The History, Music, and Life of 'Cabaret'

Humanities and history professors team up with a performer to discuss the show's importance

Amidst the dim magenta lighting, a red velvet backdrop, and soft musical numbers, three professors and a performer came together last night to discuss "Cabaret," which opened on Friday at Club Oberon.

Centered around nightlife in 1930s Berlin, the show—which originally came to Broadway in 1966—has seen many revisions and recreations throughout the past 40 years before coming to 2 Arrow St. this month.

Musician Amanda Palmer, who is performing in the two-month run of Cabaret as the emcee of the show, said that she first saw the show in Regensburg, Germany. In that particular showing, the performers distributed flags with swastikas to audience members, much to their dismay, Palmer recalled.

"Cabaret has something to say about the glittering, globalization shadows casting desperation and destitution all over the world," Director of the Humanities Center Homi K. Bhabha said in his opening remarks last night.

During the talk, which was hosted by both the Humanities Center and the American Repertory Theater, discussion of the aesthetic aspects of the show gave way to a more historical and academic conversation.

Bhabha, who moderated the panel, empahsized questions that ranged beyond the A.R.T.’s rendition, exploring the musical’s history, music, and impact.

"It’s a richer world when you have a sense of the ideas of older eras," said panelist and Music Professor Carol J. Oja.

History Professor and panelist Charles S. Maier explained the signficance of Berlin, in the context of the show, as a place where young people went to be edgy and experimental.

Some attendees of the event said that they had expected a different focus during the talk.

"I had hoped to hear more discussion of the moral and political themes of Cabaret—and not just as a historical drama about Germany, but as a contemporary story about the uses of affluence and entertainment to sustain denial," Professor of Mathematics Curtis T. McMullen wrote in an e-mail.

The discussion ended with a more performative aspect as Palmer—who is also the lead singer of the musical duo The Dresden Dolls—performed a solo accompanied by her ukelele, much to the insistence of Bhabha.

"It was refreshing to see the usual suspects from Harvard’s Humanities Center on stage with the singer from the Dresden Dolls," McMullen wrote.

"Cabaret was a thought-provoking production," said Susanna B. Wolk '14, who attended the panel. “I’m a huge fan of Amanda Palmer as well, so it was exciting to see her in a different context."