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December 12, 2018

To paraphrase Cliff Bradshaw: “There was a cabaret. And there was a master of ceremonies. And there was a city called Oberlin, in a state called Ohio. It was the end of the semester.”

In other words, the Oberlin Theater Department’s production of Cabaret ended on Sunday, which means that I’ve suddenly found myself with a great deal of free time. In fact, after roughly two weeks of near-nightly rehearsals it feels almost disorienting to have so much time to myself in the evening.

Cabaret is a musical about politics, complacency, love and prejudice, set in the Kit Kat Klub, a seedy Berlin nightclub, as the Nazis rise to power in the '30s (it is not a happy-go-lucky show). It has a book by Joe Masteroff, lyrics by Fred Ebb, and music by none other than John Kander, class of ’51, who also wrote the music for the smash hit Chicago.

I wasn’t technically in the cast of Cabaret, although I did spend more time onstage than just about anyone else—I played guitar and banjo in the pit band. Well, I kind of played the banjo. I may have cheated a bit and tuned my roommate’s banjo exactly like a guitar (in my defense, I am rather lazy and this meant that I didn’t have to actually learn to play the banjo).

Before Oberlin, I played in the pit for eight musical productions at my high school and a few community theatre shows as well, and last year playing theatre music was something that I really missed at Oberlin. I was excited, then, to arrive on campus this fall to see that the Theater Department was putting on a musical and looking for student musicians to play for it. The Oberlin Musical Theater Association, which is a student organization, puts on one to two musicals every semester, but the department only does a musical about every two years (the last one was Spring Awakening in fall 2016). After a quick audition during the first week of classes, I received my book and began practicing for the first pit rehearsal in late September. Pit musicians were eligible to receive two credits for participating in the production, but because of my course overload (check my last blog post if you’d like to hear more about that) I chose not to take advantage of the opportunity.

For three hours every Saturday, our 12-piece band (a rhythm section along with a smattering of winds, brass and strings) met in conservatory practice rooms to run numbers in preparation for the show. 17 days before opening night, things kicked into high gear, with four-plus rehearsals a week with the full cast and crew. These were draining—my days basically consisted of classes, quick meals and rehearsal, with readings and papers crammed into every available gap in my schedule. Nevertheless, I loved every second of it. After all, at the (literal) end of the day I was playing good music with good people.

One first for me in Cabaret was working with a student musical director (fourth-year musical studies major extraordinaire Alex Ngo, who in addition to being an amazing pianist and capable bandleader possesses an impressive repertoire of cartoon theme songs). Our pit was also comprised entirely of Oberlin students—no ringers here. The band was split between conservatory and college students, including jazz musicians, classical players and a few of us who fell somewhere in between. Hands down the most rewarding part of playing for Cabaret was being around such a diverse group of musicians. The rest of the rhythm section were jazz majors, and our impromptu jams during breaks usually took on a jazz/funk flavor, but we’d often hear string players playing Mozart on their end of the pit (which, it’s worth mentioning, wasn’t really a pit but rather a platform far upstage—a much more dignified location, in my opinion).

From dress rehearsals onward, the pit was asked to wear roughly period-appropriate clothing. In some productions of Cabaret, the band are nearly as scantily-clad as the performers. Thankfully, however, we were allowed to show up fully clothed in 1930s outfits (I had borrowed a very nice plaid tie from the band’s trumpeter for the occasion that I was loathe to return this past Sunday).

Cabaret was the first production in the Wurtzel Theater, a roughly 300-seat black box theater that was completed just a few months ago. Our four-night, Thursday-to-Sunday run sold out almost immediately after tickets went on sale, and some notable faces in the crowd included friends, my parents, who drove out from New Jersey to see the show, and, of course, President Ambar. During our closing show, the Sunday matinee, I was left with conflicting feelings: relief that at long last I would have a semblance of a normal sleep schedule, sadness that my time playing with such a wonderful group of people was coming to an end, trepidation at the looming spectre of finals. Most of all, however, I felt proud to have been able to play a part in making art with some like-minded Obies.

To end this post with a second quote from the show: “Where are your troubles now? Forgotten! I told you so. We have no troubles here. Here life is beautiful.” The line is rather ironic in the show, spoken by the Kit Kat Klub’s Emcee as the Nazis rise to power. One of the show’s major themes is the danger of complacency, of writing off ascendant violence and bigotry as “just politics” and hoping that they will only affect others. It’s fitting that such a show is used to christen a new performance space at Oberlin, where injustice is interrogated and students are encouraged to use their skills and talents to be the change they want to see in the world.

For those of you who found the above conclusion a little too neat, I’ll leave you with a final anecdote: during our start-stop technical rehearsals, the band found itself with a lot of downtime. I spent this downtime keeping up with classwork and noodling and chatting with the other musicians. Perhaps the most succinct way I can describe my experience this semester is to say that within the space of five minutes I’ve gone from playing mock-German folk music to reading a primary-source account of the Korean War to riffing on the Pokémon theme song to cracking bad music theory jokes and then back to mock-German folk music. Suffice it to say that Cabaret has been far from dull, and neither has Oberlin.

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