomorrow Belongs to Me, I honestly started crying, not because of that specific story, but rather because it makes you think of a more generalized stunt and inexorable towards destruction and how once you notice it, it’s too late to stop it.
In the second half, they brought a few people on stage to do an improvised 1930s conga, and they picked me, I guess because of the fur, and my mood suddenly changed from desperation to reckless excitement, which which is, I guess, why progressives of yore used to cabaret instead of organize. I was also a little drunk at that time. It’s a risky old game for casting, figuring out who in the audience is drunk enough to go on stage, but not so drunk that they ruin everything. Mr. Z thinks they probably learned it in a course.
“You liked it ?” he asked at the end, and on the one hand the answer was very simple, yes – it was the best thing I’ve ever seen on stage, or probably anywhere. But on the other hand, imagine if your favorite movie was The Deer Hunter, and someone took you to a live version, except it was in Vietnam, and you were with your real best friend, with a real gun, and the bullets were real, and the rats too. You should be wondering if I really wanted something so immersive?
Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist
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