The Enduring Appeal of Sally Bowles: From Liza Minnelli to Schitt’s Creek
One of the most enigmatic characters to grace the stage and now our screens, Sally Bowles has captured the minds and hearts of performers and admirers alike. Emma Fraser traces Sally’s journey through her various incarnations, leading to a pivotal decision for our writer.
“She’s simply a headstrong young woman who’s been knocked about a few times and is looking to make the most of herself.” In the fifth season of Canadian comedy Schitt’s Creek, Moira Rose (Catherine O’Hara) gets to the heart of who Sally Bowles is, in a bid to convince another character to take on the iconic role in the town’s production of Cabaret. In the 80-plus years since Christopher Isherwood introduced readers to Sally (she first appeared as the titular character in a 1937 novella), she has taken the stage and cinema by storm. Her biggest nightmare is to be deemed irrelevant and forgotten – on television in 2019, this is far from the case.
Sally Bowles left post-WWI Britain for Berlin with a desire to become “the most wonderful actress in the world.” Instead of dazzling in front of a film camera, she performs in nightclubs, and has a string of bad relationships to her name. Despite being unlucky in love and far from becoming the next Clara Bow or Carole Lombard, her joie de vivre is infectious. She is a woman who knows how to party and her typical breakfast is a “prairie oyster” – a now world-famous killer hangover cure consisting of a raw egg, Tobasco, and Worcestershire sauce.
There are many stages to the evolution of Sally, however, at the heart of each version is a woman who bears her entire being on stage, in an attempt to achieve greatness. Her eternal hope and optimism are a big part of her appeal, as despite possessing bucketfuls of charm and enthusiasm, she is not a particularly great actress or singer — even if the actresses who take on Sally, are. Duality shapes Cabaret because while the party rages inside, her naivety and winsome nature are at odds with the bubbling horrors of Weimar Germany in 1931, which will eventually penetrate the walls of Kit Kat Klub.
Based on his interactions with British cabaret singer Jean Ross, Isherwood wrote a semi-fictionalized account of his pre-WWII experiences in a collection entitled Goodbye to Berlin. John Van Druten’s 1951 theatrical adaptation I Am a Camera was the first to perform the Sally Bowles legacy – Julie Harris won a Tony for this part. Four years later, the film world came calling, with Harris reprising this role. It only took a decade for I Am a Camera to get usurped as the Sally Bowles story, when Broadway legend Hal Prince transformed it into a musical by the name of Cabaret. Sally has lived many lives, but in 1972, she was reimagined as an American expat (rather than British) trying to find stardom. Directed by Bob Fosse and starring Liza Minnelli, this production of Cabaret had the makings of a hit or a spectacular disaster. This wasn’t Minnelli’s first acting gig, but it was her first headlining role. Rumours of excessive drinking were already swirling, her first marriage was allegedly in tatters; it appeared she was following in her mother’s footsteps, in more ways than one.
Before exploring how Minnelli and Sally’s magnetism influenced a number of TV shows in 2019, I’m going to take you back to my first encounter with Cabaret and Broadway. It is 2014, Michelle Williams has just made her Broadway debut, starring as Sally Bowles in Rob Marshall and Sam Mendes’ revival of their 1998 Roundabout Theatre Company Tony-winning production. I went in knowing very little beyond the headline tracks and a vague idea of its setting (musical theatre is one of my culture blindspots), but was instantly transported to a place of legend. The hallowed former nightclub Studio 54 doubles as the decadent Kit Kat Klub, it is as if you have entered a time warp. Williams gives a performance that is far more haunting than upbeat, she is much more Isherwood’s version of Sally than Fosse’s. An Oscar-nominated turn as Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn suggested that Williams would nail Sally, she chose to play a more anxious version of the lead, absorbing this character’s fragility as the city crumbles around her. It is incredibly effective and her time in Sally’s shoes (which are still in her possession) has clearly informed her choices since, most notably in the FX miniseries Fosse/Verdon.
Playing Gwen Verdon, Bob Fosse’s wife and collaborator who didn’t get enough credit for the work she did during her lifetime, delivers a Cabaret full-circle moment for Williams. The eight-part mini-series tracks Gwen and Bob’s relationship and career overlaps, which includes Gwe’s integral presence on set and in the editing room. Gwen experienced a lot more success on stage than Sally did, however, there is an element of the unattainable dream in Fosse/Verdon. For Bob (Sam Rockwell), no matter how many Oscars and Tonys he wins, it is never enough. He never would become the next Fred Astaire. Meanwhile, Gwen has either aged out of her dream roles or has to go through the audition process despite her impressive resumé.
Gwen’s experience is reminiscent of a comment made by Williams to The New York Times in 2014 about her first meeting with co-directors Marshall and Mendes about playing Sally. “They didn’t call it an audition. But that’s what it was, and I’m fine with that. Sally was never a first choice. That’s why she had to go to Berlin.” Talent and hard work are vital, but so is self-belief. In Isherwood’s story, Sally goes through the cycle of self-doubt telling Chris, “Sometimes I feel like I am no damn use at anything.” Upswings of confidence take hold, in which she proclaims, “I know I’m going right ahead now and I’m going to become the most wonderful actress in the world.” Some might read this as delusional, but her enthusiasm is why audiences and actresses remain enthralled by this character.
In the first episode of Fosse/Verdon, when Bob tells Gwen that Liza has been cast, her first question is, “Can she act?”. Minnelli managed to do what her mother could not, winning Best Actress at the Oscars in 1973, which answers Gwen’s question. Kelli Barrett plays Liza in the Emmy-nominated mini-series, capturing the passion of both Liza the performer and the raw energy she brings to the part. In my long and winding journey with this musical, it wasn’t until finishing the miniseries that I watched Bob Fosse’s Cabaret – and it is safe to say Minnelli’s performance would be just as captivating even without this behind-the-scenes deep dive into Fosse’s process. Everything from the instantly recognizable Clara Bow-inspired cut to the way she commands the stage in a bowler hat and halter top is mesmerizing. Just as Sally is described in the book, Liza has the audience eating out of the palm of her hand. Except she’s a much better singer and dancer than the Sally of the novella.
