Something To Think About: “Would You Pay The Price? What Would You Do?”

The above lines come from the 1966 American musical Cabaret based on writings of Christopher Isherwood and John Van Druten.  The musical focuses on the lives of a few people and their reactions to the growing Nazi threat in 1930s Berlin.  The musical was unusual in that it did not have a happy ending and Americans are used to happy endings.  Thomas Hischak offers his own description of Cabaret in his The Oxford Companion to the American Musical:  “Arguably the most innovative, hard-hitting, and uncompromising musical of the 1960s,…”  What makes this musical so innovative?  It introduces us to decadent Berlin through an MC of the Kit Kat Club, himself a mixture of playfulness, immorality, and darkness.  As the show progresses, the political overtones become ever more ominous and threatening.  The title, which also serves as one of the main songs in the musical, is a celebration of irresponsibility and seediness.  Sally Bowles, one of the chief entertainers at the Kit Kat Club and the girlfriend of Clifford Bradshaw, an American writer, sings the song as a tribute to her late girlfriend Elsie.  Sally’s friend was a prostitute, drug addict and alcoholic who died from too much of the latter.  Sally sings of Elsie’s death, “… But when I saw her laid out like a queen, she was the happiest corpse I’d ever seen.”  Elsie’s memory motivates Sally to return to the cabaret where she will probably end up like Elsie.

A sub-plot concerns the romance between Cliff’s landlady, Fraulein Schneider and the Jewish fruit seller, Herr Schultz.  After she accepts Herr Schultz’s proposal of marriage, pressure is put on her by Nazi smuggler, Ernst Ludwig, who had introduced Cliff to Fraulein Schneider’s boarding house, to break off the marriage to avoid the repercussions of marrying a Jew.  She decides to comply with Ernst’s demand.  Cliff and Sally are shocked to learn of her decision, so she asks them, “What would you do?”  Although, she emphasizes her status as an old woman, the song that follows could be sung by anyone who is confronted with a despicable regime and the consequences of doing what is ethically right.

In London in 1993, Sara Kestelman gave an intense, harrowing interpretation of the role of Fraulein Schneider for which she won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Performance in a  Supporting Role in a Musical.  What follows is her version of the song, What Would You Do? My thanks to lluluss for posting this song on youtube.