There was a spike in interest for Holocaust Memorial Day, of course, but the truth is that the Shoah is news pretty well every day. If it’s not a government minister musing that “There’s a whiff of Munich in the air,” when speaking of a European willingness to appease Vladimir Putin, it’s a Tennessee school board withdrawing Art Spiegelman’s masterpiece Maus on account of the partial nudity… of hand-drawn mice. One day it’s the anti-vaxx crowd wearing their fake yellow stars, as if being advised to get a life-saving jab is on a par with being singled out for humiliation, exclusion, isolation and eventually mass murder. The next, it’s the Georgia congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Green warning that the Democrats’ “Gazpacho police” are spying on her fellow Republicans. (You’ll recall that it was this same Taylor Greene who once warned that forest fires were the handiwork of Jews wielding mysterious “space lasers”.)
One way or another, the use and abuse of the memory of the Nazi destruction of European Jewry is a constant in the public conversation, with one crass statement prompting another. It was the Maus story that led Whoopi Goldberg to share with ABC viewers her belief that the Holocaust was not “about race” because it was not black vs white, but rather two groups of white people, Jews and Germans, “fighting each other”. As patiently as they could, several leading figures explained that Jews were not considered by the Nazis to be white and they were not engaged in a reciprocal conflict with Germany; they were, in fact, the unarmed victims of a murderous, genocidal racism pursued by a military superpower.
Given all this, it’s a relief, perhaps even a cause for celebration, when someone, somewhere gets it right. Especially when that someone and somewhere is currently the hottest ticket in London.
I’m talking about the new West End production of Cabaret, starring Eddie Redmayne as the Emcee and Jessie Buckley as Sally Bowles, and that itself is a surprise. Because all I knew of Cabaret was the 1972 film — and in that, Jews barely feature.
In the new production, the opposite is true. The emotional heart of the story, and its moral core, are provided by a sub-plot that was in the original play but excised from the film. It tells of the quiet, gentle love that blossoms between Herr Schultz, a Jew, and his non-Jewish landlady, Fraulein Schneider. That relationship, exquisitely played by Elliot Levey and Liza Sadovy, gives the play what it might otherwise lack: tenderness, pathos and weight.
The result is that this Cabaret is not solely about Weimar decadence or the rise of Nazism. It does what Whoopi Goldberg refused to do, placing the Jewish dimension of the story front and centre. One of the key moments comes when Schultz and Schneider marry. Schultz’s traditional stamp on the wedding glass merges with a more distant, more violent shattering of glass. It is an early intimation of Kristallnacht. I spoke to Levey, who told me that this was down to a series of very deliberate choices by the creative team, and one choice in particular. They went back to the original Broadway text of the show, now nearly 60 years old, and “the Jewish story emerged”. It did not have to be invented: “It was already there.”
For Levey, that’s opened up two opportunities. First, as the only Jew in the cast, it’s fallen to him to field the questions of his “incredibly empathetic” fellow performers, starting with “What is antisemitism?” They ended up, he said, spending “the whole rehearsal period explaining it, discussing it”.
Second, he believes this new production restores some of the dignity the original play assigned to Germany’s Jews. While Schultz’s romance was cut from the film, in Sam Mendes’ smash-hit 1993 stage production it appeared but was, says Levey, “undermined” by a treatment he calls “appalling and grotesque.” In the new version, when the Jewish greengrocer gives his landlady the gift of a pineapple, the moment is touching; 30 years ago, it was the cue for the Emcee to simulate on-stage masturbation.
After I’d seen the show, I checked on a hunch that had struck me during the performance. Cabaret, Fiddler on the Roof and Mel Brooks’ The Producers all premiered within three years of each other, barely two decades after the end of the war. It seems obvious to me now that the Jews who created these three instant classics in such quick succession were all responding to the Holocaust, which was then a very recent memory. They could not tackle the subject head on — perhaps it was too soon for that — so they came at it elliptically instead. But common to all three was Jewish pain, even if that pain was expressed, in Brooks’ case, by the desire to assuage it by laughing in the face of the Jews’ tormentors.
The new production of Cabaret is brilliantly staged, beautifully lit and features at least one proper showstopper.
But it also undoes an act of Jewish erasure, not only restoring Jews’ central place in the tragedy of the Shoah, but also reminding us of a singularly Jewish response to that event — a trio of stories that channelled the agony into laughter, tears and song.