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In TAPS’ ‘Cabaret,’ even the orchestra is beautiful

Chris Yoon ('19) conducts the fourteen-person "Cabaret" orchestra, decked out in party hats (THERESE SANTIAGO/The Stanford Daily).

NOTE: A previous version of this article inaccurately reported the identities of Cabaret ensemble members in “Maybe This Time” and “Entr’acte”. Commentary on the live sound design has also been amended.

Come hear the music play in the 2019 Theater and Performance Studies (TAPS) Mainstage production of Kander and Ebb’s “Cabaret” (1966), choreographed and directed Erika Chong Shuch and music directed by Chris Yoon ’19. Audience members ushered into Roble Arts Gym are greeted by flirtatious Kit Kat People hovering around the candy-colored, pin-striped alleyway stage, immersing spectators in the garish glitz of a 1930s Berlin nightclub. A prominent ten-foot raised platform situates the 14 person orchestra above the dramatic action. The shiny, colorful party hats that the musicians wear can be seen bobbing in tandem with the conductor’s baton throughout the show.

“It’s really nice to be able to see what’s happening onstage, because normally you don’t get to do that in a pit orchestra,” Yoon notes about the orchestra set-up. “I really enjoy being able to watch.the big Kit Kat Club numbers “Don’t Tell Mama,” “Mein Herr” and “Money,” which are always fun to conduct.”

Shuch’s directorial choice of placing the orchestra onstage acknowledges the stage direction in the original script that the band is onstage, which gives the the audience “the sense of being in a club.” The lofted orchestra allows for effective communication of music cues between the actors and conductor, meta-theatrical moments and even set changes. The emcee treats the lofted musicians as their audience for a brief dance solo in “Wilkommen” and there is a delightful moment in the engagement party scene at the end of Act I when Yoon and his musicians throw down golden streamers to help the stage crew decorate the stage space.

“You don’t need many rehearsals to make pit orchestras sound good — it’s more about finding good players,” Yoon said when asked about the rehearsal process.

The 14 piece Cabaret orchestra consists of a violin, viola, cello, two clarinets, alto and tenor sax, trumpet, trombone, two pianos, bass and drums. The orchestra only met for three rehearsals and one sitzprobe spring quarter prior to tech. Although the full band was not assembled in rehearsal until tech due to the various illnesses and conflicts the musicians had, Yoon was able to produce miraculous sound from his musicians. Yoon attributes his success to having worked with most of the musicians in past productions as well as giving detailed seven-to-eight page rehearsal notes that included any changes to tempo marks or orchestration that he and Shuch had made. When asked what his least favorite songs were to conduct, Yoon said, “the music is not easy but it’s not Mahler,” adding, “It’s a melodically easy musical, unlike more complex Sondheim shows. All the music is hummable and it makes sense.”

Yoon was well-equipped to reorchestrate various songs in “Cabaret, having music-directed seven shows during his time at Stanford. Yoon recalls how as a frosh, he worked with the director of 2015 TAPS mainstage production of “Evita” (1985) to “make it sound more modern like the 2012 revival.” “Cabaret” marks Yoon’s final show after working on a variety of student productions such as Stanford Light Opera Company’s “Don Giovanni,” “Phantom of the Opera” and Blackstage’s “Ragtime.” Yoon was a self-taught conductor and violinist prior to coming to Stanford, who had watched countless YouTube videos of Leonard Bernstein so he could lead fellow musicians in his school orchestra, playing repertoire such as “Beethoven Symphony No. 5” and Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite.” “Cabaret” marks a milestone in Yoon’s conducting career, giving him “the really cool experience of working with professionals” in a rehearsal staff of predominantly TAPS faculty and guest artists versus students.

