, Salem, MA


November 21, 2012

How life is like 'Cabaret'

Director gets back to basics for Salem State University production

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.

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