As we all know, Hollywood is legendary for buying a property—most often a book—and then completely re-writing it, losing just about everything that was good about it in the first place. This doesn’t happed so often with Broadway musicals; usually Hollywood limits its meddling to casting non-singers (Audrey Hepburn, Natalie Wood) and letting Marni Nixon repair the damage in the dubbing room. But Bob Fosse took a successful Broadway musical and eliminated half the musical numbers (a few new ones, also by Kander and Ebb, were added), and completely re-wrote the book, eliminating some of the characters, adding new plots, and most of all, bringing Sally Bowles way to the forefront as a star turn for Liza Minnelli. Just about the only thing left of the original was the pre-war Berlin setting, and the Kit Kat Klub. And it all works gloriously. The best change was to eliminate all the “book musical” numbers, where characters in the real world suddenly burst into song. All the songs were now set in the club, and either showcased Liza’s singing or commented on the plot, sometimes both.
I’m very happy that I saw the movie before I saw the musical on stage, because I might have been resistant to all the changes made. As it stands, I was able to love the movie, and love the musical when I saw a roadshow in Portland with Joel Grey. And people never have stopped meddling with this story. It has an amazingly checkered history, from the novel I Am a Camera by Christopher Isherwood, to a John Van Druten play, to a Sandy Wilson and then Kander and Ebb groundbreaking musical, then Fosse’s version, and a very different and successful “re-imagining” and revival in 1998. Musical numbers have vanished and reappeared in different versions. Maybe this malleability is the strength of the material.
I’ve seen this movie maybe five or six times over the years, the first time in San Francisco on the big screen the week it opened, but it was our privilege this last time to attend a showing, part of an ongoing series presented by the Los Angeles Conservancy called “Last Remaining Seats,” in the fabulous (and I do mean fabulous!) Los Angeles Theater on Broadway, hosted by none other than Michael York! He regaled us with some stories about the production. My favorite: He said he heard Bob Fosse was casting, and looking for “a Michael York type,” so he hopped a plane from somewhere in the West Indies and showed up for the audition. He turned out to be perfect for the role! Who would have guessed?