A retro chair with cabaret dancer clothing against a grey background.

In celebration of the 40th-anniversary edition of Cabaret, we sat down with stars Joel Grey and Michael York.

An iconic story set in Berlin in 1931, Cabaret is based on gay scribe Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories. The storyline chronicles the hedonism amidst the decline of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazi Party in 1945.

Years before the film version of CabaretThe Berlin Stories was adapted into the play I Am a Camera in 1951, which was adapted into a film in 1955. Cabaret, the Broadway musical, then made its debut in 1966. Bob Fosse finally brought it to the big screen in 1972, winning eight Academy Awards in the process.

Oscar-nomination for a gay character

Among those eight trophies was a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Grey for his flamboyant, pancake-faced portrayal of the Kit Kat Klub’s Master of Ceremonies. As Grey saw it, however, his character’s ambiguous androgyny was not an expression of sexual identity so much as a means to an end.

The MC functions primarily as the story’s narrator, so his sexuality is never addressed. But that’s not the case with York’s character, Brian Roberts.

“I thought of him as a guy who would do anything with anybody at anytime to further his survival and his success.”

“Of course we got into the whole thing about the homosexuality,” York said. “Even Isherwood in the novel, he certainly never comes out, you have to read between the lines. It’s there, but you know, you put two and two together. This time, it came out. He was bisexual, which for the times was pushing the envelope.”

After Sally Bowles (Liza with a Z!) unsuccessfully tries to seduce Brian, he reveals that he’s been there, done that, and it’s not for him. But Sally persists, and they eventually become lovers, only to be torn apart when they both realize Brian’s been sleeping with wealthy playboy Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem).

The challenges of playing queer characters in the 70’s

Despite it being 1972, York had no reservations about playing a bisexual character.

“I didn’t give it a second thought,” he said. “I thought our job is to portray people, interpret them. It was a huge part of life in Berlin at that time. That’s why Isherwood was there. Because it was open and free. People said later, ‘was that a bit risky for you, for your career?’ What are you talking about?”

“It was part of life!” Grey added. “And they sent so many of those homosexuals to the camps. Maybe first.”

“Yes, the pink triangles,” York said, referring to the marker by which the Nazis identified homosexuals.

Four years after Cabaret, Isherwood came out of the closet. His memoir Christopher and His Kind, which filled in the gay gaps of his life in Berlin, was later adapted into a BBC television film.

The lasting impact of Cabaret

The characters played by Joel Grey and Michael York have inspired so many interpretations in so many mediums is a testament to Isherwood, though arguably, the 1972 film version of Cabaret is the best. It forever changed the Hollywood musical and became a famous pop culture monument. In 1995, Cabaret was chosen by the Library of Congress for inclusion in the National Film Registry.

Sadly, the film’s original print hasn’t been shown in over a decade due to a scratch that ran through the entire reel. When computer technology failed, Warner Bros. corrected over 1 million frames by hand, significantly improving sound and resolution. With the meticulously restored Blu-Ray release, a new generation can appreciate Cabaret’s legacy as initially intended. The iconic movie is a testament to its lasting impact on film history and LGBTQ+ representation.

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