Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

Undergraduate Issue

Volume 26 Number 2
Spring 2004

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Daniel Williams in Kabarett costume
Photo courtesy Daniel Williams

Musical Theater with a Message

"The emcee and the cabaret were the perfect metaphor for the country—Germany then, or the U.S. right now—on the eve of a nightmare from which it will refuse to wake until it's too late." —Harold Prince, 1966, on his Broadway showCabaret

As senior recitals go, it was a shocker. After all, such concerts aren't often performed in red bustiers and torn fishnet stockings, let alone in full drag. But for Daniel Williams, shock value is important.

A musical theater major in Indiana University Bloomington's Individualized Major Program, Williams created, directed, and starred in Kabarett: a portrait of performance and life in 1930 Berlin (supported in part by an IU Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity Partnership grant). Featuring bawdy songs from Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht, Arnold Schönberg, and the musical Cabaret, the show stood out in a field that tends toward Gilbert and Sullivan. The music's nonconformity clicked with Williams, who believes art should unsettle the status quo.

"Cabaret is not art for art's sake," says the tall tenor, who was born in Spain. "It's trying to make a point, to say something about the world we live in."

More than a year in the making, Kabarett focused on social issues, with songs about relationships, sexuality, and exploitation. In the first act, Williams and a chorus of six undergraduate peers, accompanied by a pianist, vamped through a satire of decadent nightclub life. The act ended with the Marlene Dietrich standard "Falling in Love Again." Williams performed the song wearing a black wig, short negligee, and heels.

The second act turned to a grittier reality—the domestic violence and betrayal that filled the characters' daily lives. No grand finale, no happy ending—Williams wanted to underscore the oppression and decline of the interwar period.

"I have a lot to say about the responsibility the government has for inequities around the world," Williams says, noting parallels he sees between 1930s Germany, the Vietnam era, and contemporary situations in Iraq and elsewhere. Artists should be activists, he says, or at least public servants—they have the power, and a duty, to address "the human condition."

"We're the same, all over the world," Williams says. "We have the same needs, the same desires. When I learn about what is going on in places I'm unfamiliar with, how can I not care? As an artist and performer, maybe I can do something that will actually help."

What he can do, says Williams, is use his art to enlighten. He admires Brecht, who intended his edgy, political theater to make audiences think. In his Kabarett, Williams wanted his sleazy main character—a low-down, crotch-grabbing blend of Emcee from Cabaret and Macheath from Threepenny Opera—to provoke audiences into paying attention to the abuse of power and the predicaments of others. "My character mocked the audience, trapped in their own tight, protective little worlds," he says.

Mocked or not, the audiences were enthusiastic. The performances, in two venues, were standing-room only. At the School of Music, the formal Ford Hall "rocked on its foundation," says Patricia Stiles, assistant professor of music at IUB and Williams's voice teacher and main mentor. "The audience adored it."

Williams's unusual mix of classical voice coaching with Stiles and musical theater training with George Pinney, professor of theatre and drama at IUB, paid off in the ambitious Kabarett. He acted, danced, and sang in both English and German. "Everything sounded easy," Stiles says. "He's very talented; I think he has what it takes."

Williams is certainly hoping so. Although he may pursue graduate work in performance studies, hes off to New York after graduation to "audition and see how it goes." He'll be looking for quirky roles, he says.

But no romantic roles yet. Williams is a stickler for detail, and despite his fine tenor voice, he says hasn't found the romantic lead inside himself, because he hasn't yet found romance in real life. "Someday, I'll fall in love," he muses, "and the light bulb will go off."

—Lauren J. Bryant