People who know me are more than aware that, despite not actually being in the cast or crew, I have not been able to stop talking about “Cabaret” for the past two months. It’s one of my favorite musicals of all time, and the sentimental value of it being the last fall musical I’d see as a Harvard-Westlake student only added to that love.
There are many things I admire about “Cabaret.” It’s a raw, tragic musical that breaks boundaries and expectations of sexuality, gender expression and the medium of musical theater as a whole. It challenges us as the audience to empathize with those different from ourselves, to understand the shortcomings of people we think we are similar to and to reflect on our own choices. And it provides no singular “right” answer—every character is flawed, with some characters far more flawed than others.
What I would really like to emphasize here is the role of empathy in the show. The Harvard-Westlake production often directly addressed or interacted with the audience in places where many professional (and certainly most student) productions do not. As I was sitting in the audience, I was reminded that these characters and their responses are not fictional at all: they are real courses of action (or lack thereof) that real people took in Weimar Germany, real courses of action that real people continue to take today.
Something that has always stuck with me from the day I was first introduced to the world of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “Cabaret” is a line from the final number, when characters recall things they had previously said in the show. Sally Bowles, a hedonistic cabaret performer from England who decides to stay in Berlin, assures that the rise of fascism will resolve itself, reminding the audience that it’s “only politics.” And because she doesn’t see how events in Germany could possibly affect her or anyone she knows in any way, she continues and asks, “What’s that got to do with us?”
Out of all the moments in the musical, there is not a single one that I feel better reflects our greatest folly in many of our interactions with the world around us. Some of us are lucky enough that many current issues are merely a topic for casual, purely theoretical, lunchtime debate. If an issue doesn’t affect us personally, it’s often hard to see how it could possibly impact anyone else.
While I think it’s good that people have enough familiarity with current events to debate these topics, it’s important to remember that these are challenges that people around us and their loved ones have to face every day. Immigration, police brutality, LGBTQ rights, the refugee crisis, sexual harassment, economic inequality—for many people, these issues aren’t just topics saved for small talk at Thanksgiving dinner, it’s real life. And it’s hard.
It is a privilege to have the chance to develop opinions on any of these issues and many others without ever having truly experienced them firsthand. But a lack of personal experience should not get in our way of being able to step into another person’s shoes.
If you’re at school or in public, look up from your paper or computer screen at the world around you. And if you’re at home, think about where you eat lunch or a class you’re in. We don’t all look the same, or dress the same or talk the same. We all have different backgrounds and different experiences, and thus, we all have different issues we deal with that affect us in different ways.
What I’m saying is, that thing you think is “just politics” or “only an opinion” may actually be life-altering for the person walking past you, or the guy who sits next to you in English, or the person you always get history notes from when you’re “sick” or even your best friend. Our beliefs, our “opinions”—they have the power to change lives, for better or for worse. And these aren’t just anyone’s lives, they’re the lives of people we know, people we may care about deeply.
So yeah, it’s got a lot “to do with us.”