Some Critics Don’t Understand the ‘Cabaret’ Broadway Revival. Young Women Do. (Guest Column)

For more than half a century, “Cabaret” — the iconic American musical set in Nazi Germany — has been produced, revived and revived again. This story, which touches on sex work, abortion and a complex female protagonist in Sally Bowles, has spoken to audiences generation after generation.

But another element of the production stayed true for nearly the same amount of time: on Broadway, “Cabaret” has exclusively been directed by men. Until now.

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The latest revival — “Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club” — just opened at the August Wilson Theatre. For the first time in Broadway’s history, it’s directed by a woman: 38-year-old Rebecca Frecknall. And it’s being staged amidst a historic siege on women’s rights.

As someone who was lucky enough to see the show on opening night, I can attest that, in this production—more than in any other I’ve seen—the parallels between Sally’s experience and that of today’s young women are uncanny. But based on the reviews from some mainstream critics, you’d think the most political part of the show is the cherry schnapps handed out when you arrive.

I’ve seen and loved other productions of “Cabaret”; Sally in particular has long been rightly upheld as a high watermark for nuanced, authentic women on stage. The role has been called the “female Hamlet of musical theater” for good reason.

But at Frecknall’s direction, Gayle Rankin powerfully embodies what is undeniably a Sally of 2024. When she sings the show’s title number (which takes place in this production after the character’s offstage abortion) we see a modern Sally: raw and real; more than likely in emotional and physical pain. She doesn’t sing, dance or exist to please others—including, it should be said, us in the audience. Instead, we see a woman who in spite of everything, has chosen herself. A woman who has chosen to survive.

No shortage of legendary women have portrayed Sally over the decades. But today, I resonate more with this Sally than with any that have come before. And sure enough, in conversations I’ve had with other young women, Rankin’s performance of Sally deeply affected each and every one of them.

We all share the experience of being forced—or knowing that we could be forced any day—to make that kind of impossible decision. We all share a deep gratitude that such a choice is, for now, ours to make. And in carrying those contradictory feelings, we’re all tired of putting on a pretty face and pretending that everything is fine. That’s why this Sally feels like our Sally.

It’s also why I have been so confused as I’ve read the critical reactions to this production. Certain reviews have fixated on the technical aspects of Rankin’s performance, complaining about chaotic energy, a lack of polish, a disquieting undertone. Never mind whether that’s the point.

Like any art, musicals can be intensely subjective experiences; it should be no surprise that some critics couldn’t see themselves in Sally the way I did. And yet: it doesn’t take a female perspective to understand that in the wake of Dobbs, young American women are seeing this story in a new light.

So when a critic ignores the resonance that this authentic, unapologetic Sally has with women of my generation, it makes me wonder: Are we seeing the same show? Are they seeing the same woman? Do we live on the same planet?

This is familiar for women: the implication that our perspectives are not the objective truth. That our pain is not real, or at the very least, not palatable. That our choices must not be intentional—which Frecknall has had to experience herself as male critics wax poetic about what “Cabaret” is actually supposed to be about.

Thankfully, not every Broadway power player feels this way. John Kander, who composed “Cabaret,” described elements of this production as “stunningly reinvented.” Plenty of younger critics and audience members get it, and have praised Rankin for the same realism that others have balked at. Not to mention the palpable joy in the room as this genderqueer, sexually liberated ensemble takes the stage.

Nevertheless, the reaction to “Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club” serves as a stark reminder of how much work is left to be done if Broadway is to truly become the bastion of progressivism that so many of its patrons believe it to be.

That’s why I’ve found it so fulfilling to co-produce other Broadway shows that upend traditional notions of what theater looks like and who participates in it. Every time a production like “A Strange Loop” or “My Son’s a Queer” opens, the conventional wisdom of the industry gets challenged, and those who have historically been left out of that conventional wisdom get a space to come together.

Before proposing to Fraulein Schneider, Herr Schultz says to her, “We’re alive. And what good is it alone?”

That’s the beauty of this production—and of live theater. It brings us together, and it makes us feel alive. By giving us a Sally who felt real—from a director who understands her on the deepest level — “Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club” reminds us that we are different from Sally in one important way: we are not alone.

Meena Harris is an attorney, children’s book author and producer. Her Broadway co-producing credits include “Suffs,” “A Strange Loop,” “Death of a Salesman,” the upcoming Broadway production of “My Son’s A Queer,” as well as impact partner with “& Juliet.”

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