Love and theater can flourish in any environment, even a Nazi concentration camp.
For his senior thesis production, director Noam Shapiro ’15 explores the history of artistic and theatrical performance in the German concentration camp of Theresienstadt during World War II. “Cabaret,” a musical based on a story by Christopher Isherwood and a play by John van Druten, follows an American writer named Cliff Bradshaw and a cabaret performer named Sally Bowles, who engage in a fateful relationship right as the Nazi party begins its rise to power in the 1930s. As a Theater Studies and History double major, Shapiro said the production was an intersection between his passions for musical theater and Holocaust history.
“The greatest challenge has been reconciling the different interpretations of ‘Cabaret’ that exist with our own vision for the show,” Shapiro said. “Most people have their own idea of what ‘Cabaret’ should be, and we’re excited to introduce our audience to a ‘Cabaret’ they haven’t seen before.”
Shapiro has been crafting the production for more than a year. He explained that the production drew from an article published in November 1941 entitled, “The Freest Theatre in the Reich: In the German Concentration Camps,” which detailed the culture of coerced and subversive cabaret performance within many of the Nazi concentration camps. Producer Irina Gavrilova ’17 said that while the musical is well-known, Shapiro’s rendition may surprise audiences.
Michael Tappel ’17, who plays Cliff Bradshaw, mentioned that the production captures a variety of historical and modern themes. He said many people have preconceived notions of musical theater, but this production is different because the original play was not initially set in a concentration camp.
“It’s a very different ‘Cabaret,’” Gavrilova said. “Noam is famous for his twists and for doing familiar works in a very different way.”
Nathaniel Dolquist ’14, who plays the Emcee character, said that while the musical’s original script was not changed, other elements were added to the storyline. Whereas most productions of the musical are set within a nightclub, Shapiro explained, this production of “Cabaret” depicts the storyline as a play within a play, performed by concentration camp inmates before an audience of Nazi officers and a delegation from the International Red Cross. Dolquist added that cast members had to develop both their identities within the play as well as their performer’s identity within the camp. Other songs that were cut from the 1966 production — including “Meeskite” and “Why Should I Wake Up” — were also brought back for this production.
With 27 cast members and a band of 16 musicians, the show features the largest undergraduate ensemble of the academic year. Set designer Hannah Friedman ’17 said one of the most difficult parts of producing the show was coordinating rehearsal schedules.
“Trying to accommodate everyone was definitely problematic,” Friedman said. “Besides the cast and band, we also had a production staff of more than 40 people.”
The production has drawn widespread support from a range of organizations and sources affiliated with Yale. Gavrilova said that more than seven of Yale’s institutions — such as the Theater Studies program, Calhoun College and the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life — made large donations towards the production.
Since its first release in 1966, “Cabaret” has had revivals in London, on Broadway and in other parts of the world. Amanda Dehnert, who directed a production of the show for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 2008, said she thinks the musical did a brilliant job of capturing the conflict in Germany during World War II.
“‘Cabaret’ really lets you look at all of the people in this tumultuous area,” Dehnert said. “You see them wrestling with who they are and where they want to be, all in the midst of Germany becoming one of the most vilified nations in the world at the time.”
Various Broadway productions of “Cabaret” have received three Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Score and Best Revival.