“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.