ON THE RECORD: The Original London Cabaret Starring Judi Dench

By Steven Suskin
November 25, 2012

This week's column discusses the original 1968 London cast recording of John Kander & Fred Ebb's Cabaret, featuring Judi Dench as Sally Bowles.



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Cabaret [Masterworks Broadway]
Listen to Sally Bowles singing "Don't Tell Mama" on the original 1968 London cast album of John Kander & Fred Ebb's Cabaret. The voice is heavy, blowsy, and somewhat erratic; this is clearly not a singer at work. She misses notes, the voice cracks, and you can hear her grunt and squeak as she begs the listener to "do a girl a great big favor" (and not tell Mama). Yet she nails it; here is Sally Bowles, present in a manner that she is certainly not on the original Broadway cast album. It is impossible and foolhardy to judge a performance from a mere three songs on a 45-year-old recording, but one can imagine that this particular Sally Bowles was the center of Cabaret in a manner that wasn't the case with any of the performers I've seen in the role. (That is, the standard stage version; not the film or the Sam Mendes production, both of which gave Sally different things to do.)

Here, Sally sizzles. I suppose it's easy to say that if you happened to be at the Palace (London) in 1968, you'd have loudly proclaimed "this girl is gonna be a star!" Perhaps so. Even though she wasn't much of a singer. But oh, how Judi Dench acts her way through the title song at the end. Her back against the wall, defiant against the world, this Sally fights for survival. She tells the story of her roommate — sordid Elsie in Chelsea — but it is clearly her own; "when I go" — she croaks, voice braying — "I'm going like Elsie." It's not singing, it's acting. And that's what makes a strong musical theatre performance: not the way you produce the sounds, but what's behind them.

For a variety of reasons, it is difficult for subsequent cast albums — be they foreign productions or revivals — to live up to the originals. The initial albums have authenticity; the actors, conductor, and core musicians are performing material that was created with their participation. What's more, the songwriters are typically in the studio, making sure that everything sounds the way that they insist it sound (which is typically not the case on subsequent albums). The orchestrator is there, too, checking on things and providing altered charts where necessary for the recording session. Cuts, abridgements, new intros and endings, accommodations for bits of dialogue needed to help the lyrics make sense without the book.

So the original original cast album gives us the show as it was and as it was presumably meant to be. Subsequent albums range in their fidelity; when the original director/producer is on hand — not just stopping in for a few days, but presumably casting and rehearsing the show like Hal Prince presumably did on the London Cabaret — chances are considerably better. The 1966 Broadway cast album, mind you, is top-rate; no complaints here. But the London Sally Bowles, the aforementioned Ms. Dench, makes an enormous difference.

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Lotte Lenya, in New York, gives what might be the definitive reading of Fraulein Schneider's solos "So What?" and "What Would You Do?" Lila Kedrova, though, does just as well. Lenya brought a sense of history to the performance; an Austrian-born Berliner married to a Jew, she had in real life lived through the era. Her performance of "What Would You Do" is built on frustration and anger. Kedrova gives us exhaustion, hopelessness and resignation: she is indeed grown old and tired, "with neither the will nor wish to run." While I would not have expected her to be on a level with Lenya, she is just as moving. (Mind you, Kedrova was better known at the time by virtue of her film performance as Madame Hortense in the 1964 international hit "Zorba the Greek." While billing doesn't tell us much, Kedrova was one of two stars billed above the title; Lenya, initially, had fourth star billing below the title — in smaller-sized print than the actors playing Sally, Schultz and Cliff.)

Herr Schultz is played by Peter Sallis, who was apparently a favorite of Prince during this period; in a four-year span, he played Sipos in the London She Loves Me, Dr. Watson in Broadway's Baker Street, and the London Cabaret. Sallis is most familiar, nowadays, for voicing Wallace in the "Wallace & Gromit" films. As much as I associate the role of Schultz with Jack Gilford, this "Meeskite" seems far more tender to me. The M.C. is Barry Dennen, an American import best known as the boyfriend/roommate of 18-year-old Barbra Streisand, circa 1960. (He later recorded Pontius Pilate in the original 1970 concept album of Jesus Christ Superstar, recreating the role in the original Broadway production.) He makes an interesting M.C., but sounds like a creative actor as opposed to the otherworldly creature devised by Joel Grey. Cliff is played by Kevin Colson, who after a long hiatus returned to the stage to star in Aspects of Love. The New York Cliff, Bert Convy, is preferable — although the role is problematic. Cliff's one solo, "Why Should I Wake Up?," has always struck me as remarkably unsuited to the character and the show.

And then there's the band. This London recording sounds crisper and rougher than the original, I suppose in great part due to the onstage musicians. On the New York recording, the Kit Kat Band sounds like a perfectly marvelous quartet of Local 802 musicians. On the London recording, the girls gleefully honk and blow and pound in a manner which suggests that they were hired by the Kit Kat Club for reasons other than musicianship. The U.K. musical director was Gareth Davies, with Hal Hastings presumably in attendance during rehearsals.

So the question "I already love the Broadway cast album so why should I listen to this one?" doesn't quite apply to Cabaret. Especially with Judi Dench.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

Visit PlaybillStore.com to view theatre-related recordings for sale.