The Toast of Mayfair

Natasha Richardson Sally Bowles is the best Sally Bowles.

Sorry, Liza.

Though I spent five years studying interwar German philosophy, no one ever sat me down and demanded I watch Cabaret–and I never felt compelled to see it on my own. For the former, I blame friends and mentors. For the latter, I blame the strange disservice we do to the American stage musical. A uniquely American form, they say, we tend to transmit and celebrate the music without its most trenchant Americanness, via a peculiarly American form of denial.

What do I mean by that? I mean that so many numbers get passed down as “standards,” cleansed of irony, in a way that make them seem to be naive affirmations of can-do optimism, when in fact–in the performance–they were intended to reveal the hollowness, even insanity, of this optimism.

A relative novice when it comes to musicals, this hit me clearly when I saw Patti LuPone in Gypsy. If you are not playing close attention, as I was not, it’s easy to grow up thinking “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” is some sort of self-help anthem. But then you realize that Mama Rose is insane. She cannot face reality. She will follow her mania to her destruction, like Jay Gatsby before her. The musical is well-suited to representing this kind of florid delusion–people are bursting into song after all–whether it’s Busby Berkeley’s crazed ballets or the nested hallucinations at the end of Singing in the Rain.

Which brings me back to Cabaret. I saw the play for the first time a few years ago, with Michelle Williams as a pretty weak Sally Bowles, though her weakness could not bury the strength of the material. This sent me into a somewhat obsessive examination of the various cast recordings, and I have determined that Liza Minnelli, who is most identified with the role, is the personification of this de-ironization of the American musical I’ve been describing.

The litmus test is, of course, the title number, the show’s penultimate song. With nationalism on the march here and abroad–everywhere but Berlin it seems–the scene should be chilling. The Nazis have won, the permissiveness of Weimar has been denounced as decadence, and Sally Bowles–“the toast of Mayfair”–has returned for one last hoorah.

Minnelli’s rendition is perhaps doomed from the start since her Bowles, unlike all others, is an American. Plus she is Liza Minnelli. The story of Elsie, the momento mori in the middle of the song, only just slows the song down and serves as the lull from which Minnelli can emerge, high-chinned and triumphant. Liza’s Bowles, it seems, already knows we will win at Normandy.

Compare this to Natasha Richardson’s haunting performance in the 1998 Broadway revival, remarkable in that it was produced at a high point of liberal confidence, but so frighteningly portrays its downfall. Whereas Joel Grey’s master of ceremonies remained demonic throughout, Alan Cumming’s seems ultimately exhausted by freedom and on the brink of succumbing to the black narcosis of totalitarianism.

Against this background, Richardson tentatively, and through gritted teeth, attempts to reassure us that “life is a Cabaret.” The effect is heightened by this poor-quality video on YouTube, which nonetheless closely matches the cast recording.

Unlike Minnelli, Richardson practically chokes on the Elsie interlude, particularly the phrase “happiest corpse,” and when it is Elsie’s advice that now whispers to us “what good is sitting alone in your room,” we are not sure if we are being called to the dance hall or to Nuremberg–and, in the end, we know that Richardson’s Sally will perish either way.

Originally published at on May 1, 2017.

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