The West End revival of Cabaret comes to Birmingham Rep this weekend. Choreographer Javier de Frutos tells Terry Grimley why it's not a clone of the Liza Minnelli film.
Think of Cabaret and you’ll inevitably think of Liza Minnelli. Think of the choreography of Cabaret, and you’ll almost certainly think of Bob Fosse.
In fact, Fosse’s late-flowering reputation is so intimately connected with Kander and Ebb’s musical evocation of decadent Weimar Republic Germany that at first sight it may seem strange that when it was revived in the West End two years ago, Javier de Frutos was brought in to create new choreography.
“This is the funny thing,” says the Venezuelan-born dancer and choreographer, who won an Olivier Award last year for his work on the show. “Bob Fosse was not connected with the creation of the stage show, but the movie. So pretty much because cinema is a wider market than theatre, he is associated directly with it.
“The play is completely different. I feel the play has more complexity and is more faithful to Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin stories which is where the story comes from. More is made of the sense of doom from the upcoming regime that’s about to happen, so the tones are much darker. But also the immediacy of doing it on stage freed me completely to break away from the Fosse experience. So therefore I had carte blanche to make a new piece.”
In the first place, he points out, his work looks nothing like Fosse’s. And then, he wanted to achieve a degree of authenticity by looking at what actually went on in cabaret shows of the Weimar period.
“I thought it was important to research what it would really have been like in a cabaret at that time. I discovered there were a lot of influences from many choreographers of the time. These cabaret kids would have gone to performances and sat uncomfortably in the gods to watch the Ballet Russes to give them ideas. There is a little evidence you can find – books about the Weimar period and fantastic photographs, so all of us, the director Rufus Norris, the designer Katrina Lindsay and myself, we did about six months of research.
“What it means is that you immerse yourself in the period, and then you put it aside. I don’t want to turn it into some sort of anthropological study because it has to work as a piece of entertainment. I tried to imagine what it would be like if I happened to be a choreographer at one of those places. You just let it channel through you like actors do, you prepare for a role thinking what would I do in this particular place – if I had to be a choreographer in this cabaret, what would be in my hand, what would be my tools?”
I wondered whether absorbing those Weimar influences had influenced de Frutos’s other work, but choreographing the original West End revival and then preparing new casts has continues to occupy him for two years now, so he has yet to move on from it.
“I came back to tailor it to the new cast, because with every incarnation of this production there are new stars. The production is the same but at the same time it’s making it different.”
Still, he has found time to work on a new musical by Richard Thomas, who wrote the music for Jerry Springer – the Opera.
“We have been developing that, and I’m sure it will be coming here, as Richard Thomas is a Birmingham native. It’s about a very twisted world of celebrities. If you have seen Jerry Springer you can imagine. We have seen loads of revivals, but this is a very original piece of theatre.”
Mention of Jerry Springer leads us to a discussion of theatre and controversy, something to which de Frutos is no stranger with the frequent use of nudity in his earlier work.
The picketing of Jerry Springer by evangelical Christians and the early closure of Birmingham Rep’s play Bezhti forced by Sikh demonstrators seemed to suggest that the theatre was on a collision course with religious right-wingers a few years ago. Apparently de Frutos is still not convinced that it isn’t.
“We live in strange times when religion seems to be key, and that inevitably is going to affect the arts. I go to the theatre a lot. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but it just feels there’s a new wave of puritanism. I feel taste has changed and the theatregoer has changed.”
It is the fate of some artists to live in interesting times. It can be extremely uncomfortable for them as individuals but the making of them as artists. Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, whose music-theatre partnership lurks behind Cabaret, are an obvious example, while de Frutos suggests that the achievements of film-maker Derek Jarman would have been impossible without Margaret Thatcher setting the agenda.
“It always takes time. Ten or 20 years have to pass before you can say this is what happened. The model of how to talk about a contemporary political issue is The Crucible – how to talk about McCarthyism and for everyone to know that’s what you’re talking about. Hot issues are best approached with a cool head.”
All of which brings us back to Cabaret and the fact that, unlike the characters, we bring the benefit of hindsight to this picture of Germany on the verge of the Third Reich.
“It’s not set during the Second World War, it’s set in 1931. What is fantastically beautifully portrayed is this sense of optimism. Knowing what is about to happen, you think, please – get out now! One of the characters has family in America and talks about emigrating there, but at the time they say ‘it will pass’. The sense of doom, that’s what I find very interesting.”
But returning to the present, we find grounds for optimism in the recent cultural achievements of Venezuela, where the meteoric rise to international fame of the young conductor Gustavo Dudamel is the tip of an iceberg called “The Project” – a programme launched by a visionary academic back in the 1970s which has raised thousands of disadvantaged young people from lives of poverty and despair through the teaching of classical music.
“Dudamel brings an unbelievable sense of excitement,” says de Frutos, adding: “The fact that it has brought that transformation to individuals is a beautiful story.”
Unfortunately, I suggest, a similar programme would be unlikely to work here because of the prejudice of British teenagers against classical music. It has even been seriously proposed as a “weapon” to discourage them from loitering.
“But also,” points out de Frutos, “I don’t think we have reached the desperate level they live in the slums of Caracas.”
* Cabaret opens for previews at Birmingham Repertory Theatre on Friday and runs until September 13 (Box office: 0121 236 4455).