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Book Review: Music on Film: Cabaret by Stephen Tropiano

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Stephen Tropiano’s Music on Film: Cabaret is the latest in a series of pocket-sized paperbacks that provide a comprehensive survey of everything that went into the making of some of the more musically significant cinematic treasures.

Past volumes have dealt with West Side Story and This is Spinal Tap. This volume, about the length of a novella, runs just 100 pages in text and has eight pages of photos, a list of Cabaret related productions ( titled a “Cabaret-ography”), a fairly extensive section of documentary footnotes, and a convenient index. If it doesn’t tell you everything you ever wanted to know about Cabaret, it tells you as much as much as anyone could expect from such a slim volume, and as anyone apart from the occasional scholar could desire.

Beginning with the original source of the material, the short Christopher Isherwood novel, Goodbye to Berlin, which along with the earlier novel, Mr. Norris Changes Trains, had been collected under the title The Berlin Stories. These were based on the novelist’s experiences during a three-year stay in Berlin through early 1933. In a chapter called “Sally Bowles,” he describes a young British cabaret singer with limited talent perhaps most notable for her green nail polish. If her vocal performance was in any way effective, it was probably more from her appearance than for her voice, the narrator opines. Her lack of talent, Tropiano explains, was later to become an issue in casting a singer for the original Broadway production.

Isherwood’s novels were adapted for the stage by John Van Druten in his play, I Am a Camera which was later made into a movie, both of which starred Julie Harris. Van Druten’s play was the basis of the 1966 musical with a book by Joe Masterhoff and music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb. Produced and directed by Harold Prince, this production went on to win the Tony Award for the best musical of the year. With many changes, including cutting nine of the songs from the original and getting rid of a romantic relationship between the elderly landlady and her Jewish suitor, the musical was adapted for the screen under the direction of Bob Fosse in 1972. Although the film failed to win the Academy Award that year, it did garner Oscars for Joel Gray, Fosse and, of course Liza Minnelli. Making sure to bring everything up to date, Tropiano goes on to talk about Broadway revivals as well.

For the non-scholar, perhaps the most entertaining parts of the book are the little anecdotes and tidbits of trivia that fill the pages. Walter Kerr’s three-word review of I Am a Camera is an example: “Me no Leica.” Fosse’s attempt to get prim reactions from actress Marisa Berenson by whispering crude remarks in her ear is another. Fosse, he tells us, was unable to sit down during the film’s editing because of an epic case of hemorrhoids.

While these kinds of things may not be as significant for the student of film or theater as his explanation of why Hal Prince chose Jill Haworth over Liza Minnelli for the original Sally Bowles, or his comparison of the performances of Joel Grey and Alan Cummings as the Emcee, they are the kinds of things that stick in the mind of the casual reader.

Still more than likely, this is a book that will appeal to a limited audience. Film buffs, Broadway musical mavens, Liza Minnelli fans: this is a book for you. For the more general audience, in spite of the entertaining bits and pieces, it may be a case of more than you really want to know.

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