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Reanimating 'Cabaret,' one frame at a time
An undated provided image shows the cast of the Broadway musical “Cabaret.” What if “Willkommen” - the opening number of the groundbreaking Broadway musical “Cabaret,” led by Joel Grey as the impish Emcee of the Kit Kat Club - could be reanimated?. Friedman-Abeles/New York Public Library for the Performing Arts via The New York Times

by Jesse Green

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Theater is what dies every night at 11. Or that’s what it used to be.

But what if some of the greatest shows of the past — shows that ran before your time and closed before the advent of archival video — could be brought back to life? Or at least a kind of half-life?

Thanks to new technology, old-fashioned luck and curatorial mania, that’s happening. Among the shows recently “reanimated” is the original production of the groundbreaking Broadway musical “Cabaret.” If you ever wanted to see how it moved, and how it was moving, now you can.

In a series of astonishing scenes created by Doug Reside, curator of the Billy Rose Theater Division at the New York Public Library, we discover exactly how Joel Grey, as the impish master of ceremonies of the Kit Kat Klub, danced with his chorus of tatty Weimar-era “virgins.” We also see how the giant mirror — a key image in director Hal Prince’s influential staging — looms behind them as they sing “Willkommen,” and how it later tilts to implicate us in the audience.

The story of the reanimations goes back to 1966, when Prince, who was not just the director but also the producer of “Cabaret,” hired the Friedman-Abeles studio to take publicity photos during a dress rehearsal before the first Broadway preview that fall. As was not uncommon — but proved uncommonly lucky — Prince soon asked the photographers back to reshoot the show after he’d made final changes, and then again for the first national tour in 1967 and the second in 1969.

The result, if you look just at the still images, is a marvelous but bewildering jumble, with different performers performing the same roles and staging. You see Grey at some point turn into one of his tour replacements, Jay Fox, in different makeup but nearly identical poses. And you see Jill Haworth, who originated the role of the divinely decadent Sally Bowles, suddenly go from a blonde at the dress rehearsal to a brunette by opening night. (Prince had ordered a wig change.) Then she “becomes” Melissa Hart. Then Tandy Cronyn.

Years later, 3,694 of these “Cabaret” images were among a trove of the studio’s work donated to the library. A tremendous resource for theater historians, they were nevertheless difficult to work with and awkward to share with the public. As Reside described the viewing process: “We’d give you a loupe and a light table and say good luck.”

But as he recently began to digitize some of the collection’s most important photographs, it occurred to Reside that if a show had produced enough good images in quick sequence, the digitizations could be stitched together in Google Photos to make GIF-like animations. “Cabaret” was ripe for this treatment: By the 1960s, professional cameras like the ones used by Friedman-Abeles were equipped with quick-advance mechanisms that allowed them to take more shots per minute than conventional cameras did, rather like “bursts” today.

This year, having already animated selections from “West Side Story” and “Company,” Reside set to work on “Cabaret.” After gathering the digitized stills, he assembled them into scenes and then individual moments, using the library’s copy of Joe Masteroff’s script and tape recording of the audio as guides. Many proved unusable, but 350 of them, fed into Google’s animation tool, produced 70 GIFs, ranging from three to 18 images each.

The kiss of technology seemed to awaken the show’s sleeping aura. The central romance of Sally and Clifford Bradshaw (Bert Convy) sprang to life in a few animated seconds of the scene in which she charms her way into his one-bed flat. The intricacies of Ronald Field’s choreography were revealed in the assembled pieces of “Two Ladies,” the Kander and Ebb song in which the master of ceremonies and his chorines comment on unorthodox living arrangements like those of Sally and Cliff.

Reanimated choreography is among the most valuable gifts of the GIFs. When video is unavailable and dances have not been notated for posterity, spliced-together sequences of stills may be a crucial tool. Not just for preserving elaborate production numbers like “The Telephone Song” — cut from the 1972 movie and mostly lost to time — but also in preserving the way actors’ bodies simply existed in space. The feistiness and then the resignation of Cliff’s landlady, Frau Schneider, emerge in just a few quick glimpses of the great Lotte Lenya’s performance, known to most theater fans only from her vocals on the original cast recording.

When you see these characters move, you can see what they’re thinking. And when you see the show move, you can see what it’s thinking, too.

In some cases, you can also see what it decided not to show you. One ominous “Cabaret” scene, staged in silhouette, represents the growing political furor surrounding the characters as fascists gain power in Germany in 1929 and 1930. Prince, who was seldom precious about his ideas, cut it between the dress rehearsal and opening, whether for commercial or aesthetic reasons, we don’t know. Either way, Reside’s animations rescue this bit of theatrical history and let us feel its horror.

Photographs, of course, can preserve a show’s great moments, frame by frame. But frames aren’t what you see as you look at a stage. You see a string of images, blurred into one.

No photographer can capture an eye roll in one shot. In a single still, a dance step is just a dance pose.

Nor can photographs really convey how two sets of performers, in the same roles at different times — or one performer in different wigs — bring different nuances to the living art of seduction.

Pirated videos, even professional films, miss something else. They seem ordinary, perhaps because we are so used to seeing the world that way. But theater is, and will always be, strange.

Reside’s animations uniquely capture that strangeness. If they are slightly creepy and marionettelike, that’s part of why they are moving. They turn then into now but only partway.

That “partway” is where our great stage memories live. If tomorrow belongs to me, as the master of ceremonies sings, yesterday belongs to the theater. It is an art form in which golden moments fall into the past just a blink or two faster than we can catch them.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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