Re-interpreting a role that is supposedly “owned” by another person's portrayal has sunk many a fine actor. Anyone approaching the part of Stanley Kowalski, for example, must deal with the ghost of Brando, and there's nothing much you, as an actor, can do about it. Either do an impression of Brando, hoping that it will be fine and you get away with it, or try to put your own stamp on the part. But good luck with that last choice. This doesn't happen with all parts, or even all great performances. Something can be good without being definitive. For an actor to approach these parts with an air of resentment that the ghosts exist, or to wish that you could own the part all on your own without the danger of being compared to someone else, is a useless enterprise, although quite common and understandable.
Liza Minnelli played Sally Bowles in Bob Fosse's Cabaret, and her shadow is long. I have seen a ton of productions of Cabaret over the years. Actresses struggle to find their own niche, to squirm out from beneath Minnelli's influence, and usually it's a losing battle, and they end up just doing their best Liza Imitation and calling it a day. Often roles are not even to BE “interpreted.” Just play what's there, make it real, embody the characteristics required, and come alive under imaginary circumstances. It's rare that someone can come along and give a new “spin” on a well-known character. Liza Minnelli, in all her glitter and mania, her show-trash survival skills, her twisted Fosse poses, and her spidery false eyelashes, claimed all available ground for the interpretation of Sally Bowles.
Until 1998, when a revival of Cabaret came to the Roundabout here in New York, created by Sam Mendes and choreographed (and co-directed) by Rob Marshall. The revival starred Natasha Richardson as Sally Bowles and Alan Cumming as the “Emcee” (another role that was pretty much “owned” by Joel Grey until Cumming came along).
I saw it in its original incarnation where there was a pit down in front where you could buy seats, sit at a table, and order a bottle of wine, as though you were actually at the nightclub in Germany. It made a world of difference in the feel of the show that it was not done strictly in a proscenium setting. That's one of the strengths of Cabaret as it is written. The audience becomes implicated in what is going on. If you sit there and clap at the end of “Tomorrow Belongs To Me,” then what does that say about you?
With only one or two overly didactic moments, the Roundabout Company's version of Cabaret went full throttle in that direction, and it was so visceral at one point on the night I saw it that the entire audience spontaneously did NOT clap at the end of one huge number. I have never before (and never since) been to a big glitzy Broadway show, regardless of the theme, where such a spontaneous withholding of applause has occurred. It sounds corny and perhaps obvious, but it just felt wrong to applaud. The silence in that theater resonated, ricocheted. The true horror behind Cabaret and the culture it depicts, not to mention the approaching world-wide cataclysm was in that silence.
It was one of the most exciting nights of theater of my life.
Natasha Richardson, certainly not a singer at the level of Minnelli, was faced with numerous challenges when starting to work on this role, which she was quite open about in interviews. How would she do this part? How would she handle the singing, the dancing, all of the complicated elements, how would she get her voice in shape so that she could handle doing eight shows a week, and also, oh yeah, how would she make an audience forget that they had ever heard of Liza Minnelli?
To say that she made me forget Liza Minnelli is an understatement. I sat with my friend at one of the nightclub tables up front, and when Richardson stood in the stark spotlight, center stage, and sang “Maybe This Time,” something started going on inside of me. I can count on one hand the times I have ever felt what I felt as an audience member that night, and in that moment in particular. I started to feel hot. Uncomfortably so. Not one tear fell down my face. There was no catharsis with her performance, no letting the audience off the hook. I felt hot with suppression. All kinds of personal griefs came washing up with the tide as she sang, a shaky and desperate ragdoll up there, her arms dangling uselessly, her eyes mad and huge, trying to sing her way out of the pit she was in. I forgot where I was, who I was. I forgot that I had a glass of wine on the table, I forgot it was a show. I forgot about Liza Minnelli, and I forgot about comparing the sound of the songs to the well-known versions in my head. Instead, I was stuck in my chair, riveted, unable to look away, and at the same time I wanted to flee down the street, because Richardson's performance was dredging up too much pain. At one point, during “Maybe This Time,” my friend reached out across the table and grabbed onto my hand. And so I was not having that experience alone. Natasha Richardson reached up and out into that blinding spotlight, and grabbed all of us by the damn throats, with nary a gesture—she never moved her arms. She just, with the sheer raw power of her performance, made us sit there and take it. If she could take it, we could.
Liza Minnelli gave one of the all-time great film performances as Sally Bowles, and it's still fun and creepy to watch that performance today. Her Bowles is so blatantly manic, so “gay” and excitable, that you have a feeling that some day she is going to wake up screaming and never stop. Minnelli creates that kind of energy like nobody else on the planet. It is her stock-in-trade. I have seen Liza live, and she is a force of nature. Her mania is something organic, true to who she is. I didn't really get that about her until I saw her in person.
Because Liza Minnelli was playing Sally Bowles, naturally the film utilized her great voice, Fosse dance skills, and performance ability. In the film version of Cabaret, Sally Bowles was actually a terrific performer, waiting to be discovered, living it up as a big fish in a small pond, a celebrity in Weimar Germany. It's an interesting choice, and makes what happens to her even more awful. First of all, there's a big world out there, Sally, and things are getting quite scary. Or haven't you noticed? But you also get the sense, from Minnelli, that if only this green-finger-nailed fabulous sprite could just focus, and stop sleeping with everyone in town, and stop taking drugs and making bad choices ... maybe she could “make it” in the larger arena.
