"It was the end of the world and I was dancing with Sally Bowles and we were both fast asleep," writes Christopher Isherwood's proxy at the end of Cabaret, recalling the giddy oblivion of pre-World War II Berlin.
And for a troupe of queer performers in Seattle, it is the end of the world and they are dancing with each other in desperate hope that no one will sleep through the next four years. Since its 1966 debut, Cabaret has served as a reflection on Germany's collapse into Nazi rule at the end of the '30s, but today the show's echo of current events is the best way these artists can think of making their voices heard.
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Seattle drag legend Mama Tits has been staging 30-minute musicals in the cozy subterranean Unicorn cabaret space for years, and they've always been uplifting shows: Fun, frantic, high-energy romps, audiences have come to expect a small group of drag queens sprinting through 9 to 5, or Hairspray, or Mamma Mia. But Mama recently stepped away to perform a one-woman show in Puerto Vallarta; and with the drag matriarch producing from abroad, the remaining cast (Isabella Extynn, Abbey Roads, Ruby Bouché and Sparkle Leigh) launched a mini-musical version of Cabaret with the setting changed from pre-war Berlin to the 2016 election.
It's probably the only drag show in history to open with audio of Barack Obama's first State of the Union: "Do not doubt the direction we are heading and the destination we will reach," his voice echoes over a darkened house. At last weekend's performance, the audience sat in motionless silence as the former president's words of encouragement shifted into a countdown to the start of 2016.
Few details of the plot are changed: an American arrives in Berlin and meets struggling nightclub singer Sally Bowles, a manic pixie dreamgirl before it was a trope. She sings and seduces her way through life, furiously avoiding any thought of the political horror creeping into 1939 Berlin—or, in this case, 2016 America.
The song "Two Ladies," in which the nightclub emcee salaciously celebrates the options presented when he has two partners, slides abruptly into audio of Hillary Clinton's speech at the convention. Hillary thanks her Democratic Party rival and welcomes his supporters into the fold, and suddenly the giddy polygamy of "Two Ladies" is stripped away by a stark reality: for progressives, after the convention it was Hillary or nothing. Political monogamy.
The tone darkens further as Hillary's speech is followed by "Maybe Next Time." As the convention speech echoes over the audience, Sally Bowles emerges to sing lyrics that are shockingly fitting: "All the odds, they're in my favor/Something's bound to begin/It's gotta happen, happen sometime/Maybe this time I'll win."
In the context of the show, it is a gut-wrenching song. The words are delivered mournfully, as Sally's relationships are eroding and her career is revealed to be a flimsy disaster. Like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," the world's saddest Christmas carol, the optimistic language is a sarcastic lament because we all know the futility of that "maybe."
But the show's eeriest moment comes next, with the first appearance of Donald Trump.
At first, there's just a blond-haired puppet held out in a spotlight, singing "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" in an angelic voice. But as the spotlight widens, it's revealed that an orange-haired man in a business suit has his hand inside the puppet, and the puppet's final refrain of "tomorrow belongs..." fades away, replaced my a sinister "...to me" from Donald.
"Politics—what has that got to do with us?" Sally demands. But try as she might to avoid the election, there's no escaping it as the title "November 2016" appears across the stage. Audio plays of Donald bragging about his money, which transitions into the song "Money." Drag performer Sparkle Leigh, with glittering lipstick and a long red tie, chases platters of cash around the stage and the only thing missing is a shadowy handout from Vladimir Putin.
Audio of Donald's victory speech plays as images of dismayed Democrats at election night parties slide past. The MC emerges with a stricken look on his face, hastily pushing Sally onstage to lighten the mood. But her life is collapsing, and her entreaty to reflect on the joys of life feel like a stab wound in the aftermath of Donald's win.
Sally Bowles performer Abbey Roads lip-syncs to dialogue, but performs the songs with live vocals. She is a devastating knockout of a singer. "It's time for a holiday," she snarls cynically from the stage, and the words "start celebrating" aren't so much sung as stabbed.
"Where are your troubles now?" the MC shakily asks the audience as the show comes to a close and a violent reich crystallizes outside of the cabaret doors. "Forgotten? I told you so."
They are not, of course, forgotten, and a frightening Donald character clutches at Sally as she holds a replica of the Statue of Liberty's torch aloft.
At the very same time that the show was performed last weekend, thousands of people were gathering at airports around the country to defend the poem written in giant words at the doorstep of the country: "Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."
And a musical based on a play based on a novel written in 1939 never felt so timely.
Mimosas Cabaret is a three-hour show performed every Saturday and Sunday at Unicorn, starting at 1pm and culminating with the mini-musical Cabaret. Tickets are available at mimosascabaret.com.