Cabaret is widely recognized as one of the most important and influential American musicals of the 20th century. The musical, written by John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Joe Masteroff, introduced to a wide audience the characters of a fiendish Master of Ceremonies and the lovely yet tortured nightclub singer Sally Bowles, both performers at the Kit Kat Klub in Weimer-era Berlin, just before the rise of the Nazi party. Based on the stories of Christopher Isherwood, Cabaret is a much-loved and often-staged musical, which is currently seeing its fourth Broadway revival at Studio 54. To celebrate its newest iteration, take a look at the history of the complicated character Sally Bowles, who has turned up in literature, on stage, and in film since her first appearance in 1937.
Sally Bowles first appeared in Christopher Isherwood’s novella, Sally Bowles, later republished within the longer Goodbye to Berlin (which was, in turn, published alongside Mr Norris Changes Trains in The Berlin Stories). It wasn’t revealed until after Isherwood’s death in 1973 that Sally was, in fact, based on a real person: Jean Ross, whom Isherwood met while he was living in Berlin in the ’30s. Many elements of Sally’s story were based on actual events from Ross’ life, including the climactic abortion. Once it was revealed that Ross was the real-life Sally Bowles, she did not seek any publicity for herself — she even turned down invitations to see Cabaret on stage.
The character of Sally Bowles was first seen on stage in 1951 in I Am a Camera, the title of which comes from the opening line from Goodbye to Berlin: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” Julie Harris portrayed Sally Bowles in the hit play, winning her first of five Tony Awards. She’d go on to play Sally again in a film version, released in 1955.
John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Cabaret was based on John Van Druten’s I Am a Camera, which incorporated the iconic role of the Emcee (played originally by Joel Grey), as well as a subplot featuring a romance between writer Cliff Bradshaw’s (a stand-in for Isherwood) German landlord and a Jewish fruit vendor amid the rise of the Nazi party. And it starred Jill Haworth as Sally Bowles. Here, she sings an abbreviated version of the title song at the 1967 Tony Awards.
Two years after its debut on Broadway, Cabaret opened on the West End in 1968. The production featured none other than Dame Judi Dench, then just 34. Although she’s known primarily for her late-career film roles, Dench pretty much nailed the role of Sally back in the ’60s.
Bob Fosse directed the multiple-Oscar-winning film adaptation of Cabaret, which was released in 1972, and it’s dramatically different from the stage musical. In the musical, Sally Bowles is a fairly middling singer and performer; naturally, one couldn’t expect Liza Minnelli (playing an American Sally) to half-ass a performance, so her Sally Bowles is, of course, quite the singer. Above, she sings “Maybe This Time,” a song included in the film that was subsequently added to the score of Cabaret‘s ’90s revival.
In 1993, future Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes helmed an exciting — and highly sexualized — revival of Cabaret at the Donmar Warehouse in London, which introduced the new iteration of the Emcee played by Alan Cumming in a star-making role. It starred Jane Horrocks as Sally, who had previously proven her singing abilities in 1998’s Little Voice. Here, however, she exaggerates Sally’s unabashedly average singing voice in “Mein Herr,” which was written for the 1972 film and added to the revival’s score.
Sam Mendes’ London production of Cabaret transferred to Broadway in 1995, and Alan Cumming came along as the fiendish Emcee. But the Broadway production incorporated two major additions: Rob Marshall, who served as co-director and choreographer, and the late Natasha Richardson, who won a Tony for her portrayal of the nightclub singer.
Jennifer Jason Leigh
The Mendes-Marshall production of Cabaret ran for 2,377 performances on Broadway, eventually closing in January 2004. The role of Sally Bowles was a staple for Broadway newcomers (many of whom, well, were equally talented singers as Sally), including Debbie Gibson, Molly Ringwald, Gina Gershon, Brooke Shields, Lea Thompson, and Joely Richardson (sister to Natasha). Of all those actors to step into the role after Richardson, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s intense performance, seen above, is a standout.
In 1976, Christopher Isherwood published his memoir, Christopher and His Kind, detailing his time in Berlin in the ’30s. This time, he didn’t fictionalize the events, and the memoir is very frank in terms of Isherwood’s homosexuality. A film version, featuring Doctor Who‘s Matt Smith as Isherwood and Imogen Poots as Jean Ross, was broadcast in March 2011 on the BBC.
Last night saw the opening of Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall’s Cabaret at Roundabout Theatre Company’s Kit Kat Klub at Studio 54, where the duo’s original revival production eventually closed in 2004. A near facsimile of the 1998 production, it also stars Alan Cumming as the Emcee (and at least one original Kit Kat Girl). The major difference: three-time Oscar nominee Michelle Williams paints her nails green and downs raw eggs and Worcestershire sauce in the role of Sally Bowles, making her Broadway debut.