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What Is Cabaret?

Cabaret was destroyed under Nazi rule.
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  • Last Modified Date: 11 September 2014
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Cabaret is a style of variety entertainment, typically including music, dance, comedy, and short theatrical pieces. The style is named after the venue in which it is performed, which is similar to a nightclub. Cabaret began in France around the turn of the 19th century, later flourishing in Germany and the United States.

Some of the most famous early cabarets in France were the Chat Noir, the Moulin Rouge, and the Folies-Bergère, the last two of which are still in business. It was an immensely popular form of entertainment throughout the 19th century, sometimes featuring circus acts along with the more common musical and dance numbers. Elaborate costumes and stunning showgirls became staples of the genre, and performers such as Maurice Chevalier and Josephine Baker made their names through cabaret.

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German cabaret began much later than its French predecessor, around the turn of the 20th century. In its early days, German shows were heavily restricted by government censorship, but during the Weimar era of the 1920s and 1930s, artistic expression was less regulated and cabaret took on great cultural significance, often dealing with controversial social and political themes. Unfortunately, this blossoming was short-lived, as the Nazi party effectively destroyed the genre, along with other art forms, retaining only what was flattering to the government and its philosophies. The 1966 Broadway play Cabaret, based on the stories of Christopher Isherwood and adapted to film in 1972, deals with the heyday of German cabaret and its decline as the Nazis came to power.

Cabaret also had an influence on American live entertainment in the first half of the 20th century, particularly in major cities like New York and Chicago. American Cabaret typically featured jazz music, which was developed in New Orleans in the 1910s. In Chicago, it often showcased big bands, while solo vocalists were more common in New York. The stylized, erotic, and often dark aesthetic has had a lasting influence on live entertainment throughout the Western world. In recent decades, it lives on through a musical genre known as Dark Cabaret that takes its influences from 1920s German dramatists such as Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill.

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