With a musical, “Burlesque,” and a dark dance drama, “Black Swan,” now in theaters, I thought I would take a look at a musical film of the past for this week’s column.

I’ve always felt that musicals cheapened the human experience. The music, the dancing, the acrobatics, all of them feel like affectations of a fantasy world I’m supposed to escape into. While many would argue that escapism is the whole point of movies, I say it always needs to be balanced with a level of authenticity; I need to recognize a part of my own experience up on screen, or I’m simply not involved in the film.

The best musicals (“West Side Story,” “The Sound of Music”) work so well because their human dimensions are just as compelling as their technical aspects. Watching “The Sound of Music,” you’re overcome with the joy of watching a family come together as much as you’re impressed with the musical numbers. With “West Side Story,” you feel the tension of a forbidden romance blossoming in the middle of a gang war, and anticipate the tragic events that will ensue.

And in “Cabaret” (1972), you see a world teetering on the brink, bellowing its last hopeful songs before it plunges into the abyss. Bob Fosse’s film is set in Berlin circa-1930, just before Hitler’s rise to power. It follows a few wandering characters who frequent a cabaret called the Kit Kat Klub, and their sexual misadventures over the span of a few years. You can see the seeds of Nazism planted around them, but the characters generally go on their merry way, unaware the darkness lying just ahead.

Fosse’s film doesn’t qualify as a typical “musical”; characters don’t suddenly burst into song in the middle of dialogue scenes. There are only a handful of musical numbers in the whole film, and they are each set in the Kit Kat Klub, which is presented as a reality separate from the film’s main story. The numbers don’t just exist as set pieces as they do in many musicals, but help tell the story and illuminate pieces of character motivation for the audience.

Rob Marshall’s musical “Chicago” used this same technique a few years ago and it bothered me, because the constant cutting to musical numbers kept you from caring very much about the story. That film also had a jovial, frivolous tone about it, like nothing that was happening mattered much and you should just enjoy the ride. In “Cabaret,” you deeply invest in the characters because they aren’t just performers there for your amusement. While the film is a technical marvel (the sets, costumes, choreography and makeup are all first rate), the human story is what holds your interest. After watching the film, I was happy to see a filmmaker pushing the limits of the musical form rather than accepting it as a genre that should make you just feel happy.

The film centers on two main players: Brian Roberts (Michael York), a stuffy, closeted sophisticate just off the boat from Britain, and Sally Bowles (Liza Minelli), a peppy American living a carefree life in a Berlin boarding house. Brian has come to Berlin to teach individual English lessons, and wanders by Sally’s boarding house one day looking for a room to let. Sally ensnares him in conversation and suggests that he take a room attached to hers and split the rent. Brian agrees.

Sally Bowles is one of the more fascinating characters I’ve seen on screen. She seems to have come to Berlin out of boredom more than anything, the daughter (she says) of a U.S. ambassador who spends most of his time in small countries of Africa and Asia. She scrapes by dancing and singing at the Kit Kat Klub, and dreams of becoming a famous film actress. She lives to be forever in the moment, laughing and talking and smoking and drinking like there is no tomorrow.

As you’d imagine, she’s as capricious as she is lively. She seems endearing and tender, but appreciates people only up to a certain point, and isn’t long before she moves on to someone new. No subject is worthy of attention for more than a couple of minutes, and a connection is only possible when she is the center of a person’s attention. Decadently dressed in black furs and flaunting her green nail polish, Sally’s life is an ongoing production where she plays a role to avoid being herself.

Into her sleazy world wanders Brian, a nice-enough guy who gets swept up in the melodrama that is Sally’s day-to-day life. Operating in a role of mother/houseboy/best friend, Brian becomes her constant companion, recognizing her faults but doting on her every movement. It’s only after a while that Sally realizes he has no interest in her sexually. She isn’t enraged, but seems fascinated with Brian. We sense that he is probably the most adult figure she has ever met.

Of course, this is just the beginning of sexual confusion. Brian and Sally do eventually make love, in a scene that unfolds more from a place of fascination than passion. They become committed to each other, more as companions it seems than lovers. They find themselves in a love triangle with a young German baron (Helmut Griem), who has become the focus of Sally’s gold-digging. Brian becomes just as fixated on him as Sally, and continues to wrestle with his sexual identity.

     The musical numbers do a good job of balancing out the story’s melodrama and lend the film a light-hearted tone at times; Sally’s performance of “Maybe This Time” after she and Brian make love for the first time is a towering romantic moment that lets you into the character’s heart. The other numbers mostly center on the Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey), a figure at the Kit Kat Klub who ushers in each new performance. Played by Grey with a wild-eyed grin and circus makeup, he is a total lifeforce, a surge of electricity meant to keep his audience’s attention from waning. In the film’s pre-Hitlerian context though, his presence is more poignant.

Signs of Nazism are peppered throughout the film: a uniformed party representative passing out leaflets, a swastika adorning a forearm here and there. For the most part though, Fosse leaves the explicit details off screen, giving his film the feeling of an elegy. Sally and Brian’s problems are wrapped in youthful innocence. Fosse almost seems nostalgic for his characters’ freedom. There is a sense of loss to the film; the singing, the dancing, the acrobatics, all serve as a metaphor for a more innocent time.

The events of the film are like the deep breath before the plunge, the last sign of hope before the world changed. When the Master of Ceremonies sings his final song, it doesn’t feel like a celebration, but like a final plea to keep the party going.

Reach?Dennis O’Neil at 270-887-3237

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