Analysis, Theatre

Performance as Falsehood and Sally Bowles’ Glorious Self-Destruction

“Leave your troubles outside. Life is disappointing? Forget it! We have no troubles here. Here, life is beautiful.”

This line is one of the first in Cabaret. In the final scene of the show, it is mirrored derisively, dripping with bitter irony. “Where are your troubles now?” The Emcee asks. “Forgotten? I told you so!” At this point, the lives of every character in the show have been made worse; the nazis are rising to power, our characters’ dreams and relationships have been ruined, and we can assume that more than one will soon be dead, or else suffer immensely otherwise. 

The message here is obvious: Ignoring your troubles leads to ruin. Don’t let yourself be distracted by singing and dancing and theatre— You must face reality. If we pretend our problems don’t exist, we will inevitably have to face them regardless. By the time that confrontation comes, we will be unprepared, and the problems might be too large to circumvent.

This is the main idea of the show. I’m not breaking any new ground by talking about it. However, this theme goes deeper than the events of the musical— it’s written into every single song, too. 

I’ll explain that in a moment. First, though, let’s talk about Sally Bowles.

Right before the COVID quarantine started I saw a local production of Cabaret that made some unique choices with the script. Some I enjoyed, others I wasn’t a fan of. One that immediately struck me as odd was the way the actress playing Sally decided to perform the titular song “Cabaret.” She decided to break down in tears towards the climax of the song, and perform it as though Sally is hurting, regretful of the decisions she has made. 

At the time, this choice simply felt wrong to methough I struggled to express why. Why shouldn’t an actress interpret her character’s inner life as she sees fit? There wasn’t anything in the script I could think of that directly stated that Sally shouldn’t be crying here. The actress humanized the character— isn’t that something to which most performers strive, anyway?

I returned to analyzing this scene many times, as the show is one of my favorites, as well as the song itself. My knee-jerk reaction was to say that Sally should not be sad during this song, but angry— violent, obstinate, and frothing in her own stubborn madness. She’s digging in her heels and deciding that she’s going to die on her terms— in a storm of drugs and liquor and passion— and no one else can change this trajectory. 

But is that just my interpretation? Why couldn’t someone else interpret this scene differently? Is my interpretation really “correct”? 

In unrelated Cabaret musings, I often wondered who exactly was writing these songs Sally sang in her performances at the Kit Kat Klub. That feels like a silly question to ask of a musical— like, it’s a musical, do you usually worry whether or not the characters came up with what they’re singing on the spot?— But context makes this situation different. “Don’t Tell Mama,” “Mein Herr,” and “Cabaret” are all expressly in-universe performances. They are introduced by the emcee and performed to an on-stage audience as well as the real, live audience. Did Sally write these? Are any of the words she says truthful? Did she ever actually have a friend named Elsie, and did she really tell her mother she was living in a convent? Or are these just pieces of a song, as unreal to Sally as they are to the actress portraying her? 

Regardless of whether the events are real, the fact that these songs are a performance imply she isn’t talking about or reflecting on her real thoughts. To illustrate my point, compare “Don’t Tell Mama” to something like “The Wizard and I” from Wicked. In the latter song, the main character is singing as an act of introspection, reflecting on her feelings and emotions. She’s not singing to anyone, and it’s presented as though she is discovering her feelings as she’s singing about them. The song is expressly internal, and we, the audience, are merely peeking in on this reflective process.

“Don’t Tell Mama” or “Mein Herr” are different. These are not at all Sally monologuing her thoughts to herself and by voyeuristic extension the audience. She’s very clearly addressing an audience, and she’s presenting a story or information rather than personal thoughts or feelings. Maybe some personal feelings are involved, but analyzing her own thoughts or emotions is not Sally’s primary purpose. It can’t be, because first and foremost, this is a presumably scripted performance. 

But if our primary reasoning for deciding whether or not something is a “performance” comes down to whether the character is addressing an audience and if they are relating information or a story to that audience rather than reflecting on personal feelings… then by that definition, basically every song in the show is a performance.

Let’s examine this song by song.

