Critics were not kind to Jill Haworth, the original Sally Bowles in the 1966 production of Cabaret. Walter Kerr, writing in The New York Times, snarled that the 21-year-old actor, making her Broadway debut, was “worth no more to the show than her weight in mascara.” John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Cabaret is back in an electrifying return engagement and once again critics have been hard on the actor playing Sally. Not to get into a James Franco–style war with the all-powerful Ben Brantley of The New York Times, but I disagree with his tepid comments about the “very brave Michelle Williams, who doesn’t look all that happy to be there.” Sally Bowles as Christopher Isherwood originally wrote her is a woman on the edge, frantically trying to hold herself together. According to Isherwood, Sally had an “air of not caring a curse of what people thought of her.” Williams’s risky performance captures the raw hunger for stardom that drives the deluded Toast of Mayfair.
The current Cabaret is a revival of a revival. Ten years after the acclaimed 1998 production closed, Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall have re-created their Tony Award–winning vision for a new audience hungry to put down the knitting, the book and the broom. New York’s most infamous disco, Studio 54, has again been transformed into Berlin’s seedy Kit Kat Klub, and Alan Cumming, complete with rouged nipples, was a shoo-in to reprise his iconic role as the Emcee. But when Anne Hathaway and Emma Stone each withdrew from the role of Sally Bowles, the producers turned to an actor with no musical experience—a small detail Williams was acutely aware of during her first meeting with Mendes and Marshall. Williams told The New York Times, “They didn’t call it an audition, but that’s what it was.” Four months of dance and vocal training later, Williams remembered the advice Vanessa Redgrave gave her daughter back when Natasha Richardson was considering the role in 1998: “Darling, when they ask you to play Sally Bowles, you play Sally Bowles.” Williams, like Richardson, took the part.
Williams plays Sally with brittleness, making her relationship with Cliff Bradshaw, the American writer in Berlin, more about practicality and less about love. Fired from the Kit Kat Klub, Sally needs a place to stay and Cliff, of course, has that “one narrow bed.” When Sally announces she is pregnant, Cliff claims the child as his own even though the father “could be anyone.” Cliff, desperate to turn his back on his gay love affairs, wants to bring Sally and the baby home to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. But when the Kit Kat Klub hires Sally back, all domestic fantasies turn to dust. (With characteristic ruthlessness, Sally sells her beloved fur coat to pay for an abortion.) Cliff reminds Sally that the “only way you got this job—any job—is by fucking someone.” In a rare moment of self-awareness, she tells Cliff that love is “still not quite enough. I’d spoil it.” To the very end, Sally grabs for fame: Her last words to her departing lover are “Dedicate your book to me.”
The big payoff of Williams’s performance is the moment Sally returns to the stage and sings “Cabaret.” She races through the number as if she’ll shatter if she draws a breath. When she reaches the line “She was the happiest corpse I’d ever seen,” Williams spits out the word corpse, revealing to the audience a Sally who suddenly sees her own future. Michelle Williams is giving audiences a Sally Bowles fueled by pure ambition and with very few redeeming qualities. Williams proves she’s “very brave” indeed, Mr. Brantley.
Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus, 2014