Schaefer Theater bustles as directors and managers make their final changes to both the stage and sound only five minutes before the show. “Can you turn the saxophone up?” calls the music director to the soundboard above. She continues to make small tweaks before disappearing behind a black curtain. The stage is split—one side of the theater is made to look like an old hotel room, decorated with a tired mattress and desk accompanying faded green and white walls. On the opposite stage is an elevated platform, the setting entirely black barring a sign that hangs from the catwalk, which flashes CAB-A-RET.
Hoof ‘n’ Horn, Duke’s student-run musical theater group, debuts its production of Cabaret this Thursday. Set in pre-Nazi Berlin in 1931, the musical follows the nightlife at the seedy Kit Kat Klub and the relationship between Sally Bowles, a singer at the club, and American writer Cliff Bradshaw, their fledging romance chronicled alongside the sudden Nazi rise to power.
The show’s depth and complexity bring Hoof ‘n’ Horn to largely unexplored emotional ground, noted Producer Drew Klingner. “Cabaret has more weight to it than many Hoof ‘n’ Horn shows tend to have,” Klingner wrote in an email. “As an organization, we’re always looking to better ourselves as artists and collaborators.” The play was also more physically demanding, with intricately choreographed numbers in almost every scene. While the theater group did not have the means in the past to put on such a production, “we finally have the resources at Hoof ‘n’ Horn to pull off a show that demands rigorous dance,” said the producer.
Throughout the play, the Emcee at the Kit Kat Klub captures the changing feel of German society in his cabaret, infusing a more grave tone to the frivolous nature of the traditional nightclub entertainment.
“When you think of cabaret, you think ‘dark’ as in ‘nightlife’ but you don’t think historically dark or controversial,” said Kyle Aldedice, who plays the Emcee. “But being in it, you can’t help but feel for what actually went on and the people that were hurt and oppressed.”
Though the original play debuted on Broadway in 1966, Hoof ‘n’ Horn produced the now more popular 1987 version of the show. This revised musical is slightly more scandalous than the original, including controversial lines that were previously omitted for older audiences. The major plot change is Cliff’s sexuality, said Klingner. Though Cliff is straight in the original 1966 version, he is portrayed as bisexual in the revised version, an addition that brings more complexity and emotional vulnerability to the play.
As the Nazi occupation in Berlin rises, Cliff also struggles to distance himself from a former male lover as he pursues a relationship with Sally. Through Cliff’s implied sexuality, the play touches on the discrimination against homosexuals as well as Jews during Nazi rule, a detail that proves even more relevant in today’s political landscape. Though not as severe, this intolerance still holds true in present day, noted Klingner.
Hoof ‘n’ Horn takes many artistic risks to bring to light the darkness of the period as well as a shared public ignorance during the Nazis’ rise. The increasing presence of the swastika as the play unfolds evokes the fear and uncertainty of many German citizens at the time. While the history of the Nazi movement and Holocaust is generally common knowledge throughout the world, the imagery of the musical as well as the strong interplay between actors manipulates audience emotions in new and profound ways.
“I would want an audience to come with some background of what happened in the 1930s and 1940s in Germany,” Aldedice said. “But when they leave, I want them to be able to, like I do, feel for the characters and the people.”
Hoof ‘n’ Horn hopes that beyond generating a powerful response from the audience, the subject matter will also provoke conversations that previously were considered too controversial or taboo for open discussion. Klingner added that audience members should come with an open mind, and “dig deep” for the powerful message of the show.
“Because there are a lot of historical sensitivities involved with it, people may be hesitant to discuss the problems that they see in the show or the problems that they see in our society that are still related to the show,” Klingner said. “It’s important to make changes to the future based on what we screwed up in history.”
Cabaret opens on Jan. 24 and continues through Feb. 3 in Schaefer Theater. See www.hoofnhorn.org for tickets.