SALEM — In the production of “Cabaret” that he is directing at Salem State, Peter Sampieri wants to rescue the musical from its earlier versions.
The problem he faces is that most people’s impressions of the show, which appeared on Broadway in 1966, are based on the film from 1972.
“It’s iconic,” Sampieri said. “It’s really hard to get Bob Fosse’s film out of our heads. It beat out ‘Godfather’ in eight categories” at the Academy Awards.
While acknowledging Fosse’s genius, Sampieri feels the many “carbon copies” of the film that have appeared on stage gradually assumed a generic look.
“When you get into bentwood chairs and straw hats, the stage vocabulary is much more like: American Broadway,” Sampieri said.
What gets buried in those cliches are the gritty historical origins of “Cabaret,” in the rise of Nazism in Germany during the 1920s and ’30s.
“All I can do is leave the film behind,” Sampieri said. “I went back to original source material.”
That includes Christopher Isherwood’s “Goodbye to Berlin,” the English writer’s memoir of his life in Berlin from 1929 to 1933, which is the basis for all the dramatic versions.
The first of those was the 1951 play “I Am a Camera” by John Van Druten, which appeared on Broadway and starred Julie Harris, and which Sampieri also consulted.
But he went beyond even these materials, to the historical period itself, in search of details that would bring the times to life.
“For me, the whole thing was to do homework on, what was Berlin like as a city?” he said.
Sampieri’s research included looking at a documentary series called “Legendary Sin Cities” and reading a book called “Voluptuous Panic” by Mel Gordon, which studied the erotic life of Berlin’s citizens during the Weimar Republic.
“Berlin was the sexual epicenter; sex was celebrated in a way,” Sampieri said.
In that context, the cabaret at the heart of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s musical would have been a seedy place indeed.
“It was a sex club, it was like a strip club today, where there is often prostitution,” he said. “No matter what your taste, there was a club that existed for you.
“The idea of The Kit Kat Club” — the cabaret in the musical — “would be capturing people’s different tastes, blending the line between fetish club and circus,” he said.
Sampieri and the show’s costume designer, Jane Hillier-Walkowiak, examined research into sexual habits that was conducted in Berlin during that era, to find outfits that performers would have worn to appeal to different fetishes.
But Berlin was also a “cultural epicenter,” Sampieri said, with dozens of newspapers and more theaters than New York.
In addition to indulging audiences by staging sexual fantasies, Berlin’s cabarets dared to satirize the Nazis, who didn’t approve of what they offered.
The Nazis “saw Berlin as a filthy, seedy, sinful place,” Sampieri said, and equally disapproved of its political experiments, which embodied a “spiritual optimism” that they also didn’t like.
“Germany was a democracy for the first time. It was going to be inclusive,” he said. Nowhere was that more true than in Berlin, where “everyone was from somewhere else.”
Germany’s short-lived democracy, the Weimar Republic, which lasted from 1918 to 1933, was eventually battered by hyperinflation and torn by battles between its political extremes.
The Salem State production will focus on these conflicts at the heart of “Cabaret,” by staging them in a set where everything is exposed.
“It’s very stripped bare, it’s welded steel,” Sampieri said. “We’ve taken all the curtains away, taken away architectural specifics. It’s ugly and industrial, like Berlin.
“But also in doing that, we’re trying to look at the cabaret as a metaphor for different things in the play: for our apathy, for our blindness to what’s going on,” he said.
In this stark vision, Sampieri will approach his aim in staging “Cabaret.”
“It should be fun, funny and entertaining, but what draws me to it is, it’s also quite hard-hitting,” he said. “As a director, I’m most interested in theater when it can serve as a lens through which to view the present.”
Sampieri feels there are plenty of parallels between the fragile democracy of the Weimar Republic and America today.
“We’re living in a time of incredible polarization,” he said. “Economic strife brings out the ugliest in people. I think you see very similar things happening.”
To help define the issues of the play, the performance on Thursday, Dec. 6, will be preceded by a panel discussion of “Nazis Then and Now: How Does Hate Grow?”
“It’s part of our audience enrichment series,” Sampieri said. “This one I’m hoping will be a dialogue on historical conditions that gave rise to Nazism, and what it’s like today.”
“I’m a political animal,” he said. “So I think about theater in that framework of social relevance.”
If you go
What: “Cabaret” by John Kander and Fred Ebb
When: Nov. 29 through Dec. 1 at 7:30 p.m., Dec. 6 through 8 at 7:30 p.m. and Dec. 9 at 2 p.m. Directed by Peter Sampieri, with musical direction by Cole Lundquist and choreography by Jodi Leigh Allen. Pre-show event, “Nazis Then and Now: How Does Hate Grow?” Thursday, Dec. 6, at 6:30 p.m.
Where: Mainstage Theatre, Salem State University, 352 Lafayette St.
More information: Tickets are $20 general/$15 students and seniors. Purchase tickets online at www.salemstatetickets.com, by phone at 978-542-6365 or at the door beginning one hour prior to curtain. Recommended for mature audiences.