All during "Cabaret" I kept pinching myself. I was sure I must be dreaming. I imagined it was still 1967 and the American musical theater was still alive!
Here, after all, was Joel Grey, his clown white, pixie-featured face seeming no older than it did 20 years ago, his body still slithery and eerie. Here was a score slightly revised but far more powerful, and, most incredible, a book that is economical and absolutely solid.
Here I was having a fabulous evening when I had long ago persuaded myself that work of this caliber was no longer possible on Broadway. What had gone wrong?
Could it be that Harold Prince, most of whose recent work I have deplored, had recovered his perspective? "Cabaret," which was one of the first shows he directed, was in many ways Broadway's first foray into The Sixties.
It was a show about how politics affects a whole society (even its apolitical citizens). It was also a show about sexual ambiguity. In a society breaking down, the two things are related.
The fluid structure of the show, in which scenes in a sleazy cabaret reflect crises in the city outside (Berlin in 1930), remains impressive. The direction and performance have great sharpness. So does Ron Field's choreography, which captures the troubling mood sardonically.
The cast is sensational. Alyson Reed and Gregg Edelman are much more persuasive as two young Anglo-Saxons lost in this Teutonic "wonderland" than their counterparts 20 years ago. Edelman has a great new song, which he sings elegantly. When Reed launches into the title song, which, in context, is one of dark irony, the effect is devastating.
Regina Resnik, a class act in every way, gives a dignity and grace to the role of the hapless landlady that makes her plight much more poignant. Werner Klemperer is similarly refined, stressing the German rather than the Jew in his character, and important, deeply moving choice.
There are standout performances by David Staller, a chillingly appealing Nazi, and Nora Mae Lyng as a patriotic floozy.
Grey, of course, is triumphant. It is a performance concocted out of the lowest low comedy shtick, a vision of Satan having a go at vaudeville. When, at the very end, he appears alone on stage, the tacky trappings of hell having disappeared, the effect is hair-raising.
Prince has recreated a brilliant show brilliantly.
Times change and people change. When the John Kander and Fred Ebb musical "Cabaret" was new in town 21 years ago, I felt, in the words of one of its own lyrics: "So What?"
Yes, even then, I thrilled and chilled to the demon-slick image, all raspberries and cold cream, of Joel Grey's fantasticated devil's puppet of a nightclub emcee, a performance clearly blasting out its own instant legend.
But the rest seemed to me at the time to be a cheapened, Broadway-packaged version of such 20th-century originals as Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht, Christopher Isherwood, George Grosz and even Lotte Lenya - who happened to be in the show's original cast.
Twenty-one years later. And either I have matured - at times I can be as slow as cognac - or the Broadway musical has so eroded, deteriorated and self-destructed that what was "So What?" in 1966 seems, in relation to the flatness of the surrounding countryside, "So Good!" in 1987.
Of course, even then, except for one case of kamikaze-style miscasting in the central role of that green-finger-tipped prairie oyster Sally Bowles, the musical was superbly done.
Quite a few of the people then superbly doing it are here the second time around, notably director Harold Prince, choreographer Ron Field and the show's star, Joel Grey.
The scenic designer Boris Aronson is no longer alive, but his designs, tactfully adapted, have been preserved in spirit by David Chapman; and Patricia Zipprodt has effectively tarted-up, as it were, her own original costumes.
The secret of doing any show the second time is either to do it completely differently - this is the sensible path to success - or, as here, to enhance it in tone and coloration to offset the always dulling comparison with memory's impossible brilliance.
Never leave well enough alone, because well will never be good enough on the return trip. This must be the motto that Prince, Field and Grey adopted for this new "Cabaret" act.
The Joe Masteroff book, based on the John Van Druten Broadway hit "I Am A Camera" that, in turn, was taken from Isherwood's "Berlin Stories," has now been changed slightly, more in accordance with the Jay Presson Allen and Hugh Wheeler screenplay adopted for Bob Fosse's movie version of "Cabaret."
The time is still 1929 (it was 1931 in the movie) and Cliff Bradshaw is still a young American writer coming to Berlin for experience, meeting the crazily voluptuous Sally Bowles and getting caught up with the rising tide of Hitler's New German Reich, with its anti-Semitism and violence.
But Prince now takes the slightly harsher tone that the movie (six years, note, after Broadway) adopted. Thus Cliff is now accepted as a bisexual - with no very strong heterosexual bent - and the Nazis' anti-Semitism is more pointed, particularly in the savage punchline of Grey's duet with a gorilla, as in the movie but earlier omitted on Broadway.