And so when Liza Minnelli sings “Life is a cabaret, old chum,” there is a crazy hope behind those glittering scary eyes. The world is about to end. Everything is about to fall apart. Bowles has been in bed with the wrong people. The waking-up-screaming is coming, but until that day? She plants her legs wide apart on that empty stage, and wails out her life force, defiantly declaring her belief that the party was worth it. In a strange way, Minnelli's version can be seen as a triumph. At least from Bowles' perspective. That's why it's such a good performance. It's complicated. There are no easy answers. Bowles launches herself, willfully, above the horror in that moment, and insists—she insists, all evidence to the contrary, that life IS a cabaret. She will not have it any other way. But when you think about the wider picture of what is happening in Europe at that time, that mindset becomes disgusting, soulless.
You wonder what Bowles could have accomplished with such energy if she had channeled it into something else. Something not so corrupt at the heart of it.
Richardson didn't go that route, which was already a courageous deviation. Her singing voice is strong but not pretty. At times, she sounds like a little kid. The voice quavers with emotion, you can hear her heaving for breath in the soundtrack. Richardson's Sally Bowles is not a professional in any way, shape or form. In the Roundabout's Cabaret, you never lost the sense that Sally Bowles was not only at the end of the road, but that she never had a road to begin with. There would be no success for her, no future life, here or anywhere. This Sally Bowles (closer to Christopher Isherwood's actual creation) is, first and foremost, a drug addict, and has lucked into a gig at a nightclub, but to imagine the creature we saw up on that stage, gangly and raw and untrained, as an “actress” was laughable.
Richardson up-ended this girl's psychology and let us see the true insanity that was behind all of it, the rock-solid denial. She talks a good game, this Sally. If you didn't know any better, you might believe what she had to say, you might believe the cloud-castles she has erected in front of her very eyes. She is the next Marlene Dietrich, suffering in obscurity, just waiting for a chance! In Minnelli's portrayal, because of who she is, and her gifts as a performer, you can almost believe that if the stars aligned, and Billy Wilder happened to be in that nightclub one night, he would cast her in something and whisk her away to Hollywood. But Richardson's Bowles? Not a chance. It was awful to watch, akin to the scene in Ironweed when Meryl Streep's character goes into her dreamspace and becomes a glamorous smooth nightclub singer, and I was lulled into the comforting thought, “Wow, this homeless woman can sing! How beautiful!” Of course by the end of the scene, the veil of fantasy is ripped away, and we are allowed to see what the actual people in that bar were seeing—a broken-toothed dirty woman annoying them by wailing a song off-tune and loud.
That's what Richardson let us see. Brave. Brave.
I can imagine the risk that that took on Richardson's part, based on the fact that we all know how well Liza Minnelli can sing, and we may be forgiven for thinking that is how the part should be played. You need a major Broadway diva with killer pipes to handle the role, right? But that is only one way to play it. Richardson showed us another way, and I have goosebumps just thinking about what that must have took. To stand up there and sing “Maybe This Time” in a shaky voice with no vibrato, no tricks to it, no embellishments, and to allow for the fact that some people in the audience might not “get it,” and that some of us out there in the dark might think to ourselves, “Does she honestly believe she can compete with Liza Minnelli? Does she actually think she can sing??” took awesome courage.
Without Richardson's raw-nerve of a performance, Alan Cumming's corrupt lascivious Emcee could not have shone to the degree he did. He was the artifice, the leering rictus grin over the overwhelming decay. To Richardson's Sally, the only way out was down.
Richardson's version of “Life Is a Cabaret” is not, then, a “rage, rage, against the dying of the light,” as it was for Minnelli, with its almost vicious grasping at the life she still wants, can still see, right over there! It is a scream of despair as she is submerged.
And I will never forget what she did in the last moments of the song, which you can kind of hear if you listen to the soundtrack. It is in her voice, but it's the full-body expression that remains in my head today, on this very sad day. The song starts, as always, light and lively, with no indication of where she will be “going.” Sally Bowles is on autopilot, singing to an audience that is no longer there, chattering and laughing about putting down the “book and the broom” and living it up. It is in the bridge, about her friend named Elsie who “rented by the hour,” where cracks start to open up in the veneer. Richardson, however she did it, made it seem un-planned, as though Bowles herself were ambushed by what was happening. Minnelli played the Elsie section of the song with a mad and stubborn pride, a brilliant choice. She would still be proud of Elsie, still be proud of how she “went,” even in the face of another World War. But Richardson started to visibly break down at that point in the performance I saw. She spoke-sang the Elsie section, and you could see a tidal wave was rising in her. Not of loss or sadness, but something much more awful: terror. Her arms literally began to vibrate, you could see her whole body trembling from the audience. This was not “act”-ed. This was adrenaline, fear, fight-or-flight kicking into gear, and her body started flapping around, one of her arms flailing out and slapping back against her thigh, wildly. You wondered if she could keep it together to finish the song.
And oh, what a choice for an actress to make with that song. What a right right choice.
In the final moments, as the pace of the song started to pick up, Richardson, violently trembling, started reaching her arms up and out to the light (only she could barely manage it because of how much she was shaking: she looked incredibly thin and fragile), screaming, on tune, yes, but not pretty, nothing you want to listen to for pleasure, “Life is a cabaret, old chum/only a cabaret, old chum/and I love a cabaret.” She held the last note, arms up, and as it went on and on, rasping, un-pretty, the wail of a woman who was swirling down never to emerge again, her face took on the look of the screaming figure in Edvard Munch's famous painting. All of this was happening at the same time. It was terrifying.
I've never seen anything like it. I feel like I must have stopped breathing at some point during that number. It was the most intense, raw, courageous and fully-realized moment onstage I have ever seen.
House contributor Sheila O'Malley blogs about film, literature, photography, and life at The Sheila Variations.