“Wilkommen” is clearly addressed to the audience. The Emcee is certainly not monologuing his feelings, he’s just explaining things to us. We get the sensation, again, that this is a scripted performance, and while he might personally identify with or reject any ideas presented by his script, that isn’t his primary goal. His primary goal is to reach us. 

“So What” doesn’t seem like a performance at first blush, but under our definition, it is. Think carefully: Fraulein Schneider is addressing Cliff directly throughout the entirety of the song. She’s not introspectively, internally reflecting on her feelings— she doesn’t have to. Nothing that she’s saying is new to her. She is already intimately familiar with the thoughts she’s expressing to him— this song represents her established worldview. There’s no in-the-moment, personal discovery here. She’s explaining the story of her life and how she feels about it to her audience. In that regard, she’s performing.

As previously mentioned, “Don’t Tell Mama” and “Mein Herr” are in-universe performances.

“Perfectly Marvelous” also meets the same criteria as previous songs. Like in “So What,” at no point does Sally step outside of addressing Cliff to think about her own emotions— she merely addresses Cliff. We get the sense that she’s coming up with the song in the moment, but none of this is introspective or really about her feelings at all. It’s another performance. 

“Two Ladies” is addressed to us as well, and is pretty clearly a “performance” rather than anything genuine. This is the case for most of the Emcee’s songs. 

“It Couldn’t Please Me More” seems to stretch our definition slightly by virtue of being a duet, wherein the audiences are also the performers, performing to an audience who is performing back to them. Yet, again, there is no introspection in this song. Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz are not internally considering their feelings, they are merely expressing them to their audience. 

“Tomorrow Belongs to Me” is a strange bird as well. According to the script, it’s a pre-recorded voice singing a propaganda song from a radio. Occasionally the pre-recording is forgone in performance, the director deciding to have a cast member sing it live. Regardless, by virtue of being propaganda, there’s no introspection here. The audience varies somewhat depending on your interpretation and the production you see— it may be us, whomever is listening to the radio, or the state of Germany as a whole— it’s hard to say with complete certainty. Nonetheless, it fits our definition of a performance, since it is directed to someone and is not a personal, emotional exploration. 

After this is “Money”, another audience-addressing performance by the Emcee, “Married,” another odd performance-duet as in “It Couldn’t Please Me More,” and “Tomorrow Belongs to Me (Reprise),” which is another in-universe performance at Fraulein Shneider and Herr Shultz’s engagement party. “Married (Reprise),” same as “Married”; “If you could see her,” same as “Money”; “What would you do,” same as “So What?”; “I Don’t Care Much” same as “Money” (though admittedly there is room this time for debate whether this is an audience-addressed performance or a Klub performance); and “Cabaret” same as “Mein Herr” and “Don’t Tell Mama.” The finale is also addressed to us, same as “Wilkommen.”

Did you notice I skipped one? 

“Maybe This Time” is the ONLY exception to our rule. It’s possible different directors’ interpretations can muddy this fact. In some productions, this song is not a performance. Sally Bowles is not singing to anyone, and she’s reflecting on her own emotions. There’s no “performing” here, because the song is genuine, personal, and private. In other productions, Sally is given a microphone and this song is performed to us, as if this were another Klub performance. In this instance, the song would be a performance, and the actual meaning of the words to Sally becomes accordingly unclear. If this is only a performance, we have no reason to believe she is thinking or feeling what she is singing. 

However, given that at this point Sally is no longer performing in the Klub, the decision to present this scene as a Klub performance complete with a microphone feels poorly justified by the script. One could argue that she is addressing us, the audience, in a sort of theater of her own mind, but this is never done by any character in the show besides the Emcee, who is given free rein to break the fourth wall as he sees fit. (Remember, though the song “Cabaret” is sung directly toward the audience, it is technically framed by the Emcee’s introduction as a return performance at the Kit Kat Klub.) Ultimately, the script seems to encourage an interpretation which renders this song a personal, emotional exploration rather than a performance, because it gives Sally a genuine reason (for the time being) to stay with Cliff and hold off on an abortion. If this is merely a performance, then her motives for these decisions are unclear. 

