escaping nazi europe onstage
This article contains spoilers for “The Sound of Music” and “Cabaret.”
The Kit Kat Club is raucous onstage. Clothing is scant and tight-fitting, and the décor is seedy and gaudy; the audience is entranced and a little uncomfortable. The host, the Emcee, delights in this. The protagonist, a young American novelist, is entranced and uncomfortable as well. He’s trying out 1931 Berlin as a place to find the inspiration he needs for his next novel—he’s looking for thrills and sin. The Emcee tells the audience to leave its troubles at the door: here, life is beautiful. The novelist, Cliff, arrives by train; the conductor walks with the heavy-shoed regimented march that spectators recognize as a short march away from red armbands, shattered windows, and the hissing of gas. The conductor examines Cliff’s documents and welcomes him to Berlin. The chorus repeats in a hiss: Welcome to Berlin. From my seat in the audience, I shudder.
About halfway through the stage production of “The Sound of Music,” the characters start to mention Berlin. They are in Austria; it’s immediately prior to World War II, immediately prior to the Anschluss. Captain von Trapp’s friends and neighbors are preparing for the Germans to march into the country and into its people’s open arms. Maria, the Captain, and the seven von Trapp children sing “Edelweiss” in front of red Nazi banners draped like curtains. Welcome to Berlin, hisses an echo in my head.
It might seem odd to compare the two shows. After all, “The Sound of Music” is not dark. “Cabaret” presents itself as escapist, a chance to abandon the troubles of the outside world, only to reveal itself twisting the knife of reality further into your lungs with every song. “The Sound of Music” starts optimistic, and it ends world-worn and a little sad—but it has warmth at its core. The takeaway of “The Sound of Music” is not that Rolf, the sweetheart of the oldest von Trapp girl Liesl, becomes a Nazi; it’s that he hesitates to turn her escaping family over to his commanding officer.
And yet—Rolf does become a Nazi.
It’s difficult to tackle the heavy parts of history in musical theater. If any type of stage performance lends itself to serious issues, it is the straight play; songs have a tendency to disrupt the intensity of scenes, even when their subject matter or mood is serious. “Cabaret” defies this. It takes indecorous songs about money and threesomes and the cabaret lifestyle and throws them alongside songs about anguish; as political and interpersonal tensions rise onstage, the audience no longer knows when to laugh and when to be horrified. A song that starts off a mockery may end with a punch to the gut. “Cabaret” presents itself as self-consciously escapist, and it uses this to make its point. “The Sound of Music” is not self-conscious, but it is escapist; the songs we remember are the ones about raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, and the hills being alive with the sound of music. Even “Edelweiss,” a song about the beauty of Austria, is a testament to the Captain’s resolute patriotism in the face of an outside threat.
Blossom of snow may you bloom and grow
Bloom and grow forever
Bless my homeland forever.
“Cabaret” also features a nationalistic song, also sung for the first time by a child. It, too, is all simple beauty and hope for the future.
The branch of the linden is leafy and green,
The Rhine gives its gold to the sea.
But somewhere a glory awaits unseen.
Tomorrow belongs to me.
The song reprises at the end of the first act, when Cliff becomes aware for the first time that many of those around him are Nazis. He is at an engagement party for a Jewish friend—the one explicitly Jewish character in the show. The song we first heard sung in the voice of a child now sounds strong and threatening, a promise of the rise of Nazi Germany. While “The Sound of Music” commends the Captain’s nationalism and makes those embracing the Anschluss seem weak of character (and in reality the majority of Austrians welcomed the Nazi takeover), “Cabaret” makes its viewers wary of what unfettered nationalism can lead people to support. When two characters start singing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” it is not only those wearing Nazi armbands who join in the song.
There are a surprising number of parallels between the shows. Where “The Sound of Music” has Rolf, “Cabaret” has Ernst Ludwig, a friendly political something-or-other who befriends Cliff on the train into Berlin. He takes Cliff to the Kit Kat Klub (and the fact that he encourages this act of escapism is significant in itself), finds him work teaching English for a little bit of money, and sets him up with an easy job smuggling baubles in Paris for a little more. Except what he smuggles aren’t baubles, they’re supplies for the Nazi party, of which Ernst is a member; he is one of those who leads the rendition of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.”
