Set in 1931 Berlin as the Nazis are rising to power, it focuses on the nightlife at the seedy Kit Kat Klub, and revolves around young American writer Cliff Bradshaw and his relationship with 32-year-old English cabaret performer Sally Bowles.
A sub-plot involves the doomed romance between German boarding house owner Fräulein Schneider and her elderly suitor Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit vendor. Overseeing the action is the Master of Ceremonies at the Kit Kat Klub. The club serves as a metaphor for ominous political developments in late Weimar Germany.
Director Harold Prince's staging was unusual for the time. As the audience filled the theater, the curtain was already up, revealing a stage containing only a large mirror reflecting the auditorium. There was no overture; instead, a drum roll and cymbal crash led into the opening number. The juxtaposition of dialogue scenes with songs used as exposition and separate cabaret numbers providing social commentary was a novel concept that initially startled the audience, but as they gradually came to understand the difference between the two, they were able to accept the reasoning behind them.
The original cast featured Jill Haworth as Sally, Bert Convy as Cliff, Lotte Lenya as Fräulein Schneider, Jack Gilford as Herr Schultz, and Joel Grey as the Master of Ceremonies (Emcee).
The original Broadway production opened today, November 20, in 1966, and became a hit. It was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won eight, including Best Musical and Best Featured Actor in a Musical for Grey and Best Director of a Musical for Prince.
It resulted in numerous subsequent productions in London and New York, as well as the 1972 film of the same name starring Liza Minnelli, Joel Grey, Michael York. The film went on to receive eight Academy Awards, including Best Actress for Minnelli, Best Supporting Actor for Grey, and Best Director for Bob Fosse.
The film is significantly different from the Broadway musical. In the stage version, Sally Bowles is English (as she was in Christopher Isherwood's "Sally Bowles"). In the film version, she is American. The character of Cliff Bradshaw was renamed Brian Roberts and made British (as was Isherwood, upon whom the character was based) rather than American as in the stage version. The characters and plot lines involving Fritz, Natalia, and Max were pulled from I Am a Camera and did not appear in the stage version of Cabaret (or in "Sally Bowles"), and a minor character named Max in the stage version, the owner of the Kit Kat Klub, bears no relation to the character in the film. In the film, Sally is a very good singer, whereas the stage version often portrays her as being untalented.
Fosse cut several of the songs, leaving only those that are sung within the confines of the Kit Kat Klub, and "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" – sung in a beer garden (in the stage musical, it is sung first by the cabaret boys and then at a private party). Kander and Ebb wrote several new songs for the movie and removed others; "Don't Tell Mama" was replaced by "Mein Herr," and "The Money Song" (retained in an instrumental version as "Sitting Pretty") was replaced by "Money, Money." "Mein Herr" and "Money, Money," which were composed for the film version were added to performances of the stage musical alongside the original numbers.