Friday, January 14, 2011

Friday Dance Party: What Good is Sitting Alone in Your Room?

A recent death gives me another opportunity to go on and on about my obsession with all things Cabaret. I've written about this peculiarity in my character before. This week, I get to return to that wacky Kit Kat Klub in the funloving city of Berlin, thanks to this gal:

Jill Haworth


She was not the first person to play Sally Bowles on stage, that distinction goes to Julie Harris, who played the lost British waif in I Am A Camera, the straight play upon which the musical Cabaret is based:

Nor was she the most famous Sally Bowles; that distinction, of course, goes to Liza Minnelli, whose career-making performance in the film version redefined the role for a whole generation:

Sally Bowles was created by writer Christopher Isherwood in his Berlin Stories, and the girl was imagined as a lost soul with false bravada who landed in a seedy nightclub in pre-Nazi Berlin. As written, Sally was a prostitute, but she thought of herself as a nightclub performer, though she didn't sing very well, or dance very well, or do much of anything very well.

And that was exactly the Sally Bowles which Jill Haworth created in Cabaret's original production in 1966. She was 21 years old on opening night. The show was to be Haworth's only Broadway appearance, and her only professional gig which required her to sing. It was that raw, unskilled quality which caused director Hal Prince to chose her over 200 other girls to play the central role in the show. When Jill died last week, Prince recalled, "Sally Bowles was not supposed to be a professional singer. She wasn’t supposed to be so slick that you forgot she was an English girl somewhat off the rails in the Weimar era." But the critics didn't get it, and Haworth was crucified in the press. The New York Times raved about the groundbreaking show, declaring, "‘Cabaret’ is a stunning musical with one wild wrong note." Walter Kerr called Jill a "clunker," and snarked she was "a damaging presence, worth no more to the show than her weight in mascara.”

Imagine receiving reviews like that when you are 21 years old, and making your stage singing debut on Broadway? Especially when you are doing exactly what the director hired you to do? Haworth handled her scathing reviews with maturity and professionalism, according to Prince; she remained with the show two years before handing the role over to Anita Gillette. She left the business soon after.

The original London production did not meet with such vitriol, though its run was significantly shorter. Sally Bowles was played in London by another actress not at all known for her singing ability, Judy Dench. There is a very grainy clip out there, of Dench croaking her way through one of her numbers, but the quality is so poor, I could not present it here (but if you are interested, go here to see it. I have a hunch it is very similar to the performance Jill Haworth was giving on Broadway.)

When Bob Fosse brought Cabaret to the screen in 1972, his casting of Liza changed the characteristics of Sally Bowles for the next 20 years. Minnelli was an expert triple-threat at the time, and gave such a dynamic performance that Isherwood, who first dreamed up the character, was greatly disturbed. He was justified in wondering why such a spectacular performer would be stuck in such a seedy nightclub.

As much as I love the film and all its performances, Isherwood was right: those production numbers would have stopped the show at Radio City.

For the next 20 years, we expected anyone playing Sally Bowles in Cabaret to be a triple-threat: an excellent actress, a swell dancer, and a singer with a great belt. It wasn't until director Sam Mendes reexamined the piece for his British revival in 1993 that he returned to the original concept for the role. Jane Horricks, from the Brit-com Absolutely Fabulous, returned Sally to her roots, and when Natasha Richardson played the role in that version's Broadway transfer, she won the Tony. Neither woman was a strong dancer, and musically, they were likely to wobble off the note if held too long. In short, they played Sally as Christopher Isherwood had originally intended.

Even though she was the first performer to proclaim that "life is a cabaret, old chum," poor Jill Haworth doesn't get much credit these days, if anyone remembers her at all. That's show biz. As I said, I love the film version of Cabaret, and this week's Dance Party is proof that Bob Fosse knew what he was doing when he re-designed the show for the modern filmgoer. This number, written for the movie to give our two leading cabaret players a duet (there is none for them in the original piece), played so well that it has now been incorporated into the stage show. In fact, all three of the new songs Kander and Ebb wrote for the film are now routinely added to any stage production of their groundbreaking musical. For this week's Dance Party, with a nod to the forgotten actess who first brought Sally Bowles to the musical stage, here is my favorite number from any incarnation of Cabaret: