Thursday, February 15, 2018

Don't Give Iago a Puppy

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this if you are unfamiliar with Cabaret and how it ends.
ALSO: is not letting me upload photos right now.  I'll try again later.

“Don’t give Iago a puppy” is my phrase whenever directors/actors want to “humanize” not-so-nice characters by making them “sympathetic.”  This never means Enhancing the Bouquet of the Wine.  It means cutting 100 Proof Vodka with Water.  The most famous example is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and trying to find the Humanity in Nurse Ratched.  Which would be great if her purpose in the show wasn’t to be the frickin’ embodiment of soulless inhumanity.

Playing unsympathetic characters does NOT mean finding something sympathetic about them.  It means finding something empathetic about them.  Find something you like about the character’s evil; don’t force something “nice” on them because you’re uncomfortable.  That’s why those parts are fun.  Iago in Othello is absolutely horrible.  He’s also quick-witted and funny, which makes him palatable to the audience without ever letting them forget he’s a villain.  

One of the greatest tightrope walkers on TV these days is Robin Lord Taylor, who plays the Penguin on Gotham.  You always empathize with him, but you’d never want to spend time with him, because you’d most likely end up dead.  He doesn’t lose sight of the villainy.  If you want to cuddle with the leads in Cabaret – you’re doing it wrong.

In the movie version of Chicago, they had Fred Casely slap Roxie around before she shoots him.  Nooooooo.  She shoots him because she’s a vapid, shallow idiot – which is why someone tremendously likable has to play her.  You have to like Roxie in spite of what she does, not because she’s a Misguided Innocent.  Because the point of the show is that likability and sexiness is what enables monsters to use murders to become celebrities.  The show is an indictment of us for being shallow enough to make those people famous.

Which brings us to Cabaret at the Paramount.  Jesus.  The performers are brilliant.  But the original intent of Cabaret was a similar indictment of the audience.  It’s about how hedonistic apathy allowed the Nazis to come to power in Germany without much of a fight.  It’s telling us, “Hey, maybe you want to watch out for that quality in yourselves, or you might end up with an orange monster for a leader.”  To that end, there are deep characters (Schneider and Schultz), not so deep characters (Cliff and Sally) and deeply shallow characters (the Emcee).  The learning curve here goes to Cliff.  Trying to give them all the same depth subverts the story.

Starting with (I believe) the hideous Roundabout production, every director wants to Deepen Sally.  Cut the 100 proof vodka.  She is a twitchy emotional wreck through most of Act II, culminating in a final number, Cabaret, which is now always presented as Rose’s Turn, a mental breakdown, packaged for your convenience.  And it drives me fuckin’ bat-shit crazy.

Sally is a strong female character.  A survivor.  She is far stronger than Cliff (not in competition with him for Neurotic of the Year), and it is his discovery of that in the end which wrecks him.  The song Cabaret is not a nervous breakdown of a woman Just Realizing How Horrible Everything Is.  It is the triumphant 11:00 number of a tremendously strong woman making the choice to remain shallow because that’s how she survives.  She is exactly the same as Fraulein Schneider.  Do whatever you need to do to live.  Vomiting out “long pent-up emotions” is not tragic.  Ash-canning those emotions – in happy song – is blood-chilling.  And extremely tragic.

And let's not get started on the Emcee.

No.  Let’s.

In the Paramount production, the Emcee – and again, the performer is great – Sees All the Horror as it builds around him and is Appalled & Frightened.

Jesus H. Tapdancing Christ.  The Emcee is the villain.  He’s the BAD GUY.  He is the personification of gleeful political apathy.  And aside from the ineffective I Don’t Care Much, here’s where that hurts most: at the end of If You Could See Her (the gorilla dance), there wasn’t a shocked silence, there was applause, even though Herr Schultz had a moment at the end which should have quelled the clapping.  And here’s why that happened: nobody believed that this Warm, Human Emcee would say such a vicious thing.  They just didn't buy it.  The purpose of that number is to shock the audience with the awareness of the horror they’ve been laughing at.  If we don’t believe that the Emcee is uncaring, there’s no shock.

Don’t take my word for it.  Watch Alan Cumming and Joel Grey performing Willkommen.  Go here: Dueling Emcees.  The crowd enjoys Cumming.  But they go bat-shit for Joel Grey.  Alan Cumming had Layers.  Joel Grey was an Icon.  He is possibly the most technical, cold performer in musical history, which is why he made a lousy Amos Hart in Chicago.  But Grey was the perfect Emcee.

The Emcee is not the Lone Observer.  He’s the fucking problem.  He’s the Darth Vader of Cabaret; and Princess Leia (Sally) gleefully ends up on the Dark Side.  That’s the tragedy: societal decay, not one Poor Misunderstood singing waif.

Trying to care about these characters as sympathetic subverts the creators’ intent – not a tearful character study, but a warning to the audience not to be like those people.

The Nazis are not the villains in Cabaret.  The villains are the people who won't stop partying long enough to try and stop them.

Thus Endeth the Screed.

No comments:

Post a Comment