There is also a parallel to be drawn between “The Sound of Music’s” Max and Elsa and “Cabaret’s” Sally Bowles. Max, a friend of Captain von Trapp, and Elsa, the Captain’s fiancée, sing a song called “No Way to Stop It” about the importance of being noncommittal and agreeable to achieve that ultimate goal: the ability to keep living an easy life. The song isn’t in the film version; in fact, both characters’ politically amoral natures are played down substantially from the stage play, where Max actively grovels to the Nazis and Elsa’s lack of political convictions leads to her break from the Captain. “Cabaret’s” Sally Bowles splits from our protagonist Cliff for similar reasons; when Cliff decides he can no longer stand by as Nazism sweeps Berlin, Sally refuses to leave with him. He returns to America, disgusted and disturbed and—like the Captain—unwilling to live in complicity with the Nazi regime. Sally returns to the Kit Kat Club, where she, like Max and Elsa, sings a song about preferring to live a pleasurable life rather than a moral one.
Both of the shows foreground this moral struggle between complicity and pleasure, making it the focus of their second acts. The Captain and Cliff both choose between fleeing places they love and compromising their morals to stay in a state where Nazism is on the rise. Both “Cabaret” and “The Sound of Music” have strong Nazi presences that are crucial to the plot, and yet neither show foregrounds Jewish characters. This is not as obvious as it seems like it should be, but for very different reasons in each show.
In “Cabaret,” despite the show having only one Jewish character, the impending Holocaust is always present, and so the foregrounding of Cliff’s story doesn’t immediately stick out. The Holocaust is, in “Cabaret,” a side story, but it is not a side theme. The Jewish character, Herr Schultz, is a side character, but his looming fate is made sharply present by a brick thrown through a window. One of the most biting songs in the show (“If You Could See Her”) is about the ostracization and persecution of the Jews; the ominous reprise of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” at the end of the first act is meant to intimidate and threaten Herr Schultz and his fiancée. As Cliff’s discomfort with the Nazi party amps up, so too do the reminders of what is on its way in Germany. This undertone reaches a head at the show’s conclusion: As Sally sings her anthem of complicity and Cliff leaves Berlin in stunned horror, the audience is thinking of nothing so much as what is to come for Herr Schultz. In the current staging of the national tour, the show ends with an empty pit orchestra, a chorus in striped pajamas, and the hissing of gas. The Emcee stands center stage, a Jewish star pinned to his ragged shirt; in some productions he also wears the pink triangle that stood for homosexuality, suggesting that not only is the flamboyant Emcee a symbolic representation of the deaths of Jews, but that he, as a homosexual man, is also an individual casualty.
“The Sound of Music” has no Jewish characters. It does not even mention Judaism. (Indeed, it notably focuses on Catholicism, nuns, and the sanctity of the Church as a place of refuge; “The Sound of Music” is based off of a true story, though, so I hesitate to read too much into the presence of this plot element.) This did not occur to me when I first saw the movie as a child, and it did not occur to me as I watched the stage production at Providence Performing Arts Center until I was walking back up College Hill. The Nazis in the show are a force of abstract evil. The audience, of course, can’t disassociate them from their crimes, but none of those crimes are evident, or even alluded to, in the show; their primary evil is, for all intents and purposes, that they are taking over Austria. The Captain is at least as upset about the loss of his homeland’s independence and integrity as he is about it being the Nazis in particular who are invading. “The Sound of Music’s” final moments are about facing challenges and sadness in the pursuit of a better life. “Cabaret’s” final moments are about the fact that, at that particular moment in time, everything was about to get a lot worse.
There is room for both of these shows in our World War II narrative. For one thing, these two shows spring from different points in history. The original Broadway production of “The Sound of Music” opened in 1959, only 14 years after the end of World War II; “Cabaret” opened in 1972, another 13 years later. Thirteen years makes a big difference in how the world is processing the Holocaust.
And perhaps more significantly for the shows today: “The Sound of Music” is a children’s show. As the grandchild of three Jews born in Germany and Austria, my parents sat me down as a child and explained the Holocaust to me before I had a chance to learn about it from popular culture; I can’t remember hearing about it before I knew that my narrative was “I’m only here because they got out.” In a slightly different world, though, I can imagine my parents introducing me to the concept through “The Sound of Music.” It’s a gentle way to lay some of the framework for a conversation: it establishes the Nazis as a threatening presence, it introduces the idea of their expansion in Europe, and it has that idea of the need to escape. “Cabaret” is not Holocaust-lite; the first time I saw it, I was 20, and I found myself tense, holding the seat’s armrests tightly. It hits hard, but not everything needs to do the same, and “The Sound of Music” doesn’t try to. Both shows seem, at the start, to be escapist. And in the end, one is, and one is not. Both come within arm’s reach of nightmares, but one show sees this, and one does not.
Ultimately, a show’s finale is its last chance to tell its audience what it wants them to remember.
“Climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every rainbow, till you find your dream,” sings the Mother Superior, as the von Trapps cross into Switzerland.
“There was a cabaret,” Cliff writes, on the train out of Berlin. “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.”