NEW YORK—Joe Masteroff, the Tony Award-winning story writer of the brilliant, edgy musical “Cabaret” and the touching, romantic “She Loves Me,” has died. He was 98.
Masteroff died on Sept. 28, at the Actors Fund Home in Englewood, New Jersey, said The Roundabout Theatre Company, which produced recent revivals of his best-loved shows.
“Today we deeply mourn the loss of our friend Joe Masteroff, one of the 20th century’s masters of the Great American Musical. His ‘She Loves Me’ and ‘Cabaret’ helped shape our theater, and we were honored to present them both on Broadway,” said Todd Haimes, artistic director and CEO of the Roundabout Theatre Company.
“Joe was a close collaborator, a legendary wit, and a dear friend. Our thoughts and prayers are with his friends and family,” he continued.
Masteroff was never prolific but made a profound mark on the theater with two shows seemingly at opposite ends of the spectrum—one considered by many to be the most charming musical ever written and the other a ferociously dark musical with ominous Nazis.
“I’ve had a limited career, but it’s been OK,” he told The Associated Press in a 2015 interview as another national tour of “Cabaret” was kicking off.
The Philadelphia-born Masteroff hoped as a young man to write plays and after serving in World War II took a course for playwriting. He hadn’t found much success until his 1959 comedy play “The Warm Peninsula” made it to Broadway starring Julie Harris.
“One day my agent called and said ‘Joe, I’ve got wonderful news. Julie Harris wants to do your play.’ I said, ‘Which play?’ He told me and said, ‘Not only that, she wants to tour for a year throughout the United States and then bring it to New York.’ That day my life changed.”
The show only managed 86 Broadway performances but got Masteroff noticed. He was asked to write the book for “She Loves Me” with songs by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. It was produced by the legendary Hal Prince.
“She Loves Me,” a case of mistaken identity set in a 1930’s European perfumery, was nominated for five Tonys in 1964 and the 1993 Broadway revival won the Olivier Award for best musical revival.
A 2016 Tony-nominated revival on Broadway starred Laura Benanti, Jane Krakowski and Zachary Levi. The story has been adapted into the films “The Shop Around the Corner” with James Stewart and “You’ve Got Mail” with Tom Hanks.
It was Prince who next asked him to write the libretto for a musical that took a look at a seamy slice of life in Germany just before the Nazi takeover. Masteroff compressed Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories” and John van Druten’s play “I Am a Camera.” The songs were provided by composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb.
The show is set in 1920s Berlin where a sleazy nightclub becomes a metaphor for a world slowly going mad and drifting toward world war. The musical was first called “Welcome to Berlin,” a name that was dropped after Masteroff suggested “Cabaret.”
In the show, cabaret numbers are interspersed with two love stories—one between free spirit Sally Bowles and an American writer named Cliff Bradshaw and a second between a German landlady and her Jewish tenant.
It debuted in Boston in 1966 and was a sensation—audiences were not used to going to shows that mixed call girl characters and Nazis, lasciviousness, alcoholism, and abortions.
“I always thought that this show was very iffy. We had done so many things that nobody in their right mind would have done. That it worked was a pleasant surprise,” Masteroff said in 2015.
“At the first performances—maybe the first three or four days—people kept walking out. In numbers. And the reason, quite obviously, was they went to see a musical called ‘Cabaret’ and there was something wrong with this show. Some people were very disappointed. Once the reviews came out, that ended.”
The original production—starring Jill Haworth as Sally, Bert Convy as Clifford and Joel Grey as the master of ceremonies—was one of the most influential musicals of the 1960s. It won the best musical Tony in 1967.
It was one of the first of the so-called concept musicals, in which book, music, lyrics, scenery, costumes, and lighting worked together to get across the show’s idea. A 1972 film version was directed by Bob Fosse and starred Liza Minnelli, Michael York and Grey.
A Broadway “Cabaret” revival by director Sam Mendes and choreographer Rob Marshall starring Alan Cumming won the best revival Tony in 1998 and it was revived again in 2014 with Cumming aboard and actresses including Michelle Williams, Emma Stone, and Sienna Miller playing Sally.
Both “She Loves You” and “Cabaret” made numerous appearances on Broadway and regionally over the years. Masteroff only helped write one other adaptation to make it to Broadway—”70, Girls, 70″ in 1971, which lasted only 35 performances—but his career was set.
“I wrote a few shows after that but mostly for my own amusement,” he said. “I haven’t had a big career, you might say. I’m not that anxious. If I’m doing all right, I’ll settle for that.”
By Mark Kennedy