The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
There is disagreement about who said this, but that complicity with evil is at the heart of “Cabaret,” the mega-hit musical opening Olney Theatre Center’s 2019-2020 season.
It is about what happens when Berliners turn a blind eye to the rise of the Nazis, said Alan Paul, making his Olney Theatre Center directorial debut.
The musical, which won eight Tony Awards, spawned several revivals as well as a film, which deviated from the original. With music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb and book by Joe Masteroff, “Cabaret” is set in Berlin of 1929-1930 and revolves primarily around an American writer, Cliff Bradshaw, who comes to Berlin to work on a novel, and the flamboyant English cabaret singer-dancer Sally Bowles whom he forms a relationship with.
The Kit Kat Klub, where she performs, represents the decadent nightlife of German society as well as a general picture of life, said Paul, a Montgomery County native who assistant-directed a production of “Cabaret” in 2006 under the tutelage of Molly Smith at Arena Stage in his first professional job.
With the show’s rich performing history, what does Paul – an experienced musical director – see as distinctive to his production?
For one, he is less focused on presenting the Klub’s emcee as gender-bending, in the manner of Joel Grey, who originated the role.
Another mark is something Paul did not plan, which is the current climate. Not that “Cabaret” was ever nonpolitical, but now, especially, “it seems to have huge political overtones in an incredibly partisan moment,” Paul said.
Olney’s Sally Bowles is Alexandra Silber, who worked with Paul previously in “Kiss Me Kate” and “Camelot.” It is a role many actresses covet. For Silber, though, the show brings a larger meaning and forces one to ask the question “how did this happen?”
“When Jews say, ‘Never again,’ it’s bandied about, like a trope. What it really means is that you need vigilance. It always requires action, not lip service,” she said. “Hitler didn’t create hatred and anti-Semitism; he capitalized on it.”
How does Sally fit in?
She’s unlike Fraulein Schneider, who’s a person of good will but allows her emotions and fears to interfere with what she believes, Silber said. Schneider, who runs the boarding house where Cliff and Sally are staying, is in a forbidden love relationship with a Jewish fruit seller.
Sally is self-involved. and genuinely thinks politics are as significant a subject as baseball. Overall, she makes no choices, the cost of complicity.
“I’m trying to play a person who is neither good nor bad,” said Silber. “She’s intelligent, but exists predominantly in her fantasies and is most alive when she’s onstage. I’m determined to build a real person – not hateable, but not necessarily likable.”
Acknowledging she usually sings more classical soprano roles and her dance skills are rusty, Silber expressed concern at first that she might not be able “to do” Sally. But being an actor, she said, gives you “permission to embrace uglier sides without consequences. Sometimes that comes more easily than we’d like.”
For all the political resonance of the show, said Paul, he prefers “not to hit people over the head or be too heavy-handed. I don’t want to reduce it to something too simple.”
Greg Maheu is Cliff, Mason Alexander Park is the Emcee and Donna Migliaccio is Fraulein Schneider.
“Cabaret” runs Aug. 28-Oct. 6, at 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. www.olneytheatre.org. A conversation about the history of the Weimar Republic will take place Aug. 31 at 5 p.m. before the evening performance.