The prominent position of the orchestra and their music director onstage is thus fitting given the extensive collaboration between Yoon and Shuch during the rehearsal process. Yoon describes Shuch as “a deviser,” someone with a flexible approach to theater who loves working with actors in a space to figure out what does and does not work, where nothing in the music or script is ever “set in stone.” Yoon admits he was not familiar with the show prior to working on “Cabaret” but knew that “the story revolves around 1930s Germany and the bystander effect — which is to say if you don’t look out for other people, it’ll bite you in the back.” While Yoon and Shuch have included all the songs in the 1998 Broadway revival soundtrack, they made a couple notable changes to the orchestration to reflect Shuch’s artistic vision.

The most obvious change that Shuch and Yoon have made to the music is the slowing down of the eponymous musical number “Cabaret.” Regan Lavin’s ’21’s B-list cabaret artist Sally Bowles slowly enters onstage in a sparkly black dress, her subdued energy matched by the slow croon of the saxophone. Over the course of the first verse, Sally Bowles goes from hardly singing at the revised slow tempo, the rhythm and volume gradually picking up and more instruments coming in. By the time she sings the bridge “Come taste the wine! Come hear the band!” the whole orchestra plays the iconic melody with gusto. The melodic similarities between the start of “Cabaret” and the harrowing hymn to amorality “I Don’t Care Much” plays up the stubborn blindness of Sally Bowles and the entire Kit Kat Club throughout the show.

Another notable digression from Broadway is the directorial choice to have women from all walks of life front and center for the power ballad “Maybe This Time.” Originally sung alone by Bowles as she reflects on her relationship with Cliff Bradshaw (played by Ian Hodge ’19), in Shuch’s production, Amanda Yuan’s ’20 Fraulein Schneider and three Kit Kat Girls join Bowles onstage, creating a plaintive, raw unison about their romantic aspirations. Having Fraulein Schneider join Bowles onstage makes thematic sense, as the middle-aged German landlady and young British nightclub star are far more similar than they may appear. Over the course of the show, both women are revealed to tragically choose their careers and complicity with Nazism over their lovers and acting upon conventional morality. The addition of Kelly Devens’ ’20 Rosie, Samantha Loui’s ’20 Frenchie and Kathryn Dragone’s ’22 Helga onstage reinforces that Sally, of all the Kit Kat Girls, is indeed “lucky” to have a way out of “the seedy little dive” that she loves so irrationally.

Small sound design choices contribute to the detached, hedonistic attitudes of characters inside and outside the Cabaret. Modern club music blared during the loudspeakers during Kit Kat Club scenes suggests a terrifying timelessness of people clubbing in bad faith, not asking themselves “what would you do” about their Nazi neighbors. Live sound designer Jamie Tippett ’19 explained that the removal of the polish effect on the mics in Act II sonically renders the characters in an “off” world. This first becomes apparent during the poignant scene when the voice of Herr Schultz (played by Gabriel Wieder ’20 seems to echo when he sings “Married (Reprise)” at the beginning of Act II. The echoing effect on the music augments how Fraulein Schneider after seeing Navi fervor at her engagement party rejects her romance and marriage with the Jewish Herr Schultz encapsulated by the song “Married” as a foolish thing of the past.

Nowhere in the show does both the orchestra and ensemble shine, as they do in “Entr’acte” at the beginning of Act II. The orchestral medley clocks seven minutes, featuring melodies from “Two Ladies,” “Money,” “Married,” “I Don’t Care Much” and “Cabaret.” This is Yoon’s favorite song in the show, and Shuch’s concept for the number completely obliterates the fourth wall. Though the orchestra remains confined to their lofted platform, their energy propels the ensemble out of the set and into the aisles, openly engaging with the audience members while remaining completely in character. The writer herself was sought out to dance in the aisles with the Kit Kat Club People by Justine Sombilon ’22, who along with Arjun Sheth ’19 and Chloe Wintersteen ’20 composed a terrific trio of emcees. During the entirety of the Entr’acte spontaneous dance party, the orchestra played exuberantly with a sound quality and musicality rivaled only by Broadway, proving the words of Arjun Sheth’s emcee spoken in “Wilkommen” that indeed, “the orchestra is beautiful” in “Cabaret.

Contact Natalie Francis at natfran ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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