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The Easiest and Hardest Role in Musical Theater

The newest star of Cabaret at Studio 54 causes Filichia to sing out: ''Hello, Molly!'' logo

Molly Ringwald in Cabaret
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Saw Cabaret at Studio 54. My 12th time seeing the show since October 13, 1966, when I caught the third preview of the original pre-Broadway tryout at the Shubert Theatre in Boston. That night, Cabaret was pretty fuzzy, a half-baked cake that nevertheless showed the potential to become a masterpiece. But even then, Joel Grey was brilliant, Lotte Lenya was charming, and Jack Gilford was endearing.

The lead role of Sally Bowles was played by Jill Haworth, who made her entrance in Scene Three, taking my breath away with her beauty and her honey-blonde, shoulder length hair. I was already in love--until she opened her mouth and sang the word "Mama" so flat that I probably muttered "Mamma mia!" By song's end, I knew that "Don't Tell Mama" was a great song, but I couldn't say the same for the performer who sang it. And how she melodramatically overacted during the book scenes with her new beau Cliff! I was convinced she was going to be canned. Three weeks later, when I returned to the Shubert to see how Cabaret was making out, I saw an actress with short, dark hair playing Sally. No, Haworth wasn't replaced, but the top of her head was, via a new wig. (Umm...her hair wasn't the problem, guys!)

I did hear--a rumor, nothing more--that she had a friend-slash-lover in a very high place who was very high on Jill Haworth staying in the show. Or maybe he was just high, given how wretched she was. Five weeks later, when Walter Kerr reviewed the show for the Times, he wrote:"Cabaret is a stunning musical with one wild wrong note." That, he specified, was Ms. Haworth. The following spring, when the Tony nominations were dispensed, the aforementioned Grey, Lenya, and Gilford all received nods but Haworth did not. Hell, even Peg Murray as Fraulein Kost, who has all of two scenes, got a nomination--and wound up winning.

Were we, perhaps, being fair to Jill Haworth? It's well established in the script that Sally Bowles isn't a particularly good entertainer. Maybe she should hit a flat note or three when doing her songs in the cabaret. And if she seems to be overacting in the book scenes, well, isn't that the character? Sally is so desperate to be flamboyant and fascinating that she can't come across as real or sincere. Maybe Jill Haworth was so bad she was actually good. Such noteworthies as Ethan Mordden have proclaimed her to have been quite good in the role.

Of course, six years later, Liza Minnelli did Sally on film and won an Oscar for her efforts. Minnelli was terrific in the book scenes, partly because they were better written in the movie. (Oh, how I hate to admit that!) But she was also great in the cabaret sequences, so there went the theory that Sally stinks as a performer. Now Cliff's issue seemed to be how hard show business was and that, no matter how accomplished Sally was, she probably wouldn't reach the stardom she expected because that's the way life is.

Fifteen years later, Cabaret returned to Broadway and, this time, Sally got a Tony nomination--curiously enough, in the Best Featured Actress category. Alyson Reed struck me as being just a bit better than Jill Haworth was. So does that mean she was actually worse, because she wasn't playing Sally as inept enough of an entertainer? Was she better because she wasn't as melodramatic, or did that just make her pale? Did she get a nomination because she appeared in a weak season? By now, I'd come to believe that Sally Bowles was both the easiest and the hardest role in musical theater. Do well and you're great; do poorly and blame it on who Sally Bowles is.

Ten years later, we got the revival that's still with us. When Natasha Richardson played Sally, there was no doubt that she wasn't going to be in the Best Featured Actress category, but I also had no doubt that she'd win Best Actress. Though I know plenty of bright people who thought she was wretched, I considered her the best Sally I'd seen on stage or screen. Because Richardson isn't natively a singer, she was musically less-than-brilliant--which, again, underscored that Sally wasn't a good entertainer. But, in the book scenes, Richardson was the one to best create a Sally I believed as a human being.

Every Thursday, I do theater reviews for a New Jersey TV station, so every Wednesday comes the weekly call: "What are you reviewing tomorrow?" Last week, I said, "Molly Ringwald in Cabaret," which prompted the guy on the phone to say, "Molly Ringwald! I haven't thought about her in years! I remember when she used to make movies!" Well, as William Goldman says in The Season, "They don't come back to Broadway for any other reason." Still, Ringwald's pedigree was enough to get her the requisite entrance applause garnered by all who've made popular films, no matter how long ago. Now--would she deserve that applause?

I say yes. What I loved was that Ringwald was accomplished, at ease, and secure, really feeling she belonged up there. She knew she'd rehearsed enough, had done her homework, and believed she could hold the stage with anyone. That you shouldn't mess with this lady was apparent right away but was soon proved beyond doubt when she cracked the egg to make the prairie oysters. My God, was she brutal with that poor thing! It didn't have a chance.

Ringwald looked as if she'd been batting false eyelashes all her life. They sat on a very theatrical face. When she turned to the right, she called Lenya to mind--but, when she turned left, she somewhat resembled Carol Burnett in her Once Upon a Mattress days. When Ringwald gave a look of frustration, she appeared a bit Chaplinesque. And there were times when her face seemed positively feline, as if she were just waiting for Candy Carell (who did the make-up for that musical that stayed too long at the Winter Garden) to paint her face like a Siamese.

What about her singing? Well, every now and then, she went a tad sharp or flat; but, again, was that Sally or Molly? Once in a while, I'd think: "Am I watching a high-school performance?" But, most times, I knew I wasn't. She gave well-timed and funny deliveries of the punch lines in "Don't Tell Mama" and attacked the title song with a face streaked with real tears. There were sustained screams and applause once she finished. So, even though I'm not sure that Broadway is the place for on-the-job training, to paraphrase a Jerry Herman song of yore: "Hello, Molly! Welcome to Berlin, and to Broadway."


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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