I was a senior at a very liberal high school in a very conservative state when I was cast in Cabaret the day after the 2016 presidential election. As a young Jewish woman, I was afraid. I was afraid of hate, of bigotry, of harm, of being unsafe in my home. Antisemitism was raging through the Trump campaign and so it was only appropriate that our interpretation of Cabaret explored the play’s central theme of what it meant to be Jewish at the rise of one of the world’s largest waves of antisemitism. It was imperative that we told a story with incomparable weight- a story where the Jewish narrative was significant, a story where the hate is harmful and scary, a story where ignorance is dangerous.
I left Second Stage’s production of Cabaret this past Saturday trembling so hard I couldn’t stand and gripping the hand of my friend, also a Jewish thespian, whose eyes were red and soaked with tears. Somehow, this production of Cabaret, a story that had taught me how important theater could be to the safety and awareness of society, made me feel like I had been erased. It made it feel like my narrative, the Jewish narrative, was an afterthought to a Holocaust story-like, the slaughter of six million of my people was not worth discussing.
My fear began when I learned that the show was being dedicated “to all the Sallys of the world.” To me, the role of Sally is the epitome of ignorance and apathy towards society. She is the perfect example of turning a blind eye towards hate and harm. In a show dedicated to Sally, I saw a show dedicated to people who ignore antisemitism and hate simply because it doesn’t directly affect them, allowing it to grow stronger. And in a time where synagogues are becoming locations of mass shootings and anywhere can be the site of antisemitic vandalism and Nazi salutes find their ways into high school homecoming photos, I find myself feeling scared, anxious, on-edge, and alone. It is in this time more than ever that we cannot allow ourselves to become Sallys. We cannot allow ourselves to buy into ignorance because it is easy. We have to care.
Cabaret should be dedicated to Herr Schultz and the Jewish people. The Holocaust was fueled by antisemitism and a passionate hatred for Jews. Herr Schultz’s experience is central to the power of Cabaret and his struggles are imperative to our understanding of antisemitism today. I was heartbroken by the way his story, and therefore, the Jewish story, was shown as an afterthought. I was heartbroken by the prominent ambivalence with which his struggles were treated. I was heartbroken by how forgotten I felt-by how erased I felt.
I cannot say enough times how important Judaism is to this story. I understand the importance of telling stories that address racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, and other forms of violence against marginalized groups. However, choosing a different play or musical to tell these stories would have been more beneficial and respectful to all parties than displacing the power and significance of the Jewish story of Cabaret.
Even the pieces of the show that have a bit of extra room for interpretation- like the Emcee’s ending- center around the Jewish narrative. However, I was shocked to see the reveal of his pink triangle- the symbol used to mark LGBT victims. While there were far too many LGBT lives lost during the Holocaust, as well as lives of Romani, people of color, and other European minorities, Cabaret is not a story of those victims. Cabaret is a Jewish story. And therefore, the lack of a yellow star- the icon of Jewish victims- felt like ignorance. Shifting the Emcee’s narrative to focus on an LGBT victim brought another story that was also not properly addressed. Additionally, my understanding is that most audience members did not immediately recognized the pink triangle, however, they would have been more likely to recognize a yellow star. In this interpretation, I could not grasp what story was being told but I knew it was not the Jewish story. And that felt like erasure.
Although the rise of antisemitism in the last couple weeks has been terrifying, I walked out of WestCo Cafe more scared for my life as a Jewish woman than I have otherwise been because it made antisemitism feel acceptable. It made antisemitism feel commonplace. Here, at Wesleyan, especially in the theater community, we are constantly standing up for those persecuted for their race, gender, and sexuality. We discuss those topics in our casting, in our artistic intents, and in our final products. And despite what conversations do or don’t happen throughout our rehearsal process, each production is ultimately responsible for telling a story to the audience-for presenting a message to the audience.
I am scared because I couldn’t tell if it mattered to anyone but my friend and I that this was the story of a country about to kill six million people across Europe because they were just like us. I couldn’t tell if it bothered them that events in the script are written to show how Jews were treated like full-bodied animals (as in “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes,” a song in which the Jew is supposed to be wearing a full gorilla costume to show this animalization). I couldn’t tell if it phased anyone that a brick being thrown through a window is the mark of Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, which was a massive, antisemitic riot at the beginning of the Holocaust. I couldn’t tell if it mattered to a soul that there is so much weight in every single line and every single song on that stage. Cabaret should never feel comfortable. The story should never be easy to watch. Yet somehow, I felt that my friend and I were the only ones uncomfortable in the space-and uncomfortable for the wrong reasons.
Every time I see this show or listen to the music, there is a line that shakes me to my core. It is at the very end of the show as Cliff is leaving Berlin. He is writing and he reads his work aloud. It says: “There was a Cabaret and there was a Master-of-Ceremonies and there was a city called Berlin in a country called Germany and it was the end of the world. And I was dancing with Sally Bowles. And we were both fast asleep.” This line sends chills down my spine because Sally and Cliff are just that- they are both fast asleep. They ignore the hate and violence and harm committed to those they know and those they don’t and, as if they were sleeping, they do not give it any extra attention.
The Holocaust is what happens when we do not give hate extra attention. Harm is what happens when we are fast asleep. Pain is what we endure when those around us are too deep in sleep to acknowledge that we are struggling to keep afloat.
Scott Miller, in his article “Inside Cabaret, an Analysis,” says: “One of the show’s central messages is ‘it could happen here.’ In the original production, there was a giant mirror on stage facing the audience. The implication was that the [Germans] who allowed Nazis to take power, were like us, ordinary people who found their country in trouble and looked for someone to fix things, to offer easy solutions.” And in the Nazi regime, an “easy out” was that erasure. We cannot allow that to be our escape today.
Today and everyday that Cabaret is produced, it needs to be a wake up call. It cannot laud those who sleep through atrocity. It must be handled with care and gravity and passion and a dedication to sharing an important message with the audience. It must be educated and educating. It must be focused on understanding what lead to the Holocaust and how that affected the people of the time and how it still continues to affect people every single day.
When it comes to Cabaret, when it comes to antisemitism, I am fully awake. I am always awake. And I will continue to be awake as long as I am not safe in my Jewish identity.
But today, on this campus, after seeing this show affect its audience-this community, I feel that everyone else is asleep. And they are all perfectly fine with it.
The show is over. It doesn’t make sense for me to give solutions or suggestions of things that could have been done differently by all parties. But it is not too late to wake up.
My charge to everyone who received the message of Second Stage’s Cabaret is to wake up. Go through the script or listen to the soundtrack and try to understand the weight of what is being presented to the audience. Try to understand these stories as life-or-death circumstances. And if you cannot understand alone, do some research. Learn about the Holocaust. Read testimonies from survivors. Look at pictures of camps and victims. Read statistics. Learn about antisemitism today. Read the news and find the articles about vandalism and violence in 2018. Find pieces that explain the offensive terms that are becoming a part of our daily rhetoric. Dissect the words of hate that are covering our news feeds. Talk to your Jewish friends about what this means for them.
Talk to me. I will dissect these stories with you and tell you my own. I will be your dramaturg. I believe this show is one of the most powerful pieces of art created in recent history-it is certainly the most significant art I have ever had the privilege of working on.
Every day that we sleep through this story, we get closer and closer to sleeping through this reality. Please, take the time-make the effort-put in the work to wake up. It is so incredibly important that we do.
Respectfully signed: – Shana Laski – Matt Grimaldi – Betsy Zaubler – Lisa Stein – Sophie Elwood