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i am a camera

16 july 2010

I Am a Camera is most famous for a review shorter than its title: "Me no Leica." That review (variously attributed to every wit in show biz) was provoked by the 1955 film version. It's hard to say now whether one would Leica the movie or not, since it's unavailable on DVD. But the play the film was based on is still on many bookshelves, and I recently acquired a first printing of it.

The play I Am a Camera is John Van Druten's adaptation of some elements of Christopher Isherwood's Berlin stories. The whole set of works devoted to Christopher Isherwood and his character Sally Bowles forms one of the more complicated 20th-century artistic lineages. Isherwood's original stories exist in several forms: as independent sketches, as a very loosely-assembled novel called Berlin Stories, and in a volume called Goodbye to Berlin. Isherwood's originals are exquisite, but they bear the marks of drafts of something that never really got assembled into a whole, and they've stayed in print in rather miscellaneous fashion.

John Van Druten, a lion of the mid-20th-century English-speaking theatre world who is now almost completely forgotten, saw the potential in Isherwood's material for a tightly-constructed three-act play about a relationship that never quite gets going. Van Druten centered his drama on an English writer manqué named "Christopher Isherwood" and the English nightclub singer Sally Bowles: feckless, promiscuous, magnetic, and a perfect vehicle for Julie Harris, who won one of her trunkload of Tony awards for creating the role. I Am a Camera provided a slight subplot (man-about-town Fritz Wendel, a closeted Jew, falls in love with Jewish heiress Natalia Landauer, and must reveal his ethnicity), and a blocking character in the form of anti-Semitic landlady Fräulein Schneider.

Van Druten's play was filmed, as I've mentioned, with Harris as Sally, and directed by Passport to Pimlico veteran Henry Cornelius. That's the one you can't get on DVD. About a decade later, Harold Prince produced a sprawling Broadway musical version called, of course, Cabaret, with songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb. (The idea for Cabaret was conceived by writer Sandy Wilson, who called his early version Goodbye to Berlin; titles abound in this saga, because Van Druten had called the first draft of his play Sally Bowles. If you're now as confused as I am, no wonder.)

Cabaret opened on Broadway in the fall of 1966 bearing only a faint resemblance to I Am a Camera and still less to Isherwood's stories. "Christopher Isherwood" had become the American "Clifford Bradshaw," his relationship with Sally was now consummated if not consolidated, and both Clifford and Sally (Bert Convy and Jill Haworth, in 1966) were upstaged by two new elements: a rueful romance between the Jewish Herr Schultz and a rather airbrushed Fräulein Schneider (Jack Gilford and Lotte Lenya, the show's de facto stars) – and a malevolent song-and-dance man, the Emcee (the role Joel Grey was born to play, and his Tony Award-winning performance). In the West End, Judi Dench played Sally, provoking mind-bending thought experiments in transitive casting like "What if Liza Minnelli played M in a James Bond movie?"

Minnelli, naturally, played Sally in the 1972 film. Screenwriter Jay Presson Allen, fresh from the success of adapting another novel-to-stage-to-film phenomenon (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie), steered the story well back in the direction of Van Druten, if not all the way back to Isherwood. The older couple were banished, their songs reduced to background music, and Fritz and Natalia re-emerged as central to the film's concerns. The Isherwood character became English again, and Sally of course became American, and though they were vigorously heterosexual at times, the Englishman (now, for some reason, called "Brian") also had gay relationships. Kander and Ebb added a pop ballad they'd written for Minnelli well before: "Maybe This Time," one of the greatest show-stoppers of all. Bob Fosse choreographed and directed, Joel Grey reprised the Emcee, and Oscars were distributed liberally.

Later, Cabaret returned to Broadway twice and stages around the world many times, now usually featuring "Maybe This Time" and various improbable aging teen-stars as Sally Bowles. The show is one of the fixtures of American musical theatre, and the film has become iconic.

The Cabaret phenomenon owes a great deal to the now-obscure Van Druten. Yet in 1952, I Am a Camera was sharp entertainment, and it remains an intelligent, energetic play. Van Druten portrayed promiscuity, anti-Semitism, and abortion openly in ways that Hollywood in 1952 couldn't have done. Though he did not openly portray Isherwood as gay, he resisted the temptation to make Chris and Sally lovers. They are not lovers in the Berlin stories, and though one somehow wants them to be lovers in I Am a Camera, they're not. The story thus gains a lot more tension and is indefinably more "adult" than it seems in later Broadway and film versions, where the plot is more predictably boy-meets-girl, boy-sleeps-with-girl, girl-has-abortion, girl-leaves-boy.

And the whole play takes place on a single set. Broadway was a simpler place in 1952: not that spectacle was wholly lacking, but that you could get the attention of Manhattan by putting two kids together in a run-down apartment. It wasn't Rent – heck, it wasn't even Cabaret – but it was good theatre.

Van Druten, John. I Am a Camera: A play in three acts adapted from the Berlin stories of Christopher Isherwood. New York: Random House, 1952.