Political commentary in GVSU’s production of ‘Cabaret’ hits a little too close to home

Ysabela Golden

Pop culture and politics have gone hand in hand about as long as they’ve both existed: We poke fun, we create powerful analogies, we poke fun with analogies. Anyone channel surfing through late-night TV shows, even in the years before the unusual amount of material provided by the Trump administration, would be sure to find plenty of cracks about our current political leaders interspersed with interviews of famous creators and bits based off their creations. 

Media with seemingly no connection to real-world politics use their settings to comment on them regardless, as in this year’s “Logan” and “Thor Ragnarok,” which approached the issues of immigration and refugee crises in timely and unique ways. It’s less frequent that we find older works in popular culture that easily apply to our modern political situation, but when we do, it’s often a combination of the fascinating and the deeply, deeply worrying.

Such is the case with “Cabaret,” a musical performed recently by Grand Valley State University’s own theater department. “Cabaret” premiered on Broadway in 1966 based off the 1951 play “I Am a Camera,” which in turn was adapted from the 1939 “Goodbye to Berlin,” a semi-autobiographical account of pre-WWII Berlin by Christopher Isherwood, a gay man who immigrated from Germany to the U.S. on the eve of the war in Europe. The book highlighted the experiences of those in Berlin most at risk from Nazi intimidation, and the adaptations do the same, though with a burden of knowledge Isherwood didn’t have at the time of his writing—the ultimate fate of those vulnerable groups of Germans under the domination of the Nazi party. 

In the illusory world of the titular cabaret, however, the Nazi party is of no concern. “It’s only politics,” claims the musical’s tagline. “What’s that got to do with us?” The cast members’ attempts to indulge and enjoy themselves while ignoring the polarizing state of public affairs amidst rising violence, homophobia and anti-semitism was disturbing when the musical came out in the 1960s. Today, with recent memories of the so-called alt-right’s introduction into America’s political landscape and of white nationalists marching by torchlight in Charlottesville, Virginia, the horror hits closer to home.

That horror is not only something GVSU’s powerful production of “Cabaret” accounts for but something it develops. In the hall outside the Black Box Theatre are posters with photographs from 1930s Germany side by side with pictures from the last few years and a collection of recent news articles featuring Nazis, white nationalists and the alt-right. As stated in Dennis Henry’s director’s note, “When neo-Nazis walk the streets of Virginia with torches chanting, ‘Jews will not replace us,’ we must speak out.” In watching the disastrously carefree response of the “Cabaret” cast of characters to the rising threat of the Nazi party, our own reaction to the disturbing reassertion of Nazism in our mainstream political discussion is brought into the spotlight.

But unlike the dark future we know is hanging over the blithe world Isherwood first presented in “Goodbye to Berlin,” the course of our country is far from set in stone. “Cabaret” had me walking out of the theater devastated but still so glad I had seen it. The show gives its audience a crushing look at the beginning of a dark time in human history, but it’s depictions like this one that keep us from filing away those memories as something securely distant from the present. They aren’t. And watching Germans in the 1930s dismiss politics in the same way so many Americans have been in the 2010s, the audience can’t help but see those old patterns in the world we live in today.