One could argue that her reason for staying with Cliff is purely monetary and parasitic— he’s the one renting the apartment in which she currently lives and he’s spending the money he earns from smuggling on their dating life. However, Sally makes it pretty clear that she should have no problem finding another man to support her, and she lives a relatively nomadic lifestyle in this way. Just before “Maybe This Time,” she is about to pack her suitcase and leave. She mentions that she has never lived with another man this long and that she has dozens of offers to stay elsewhere. “Maybe This Time” must be her changing her mind about leaving Cliff— an introspective journey of personal, emotional discovery that expresses genuine thoughts— or she would simply leave when the “performance” that does not and cannot express her actual feelings is over. 

So what does this mean? Why does it matter that every song, barring one exception, is a performance?

Remember what the show’s message about performing is. 

Cabaret is, for the first hour or so, all about performance. It’s all dancing girls and sex appeal and funny comic songs. “We have no troubles here,” it says, and convinces you of that by encouraging you to be lulled to figurative sleep by the pure, hedonistic beauty of it all. (Cliff expresses this very same sentiment at the very end of the show, having also been lulled into a figurative sleep.) But all of this show biz is simply there to distract you from what’s really going on— Hitler is rising to power, and our friends are in danger. As the Emcee caustically repeats his remarks about forgetting your troubles from “Wilkommen” during the finale, he illustrates the efficacy of the concept of performance as distraction, and the show ends as a reminder to resist such distractions and stay awake to what is happening around you. Life is not just a cabaret, old chum— look out.

The idea, then, is that performance is meant to distract, confuse, and obfuscate. That’s what the first hour of the show is— hiding from the audience the upcoming tragedy by presenting us with what appears at first blush to be a sexy, comic love story. As the characters perform to us and each other, they are all hiding from their reality. They don’t stop to truly reflect and think about what’s happening— they’re merely performing.

This is what I mentioned earlier— how the show secretly reinforces its own theme, without our noticing at all.

But what does this mean for Sally Bowles and “Cabaret”? Does this affect how this song should be interpreted? Does it make one interpretation “right” over another?

If performance in this show is primarily meant to obfuscate, mislead, and ignore reality, then we can assume that no one is ever really singing their actual, real feelings. They might more or less agree with the words they sing, but we’re not getting a complete image of their thoughts, not really. They are catering, in some way or another, to their audience, and attempting primarily to captivate this audience. If this captivation requires bending the truth behind the words, so be it.

When Sally is singing “Cabaret,” we have no reason to believe any of what she is singing is true. We, the audience, can at this point tell that life is not just a cabaret, and that Sally is wrong.

But while we have no reason to believe Sally’s story about Elsie is real, we do have reason to believe that she thinks that “life is a cabaret.” After all, she says roughly as much multiple times— not in song, but dialogue. The dialogue in this show, in contrast to the songs, generally is about emotions and feelings, and while not all of it is trustworthy, the characters are seemingly far more forthright in their dialogue than their “performances”. After all, the show is relating the idea that the allure of pretty singing and sexy dancing women is a diversion from reality: quiet moments where two characters discuss their feelings on an abortion is not a fun performance the show would deride as deceit. Remember, it is only in dialogue that the rise of the third reich is ever directly addressed. Spoken word in Cabaret is not meant to distract from reality— in fact, it is the means the Emcee uses to express the main idea of the show to us during the finale. 

In act two, scene four, Sally notes that she believes politics have nothing to do with she and Cliff. Cliff prepares to flee the country, and Sally is confused, reminding him that they love their lives in Berlin. She doesn’t understand. She thinks nothing truly bad can happen. She really believes it. 

So even if “Cabaret” is merely a scripted performance— a song written by a stranger that has nothing expressly to do with Sally or her life at all— we know she identifies with the words she is singing. 

And keep in mind, Sally is the only character to ever show her true feelings in a song. It seems she lacks the practice at performing and hiding her feelings in ways other characters have mastered. 