Other changes have come through the casting - the Sally, as given by Alyson Reed, is a much tougher little English cookie than that originally suggested by the miscast Jill Hayworth, and Werner Klemperer as the Jewish greengrocer, unknowingly on the brink of extinction, brings a more serious dignity, and less ironic pathos, to the role than did earlier the adorable Jack Gilford.
The structural fault of the show - as before glossed over by Prince's imagination and Aronson's invention - also remains, whereby the idea of "life being a cabaret, old chum" involves the story consistently being interrupted by numbers of relevant comic decadence but little brilliance.
There have been changes. Gilford's Jewish patter song, "Meeskite," has, inevitably perhaps, gone with Gilford. There is also a new duet, "It Couldn't Please Me More," and a rather strange ballad for Bradshaw, exhorting Sally: "Don't Go."
But generally the Kander and Ebb score still sounds derivative but chirpy. Even the title song, to me at least, seems to carry echoes of "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey?" and much of Kander's music, with the original orchestrations of Don Walker and the additional orchestrations of Michael (recent hero of "Anything Goes") Gibson, seems to have been subject to Weillification.
Personally I prefer something like "Happy End" to this pastiche, just as I prefer neat Isherwood to the dilutions of Van Druten and Masteroff.
All the same, "Cabaret" nowadays can seem pretty good compared with "Late Nite Comic" - Prince does a king-size job, and the present cast has its own qualities.
Reed, as Sally, sings strongly and acts with a convincing accent and rough charm - although she does not begin to suggest the radiant vulnerability of Liza Minnelli in the movie - while Gregg Edelman, looking like the young W.H. Auden, is quite marvelous as Bradshaw.
One misses, however, the authentic original wonders of Lenya and Gilford. Regina Resnik was more at home as Verdi's Mistress Quickly than here in the Lenya role of the landlady, and Klemperer is a somewhat dry stick as her greengrocer suitor.
Yet the real reason behind the revival is - oddly enough - the coruscating, almost uncomfortably demanding presence of Joel Grey.
I say oddly enough because in 1966 Grey was billed merely a supporting actor in the show - but he burst through like a rocket, becoming its shooting star and later dominated the movie.
Every actor returning to a role assures his public that he has found deeper layers in it to explore - I'm sure James O'Neill did just this with "The Count of Monte Cristo" - but in this instance it seems absolutely true. Grey is at least twice as good now as he was then.
When he started in "Cabaret," underneath all that blase bitterness was a kid striving to get out and become a Broadway legend. No longer.
The rictus grin hides no hunger, the puppet gesture of jaunty despair is just that, and the viciousness is without hope. Grey was always better than the show, and he still is.
He is never going to stop his role from being peripheral to the story, but more than ever he is central to the theme, giving it the backbone the show needs. For it is his character, which owes essentially nothing to Isherwood and his world, which gives the show its value.
There can't be a creepier sight on Broadway right now than Joel Grey. Back in the role of the sleazy emcee in the musical ''Cabaret,'' the actor is made up just as he was in 1966 - with patent-leather hair, rouged cheeks, purple lips and drag-queen eyelashes. He darts about like an overwound wind-up doll, twirling his cane with a spastic jerkiness. As his eyes bulge, so his tongue has a most appalling way of flopping out of his mouth. And when Mr. Grey sings, his voice is a piercing siren that doesn't so much welcome revelers to his cabaret, the Kit Kat Klub, as lure them into the hell lurking just out of view - Berlin, 1929.
Mr. Grey's alarming stunt - if anything, rendered more grotesque by the facial lines and show-biz bruises of two added decades - allows us to see some of the excitement that attended ''Cabaret'' in its initial Harold Prince production. It was Mr. Prince's masterstroke, following Jerome Robbins's symbolic use of a Chagall fiddler in ''Fiddler on the Roof'' two seasons earlier, to make Mr. Grey's nameless character and his seedy cabaret a metaphor for a decadent Germany splintering fast into fascism. The emcee was a cadaverous George Grosz caricature brought to life, the embodiment of a morally and economically spent society ripe for Hitler. Though the actual plot of ''Cabaret'' concerns other characters, the emcee's ironic cabaret turns gave the musical its unifying, Brechtian style - a shocking Broadway novelty at the time - and charted the pulse of a civilization going mad.
