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Sheila O'Malley on Natasha Richardson's Sally Bowles: "To say that she made me forget Liza Minnelli is an understatement."

3.24.2009


Here's the first bit:


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.



Read the rest here (and watch videos of Natasha singing "Maybe This Time" and "Cabaret").

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