So while “Cabaret” is a performance, Sally is expressing true feelings. She believes what she is singing. Whether or not the story is real, it’s all real enough to Sally. We have enough evidence to believe that she really means she wants to die like her “friend” Elsie, a prostitute apparently known for her drug and alcohol habits. And we can believe she has really “made her mind up” that life is simply one big party— “only” a cabaret— and nothing more important worth preserving. She is fully willing to stake her life on the song’s message. 

Therefore, Sally can’t be regretful during this song. Her confidence in her choices has not been shaken. She believes she is in the right. She is not seeing the futility of ignoring the world’s problems— she is adamantly, and, as far as we can tell, genuinely stating that she does not believe they exist at all. 

This song is not Sally Bowles coming to a new realization. “Cabaret” is Sally declaring plainly what she has already decided. She would not be upset. She would be obstinate, angry, and confident in the way that can only stem from deciding the problems of the world are not her own. As I proposed at the start of this essay, she is digging in her heels and declaring that no one will alter her course. This is Sally Bowles specifically selecting self-destruction right before our eyes. 

After all, though she is singing truthfully, she is merely performing. And as Cabaret tells us, in performance, you are not accepting reality— you are ignoring it. 

Analysis, Theatre

No, Rent is not Outdated

I’m not going to lie: I love Rent. Despite that, I’m going to attempt to approach this article as neutrally as possible.

Loving Rent is apparently no longer theatre-kid-couture. A counter-culture of despising the show has sprung up, possibly in response to Lindsay Ellis’s video essay from 2016. I recently asked in a few theatre circles I frequent what exactly everyone’s damage is when it comes to the show– and I got a lot of responses. Everyone was very excited to explain why they hated Rent.

I could see where many responses were coming from. Yet, the response I simply couldn’t wrap my head around was the idea that the show is simply “too outdated” for modern audiences.

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Analysis

Love, Rejection, and Guido Contini

Guido Contini is the energetic centerpiece of the musical Nine. He is a celebrity superstar, an actor and movie maker who writes, directs, performs in, and subtitles his own movies. He is a playboy control freak with charming film-biz charisma who compartmentalizes his life’s worries and deals with problems as they arise. The show is his world as he sees it– a thrilling voyeur’s vantage into the mind of a director of peerless talents.

In the face of his ever-fluctuating work atmosphere, seemingly the most constant thing in Guido’s life is love, and a never ending assortment of it, in many various forms. Through the show we meet his four loves, each occupying a different role in his life: His wife, his mistress, his muse, and his mother.

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Analysis

Joyful Celebration in the Face of Death: Jonathan Larson’s Rent

A while back, I saw a Facebook post where some theatre folk were sharing their theater culture’s pre-show traditions. These are always wildly different, but invariably bizarre, fun, and full of energy. The comment that made me stop and think was one about a high school’s pre-show activities for their production of Rent. The poster said they typically did some fun sort of hype-up activity, but didn’t do it for their more serious shows– Rent included– because it wasn’t appropriate.

This took me off-guard. Sure, Rent is a serious show, but it’s never one that I’ve considered so overly serious that any celebration beforehand is bad. In fact, after some thought, I’d wager even the opposite- that Rent is serious, and you must celebrate. The seriousness of Rent isn’t the most important part of it. Rent is about much more than dying of AIDS and battling drug addiction. These are present and powerful entities in the show, but they are never the most important piece. Rent is, at its core, a celebration. Rent’s message is not one of sorrow and regret, but one of celebration in spite of, and even of, death itself.

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Analysis, Guides and Tips

Get the Most out of Your Rehearsals by Journaling Them

About a year ago I was assigned a project for class that involved learning about anything and tracking your learning in a multimedia format. Since I was at the time involved in three different productions occurring simultaneously, I decided to make a blog about my efforts in learning to be a director. Though this project itself was very low-stress and even enjoyable, I got a perfect score and a glowing review from my professor, as well as a brilliant learning experience I didn’t expect.