Fosse’s direction on Cabaret gives the audience a front seat ticket, achieving the near-impossible of delivering the intimacy of the theatre, but on the big screen. The close-ups capture Sally (and Liza’s) vulnerability, the wide shots show her confidence in front of an audience.
This potent combination of Liza’s qualities provides the foundation of a major transformation for one of the main characters in the third season of the Netflix series GLOW . Las Vegas is the new destination for the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, and in the same hotel as their residency, drag queen Bobby Barnes (Kevin Cahoon) performs. One of the icons in his repertoire is Liza Minnelli, in costumes mirroring the Bob Fosse-directed 1972 TV special, Liza with a Z. In a transformative moment, Sheila the She-Wolf — Gayle Rankin, who played Fraulein Kost in Cabaret in 2014 — ditches her fur armour for the first time, causing jaws to drop as she takes on Liza’s persona in the ring. In a previous episode, Sheila befriends Bobby as she finally sheds her protective persona. They both need the other (and Liza) to get them through some tough times. Minnelli’s performance as Sally shows her unashamedly living out loud. She is the perfect conduit for those dreaming of being seen, which underscores why this character and Minnelli are gay icons.
In an audition for GLOW’s producer Bash (Chris Lowell), Bobby performs an incredible version of Liza’s “Yes”, including a recreation of Liza’s white suit from the TV concert. It is a rendition that articulates the drive for validation in both an artistic and personal capacity. The rejection at the end is all the more painful, as the audience is aware that Bash is struggling with his own identity issues. Before Bobby gets the opposite of a yes, the performance reaches Sally Bowles's level of confidence that comes to a crashing end. Mirroring how Fosse shoots Liza singing “Maybe This Time” in Cabaret, the episode’s director, Claire Scanlon, ensures the camera only shows Bobby, the audience can’t be seen because of the stage lighting. Bobby and Liza as Sally both sing like they are standing in front of a packed house, which is far from the case.
In the Season 5 finale of Schitt’s Creek, a sold-out audience watches an ambitious production of Cabaret. Set in the fictitious town of the same name, the formerly rich Rose family are forced to leave their life of luxury for motel living after their business manager embezzles all their money. Created by Eugene and Dan Levy — they also play father and son, Johnny and David Rose — the show offers a classic fish out of water narrative that spins the whole ‘terrible rich people’ premise on its head. Over five seasons, the family has found a place for themselves in a town that was originally bought by Johnny, as a joke gift for his son.
Showrunner Dan Levy has carved out a space for love and tolerance that celebrates all relationships without fear of hate or trauma. Balancing sweetness with humour that still possesses a bite is a challenge Schitt’s Creek rises to, eschewing the cynical hard edge often favoured by comedy. It is a projection of the way Levy wants the world to look, and it impacted me in ways I did not expect when I first hit play on Netflix earlier this year.
A community theatre production of Cabaret provides the framework for the second half of the season, that sees Rosebud motel co-owner Stevie Budd (Emily Hampshire) stepping into the very big shoes of Sally Bowles. Stevie is not a natural choice for Sally, as she has never shown any desire to sing or act in front of anyone. She is guarded, but her walls have been broken down with each new season.
After a breakup, Rose matriarch, Moira — the incomparable O’Hara — offers Stevie the part without an audition, telling her this musical is “A gift that once jolted me out of my podunk routine.” Stevie fears everyone is moving on without her, something she articulates before her big “Maybe This Time” number in the season finale. In a rare heart-to-heart between the two women, Moira tells Stevie to use these feelings in her performance, before emphasizing that it is Sally, not Stevie, who needs this particular pep talk, “Now, why don’t we take our Sally by the hand, and we go out there and show these people everything she can be.” What follows is emotionally triumphant and, dare I say, just as good as Minnelli’s rendition. It starts with a wobbly voice, by the end her hands are aloft after belting out this seminal number. Even Stevie looks surprised by her own cathartic release of emotion through song. As with Fosse, co-directors Andrew Cividino and Dan Levy (who also wrote the episode) circle around the singer delivering a level of intimacy, as if the viewer is also in the audience. Unlike Liza’s Sally, Stevie has a packed house cheering her on.
Seeing Stevie take this leap and overcome her initial stage fright helped push me into a decision I had been contemplating for months. The whole notion of watching everyone else move forward while standing behind a desk (or in my case, a counter) felt all too familiar. I’d been contemplating going full-time freelance for months, but losing the safety net of a regular guaranteed paycheque kept me from biting the bullet. That was, until I fell into the joy-filled world of Schitt’s Creek.
“Maybe This Time” is a song about finding love, as Sally’s had just as much luck with love affairs as she’s had with achieving stardom. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t going to try. Stevie’s version is less about romance, and more about finding her place. After watching this scene for probably the tenth time, the resignation letter I had been contemplating writing just started pouring out of me. So far, it has been the best career decision I have ever made. Even if it hadn’t worked out, to know I had taken the leap and tried would have been better than standing still. My journey with Sally has taken some unexpected turns, but whether it is 1937, 1972, or 2019, Sally’s optimism is welcome in a world oscillating between triumph and tragedy.
Emma Fraser (@frazbelina) is a freelance television and film writer with words at Little White Lies, Vulture, SYFY FANGRRLS, Collider and more. She loves costume design, '90s teen TV and is currently attempting to learn German.