The new ''Cabaret'' at the Imperial, again directed by Mr. Prince, doesn't merely ask Mr. Grey to embody the evening's themes; this time the performer must carry the entire show as if it were a star vehicle. That demand is preposterously unfair to Mr. Grey. In the original production, he received fifth, not first, billing, and that billing was more or less commensurate with his part. To have a ''Cabaret'' reliant on its emcee is almost like reviving ''Oklahoma!'' as a star vehicle for the actor playing Jud. While Mr. Grey does his job as expertly as ever, he needs help during the long stretches when he's not at center stage.
He frequently fails to get it. This ''Cabaret'' is not, as its heroine Sally Bowles would say, ''perfectly marvelous,'' but it does approach the perfectly mediocre. Of the four principal performers surrounding Mr. Grey, only one (the opera singer Regina Resnik) is adequate. The David Chapman sets - ''based on original set design by Boris Aronson,'' says the Playbill - are tacky, stripped-down cannibalizations of the influential originals, and this, mind you, in the first musical to arrive on Broadway with a $50 top ticket price. Even the original costume designer, Patricia Zipprodt, is at less than her brilliant best: How could chorus girls wear transparent plastic aprons in 1929?
The effect of this cheesiness is to soften Mr. Prince's hard-edged conception and to reveal just how old-fashioned and plodding ''Cabaret'' was when dealing in musical-comedy specifics rather than in directorial metaphor. As inadequately acted, Joe Masteroff's talky script, an adaptation of John Van Druten's stage version of Christopher Isherwood's ''Berlin Stories,'' seems tame now in its treatment of Nazism, especially in light of some of the franker Prince musicals (''Evita,'' ''Sweeney Todd'') that came later. Fresh alterations in the book and score notwithstanding, ''Cabaret'' still follows the double-romance formula of Broadway confections long past. Sally (Alyson Reed), an English cabaret singer, carries on with an expatriate American novelist, Cliff (Gregg Edelman), in counterpoint to a theater-party-pitched romance between a worldweary, middle-aged landlady (Miss Resnik) and a kindly Jewish fruit peddler (Werner Klemperer).
In the current version, Mr. Masteroff has nudged Cliff closer to Isherwood and to Bob Fosse's 1972 film version of ''Cabaret'' by making him explicitly bisexual. But even a double sex-change operation might not redeem the blandness of the central, passionless couple. Ms. Reed, a capable singer and dancer, never remotely suggests the ''mysterious and fascinating'' Sally; she doesn't even wield her long cigarette holder authoritatively. Mr. Edelman's writer, though also of pleasant voice, is so mild that one is constantly taken aback to discover he is the toast of two sexes in at least that many nations. With his corduroy suit and hayseed accent, he seems less likely to write a novel than a homeowner's insurance policy.
''Cabaret'' got away with only slightly flashier casting of the young couple the first time around. The show's not-so-secret weapon in 1966 was Lotte Lenya as the landlady - for Lenya, an indomitable representative of all things Brecht-Weill, added priceless authenticity to the production's evocation of the Weimar period and lent throaty credibility to the pointed echoes of ''The Threepenny Opera'' and ''Mahagonny'' in the extremely clever John Kander-Fred Ebb songs. While Miss Resnik acts and sings the role nearly as well as Lenya, she can never - through no fault of her own - flood her audience with the eerie associations that her predecessor did. As her suitor, the competent Mr. Klemperer lacks the essential warmth of his character's originator, Jack Gilford.
Under these circumstances, many of the better numbers, including Sally's title declaration of defiance and the older couple's charming seduction duet (''It Couldn't Please Me More''), lose their oomph. The songs that fare best are fielded by Mr. Grey and by the witty choreographer, Ron Field, who has impeccably re-created his imaginative parodies of jazz-age social dancing and frenzied before-the-deluge night-club routines.
Mr. Prince's staging is also pretty much as one remembers it - to the extent one can ignore the weak performances and the missing colors and images of the original sets. The chilling sequences are those that open and close each act and that feature the distorting mirror and blinding white lights that do survive the first production. At the end of Act I, when an innocuous beer-drinking polka (''Tomorrow Belongs to Me'') evolves into a Nazi anthem, Mr. Prince abruptly freezes the mob in place, lifts the set up into the darkness and then sends out Mr. Grey to point his face toward the audience in a hideous, mocking grin. As the white lights jolt us into intermission, we feel just how timely a consistently tough ''Cabaret'' could have been, especially for those partying in a boom world at the brink of a crash.