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Willkommen to the Dark Musical

The culmination of a reading week trip to London, one filled with the merriments of galleries and cups of tea, was walking down the dimly lit steps into the tawdry Kit-Kat Club: the transformed Playhouse Theatre hosting the classic musical: Cabaret. Meandering through the narrow corridors of the theatre’s basement amidst a wash of red and the vicious sound of a piano ricocheting off the walls, I could not help but wonder where I was, let alone what day or year it was. Sordid and secluded, the club lusted for its patrons, sounding the calls of ‘Willkommen’.

The 2021 landmark immersive production, directed by the remarkable Rebecca Frecknall, has received unanimous applause for its gutsy and veracious interpretation of Kander and Ebb’s eminent musical. The musical, set in rip-roaring 1930’s Berlin, centres around the Kit-Kat Club, a seedy cabaret venue where ‘life is beautiful’ amidst the rise of Nazism, which gradually hones in on the club and the characters. Upon the second act, they effectively drown in the demise of colour in their lives; relationships are torn and a scramble ensues to escape the approach of darkness.

The production was undoubtedly breathtaking. I left the theatre struggling to recollect my thoughts; the whole thing was a blur. From the stellar voices of Emcee and Sally Bowles—the central characters—to the constricted circular stage, everything was on-point and at its highest points: clever. The tube home seemed utterly consumed with the vicious but unwaveringly catchy melodies of songs that spoke of Jewish hatred and the loss of life as it was. It was particularly haunting to think that its themes are so harshly relevant today. It was hard not to apply the 1966 piece to current affairs.

Cabaret is a musical which gets to the heart of human existence. It removes your rose-tinted lens and allows you to see the world at its most raw. Plays are often political and social commentaries, but what do we gain or rather what do we want from musical theatre? Is it that classic shimmery Liza Minelli belts or the rousing musical number, ‘There’s no Business like Show-Business’? Theatre is the beating heart of our society, meaning it shouldn’t allow us to escape its tainted features. Musicals that attack are rare but are those that speak beyond the curtain.

The dark musical is perhaps not appealing to your mother; Cabaret seems to be quite unique in that its high status has been garnered by the re-defining 1972 film adaptation starring Liza Minelli and Joel Grey. Fellow darker musicals such as Sweeney Todd and Rocky Horror are similar in their notoriety and equally deal with themes rather untouched by the golden-age of musicals.

Stephen Sondheim was a masterful composer, contriving musicals that meant something, that dealt with mature themes, those of which called to aspects of ourselves that would otherwise have been untouched by Rodgers and Hammerstein. His musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, arguably his best work, is the brutal and gritty story of a murderous barber paired with a whimsy baker, who uses her partner’s victims for pie-meat. Though comedy is gained from the chatty spinster Mrs Lovett, the plot is incredibly dark, with Sweeney Todd motivated by revenge and casting disdain on the “great black pit” of society. He exclaims in the song ‘Epiphany’ that “they all deserve to die”. Sondheim, aided with a book from Hugh Wheeler, examines the human psyche and meticulously picks apart the psychological facets of the characters.

The Rocky Horror Show, which enjoys a mass cult following, though bouncy, is at its core a very dark and absurdist piece of theatre. The 1973 musical is a wholehearted receptacle for the taboo, dealing with murder, fetishisms, and sexual liberation. Designed to shock, it still amasses audiences who—in garish costumes—jeer from the stalls.

Musical theatre provides an escape to many, an agreeable response, though theatre as a cornerstone of our culture and our society should not allow us to ‘forget our troubles’ as Emcee affectionately tells the audience in Cabaret’s opening number. Witnessing musical theatre that challenges us and makes us think is what we need more of. Indeed, theatre should progress in providing an escape, though not a conventional one: an escape that allows us to assess our outlook on the outside world. To see ourselves for who we truly are.

Auf wiedersehen, à bientôt…

Illustration: Clodagh Earl

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