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Book Review

Book Cover

Cabaret FAQ


Author: June Skinner Sawyers
Publisher: Applause
RRP: £TBC, US $19.99
ISBN: 978 1 4950 5144 9
Publication Date: 12 December 2017

Applause Theatre & Cinema Books again masters a subject with protean authority in its FAQ Series with June Skinner Sawyers’s Cabaret FAQ. Sawyers chronicles the lives and work of a century’s worth of artists along the way: Josef von Sternberg, John Van Druten, John Kander and Fred Ebb, Bob Fosse, Marlene Dietrich, David Bowie, Liza Minelli, Joel Grey, Alan Cumming, Julie Harris, Natascha Richardson and the social Geist swirling about them: Dada, Weimar expressionism, Bauhaus, burlesque, Broadway, Queen (Yes, most certainly Queen) even punk rock. All children of the Cabaret Movement and its indelible change on the traditional musical, its midwifery of the birth of immersive art. In other words, the demolishment of the fourth wall.

The Zeus from whose mind springs all these Olympian creators is Christopher Isherwood and Sawyers crowns him with the wreath of victory, the artist who lives and influences the world of entertainment (and therefore the world) beyond his mortality. Noel Coward regarded Isherwood as a worthy dinner companion (some status in itself) but can’t resist sniping: "Really very curious. Well written, intelligent (re: Isherwood’s autobiographical novel, Down There on a Visit) silly, naïve, sophisticated untidy. Oh dear, what a scrambled mind. Not without charm but certainly without balance." Ahem… Coward tried his hand at cabaret for a reason and the reason was Isherwood.

Isherwood wasn’t always pleased with offspring from his original story Goodbye to Berlin and its many reincarnations but he had to take some pride that it was his lodestone people kept returning to mine. He is probably the most influential writer of these two centuries. Living in the canyons of Mahagonny, (Brecht’s mockingly renamed L.A.) he must have been warmed by the thought.

Sawyers gives us biographies and artistic inventories of everybody who is anybody in the Cabaret Movement. A constellation talent of first magnitude. She contextualizes lavishly and creates a handbook for all seasons. Her work on the importance of Fosse is essential reading for all students of cinema, dance and the musical. His influence in these realms is inescapable. Copious clips on Fosse are available on You Tube as is a full print of I Am A Camera (1955) for one to examine the predecessor film with Lawrence Harvey and Julie Harris. (One must also see Christopher and His Kind (2010) starring Matt Smith as Isherwood and Imogene Poots as Sally Bowles.) The evolution of the Isherwood tale is never more apparent than when comparing Van Druten’s Camera to the Fosse Cabaret.

And this is the deepest value in the book. It shows the transmogrification of Isherwood’s story from page to stage, book to play, from movie to Broadway musical hit and on to movie musical hit. It’s a diary of development. For all writers and readers a delight, a better education than anything possible in a classroom – unless, of course, if you took a course in Cabaret with Cabaret FAQ as the textbook and spent a thousand hours in all the Cabarets of the world. Maybe ten thousand hours.


John Huff

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