Apparently required journaling of rehearsals is pretty common in school theatre programs nowadays– I never had to do this, and so I was able to approach the task with a fresh mind. Even if an assignment like this has previously tainted your experience with journaling rehearsals, consider revisiting it– it can be very beneficial for your learning, both in regard to that show and to your overall development as an actor and artist.

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Analysis

“We Have No Troubles Here”: Cabaret, Escapism, and Censorship

(This is an old post that was originally made on a blog for an English class. I was happy with the post and still like the ideas, so I am posting it here.)

(Note that I later realized my description only applies to the ’98 version of the show.)

The musical Cabaretbegins and ends the same way. The show opens with the Emcee greeting us and promising us that “we have no troubles here!” Along with our protagonist Cliff, the audience falls for the “mysterious and fascinating” Sally Bowles and the languid, pleasure-seeking denizens of the Kit Kat Klub, and we give into the enticing escapism that the over-the-top sex-god Emcee promises. Then, in the finale of act one, a character takes off his jacket to reveal a Nazi armband and suddenly our entire paradise is thrown into chaos. We, along with Cliff, watch helplessly as the Third Reich rises to power, much to the apathy of our heroine and her hedonist friends. And then, at the very end of the show, our old friend, the Emcee, returns to us once more. He mugs to the audience, and we think he’ll make us laugh- give us some quip to leave us out on a high note- and then he removes his jacket to reveal a striped uniform marked with a yellow star of david and a pink triangle. “Where are your troubles now?” He asks us. “Forgotten? I told you so.”

It surprises me how frequently I see the song Cabaret sung out of context. I’ve seen young girls at vocal recitals happily belt out “life is a cabaret, old chum,” as if that’s really the takeaway of this musical. As if the song isn’t originally delivered by a post-abortion Nazi sympathizer who has just broken off the only meaningful relationship in her life because she was afraid to give up her lifestyle of debauchery.

The message of Cabaretis, unequivocally, that life is most certainly nota cabaret, old chum.

Cabaret tells us to shove our escapist fantasies and be aware of our lives in three ways.

First, there’s action on stage- Cliff gives in to escapism and is happy to ignore reality until he realizes he’s been unwittingly serving the Nazi party in order to support his comfortable life with Sally in Berlin. Sally seems like a beautiful, carefree spirit until Cliff is forced to come to terms with the fact that she’s really an irresponsible, clueless mess. Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz comfortably fantasize about marrying happily until Nazi party members who were once their friends remind them that Herr Schultz’ status as a Jew means their marriage would be grounds for great repercussions. Every character gives into escapism and is forced to return to reality by the end. The only character who stays in denial is Sally, and by this point in the story she seems not only like a bad person, but a pitiableone, doomed to spend the rest of her life in a strained, unhealthy fantasy.

Then there’s what happens in the audience. The Emcee in Cabaret is both the Emcee of the fictional Kit Kat Klub as well as the Emcee of the audience’s evening in the theater. From his very first entrance, we are inserted into the show. He speaks directly to us so the line between audience and actor becomes blurred. We’re invited into a dreamworld ourselves- the world of Cliff and Sally and the Klub- and we fall for the perfect fantasy of this world the same way Cliff does. We ignore the warning signs and allow ourselves to be taken in by sex and show biz until it’s too late to deny our bystandership. The audience, by proxy, becomes an unwitting accomplice to the rise of Adolf Hitler.

Perhaps my favorite scene in the show is just after act two begins. A heavy scene ends, and then the Emcee prances on stage with a gorilla in a tutu, and the audience laughs and claps along as he sings a characteristically nonsensical song about love and acceptance. “Why can’t the world leben and leben lassen– live and let live?” He asks, and we laugh, because he’s describing a relationship with a monkey. We laugh right up until the final line of the song: “If you could see her through my eyes… she wouldn’t look Jewish at all.” Suddenly, no one is laughing.

In his excellent book on theatre, The Empty Space, Peter Brook writes of categories of theatre pertaining to how they effect their audiences. The two that fascinated me most were the Holy theatre, wherein the audience is moved to total self-forgetfulness by the magic onstage before them, and the Rough theatre, wherein the audience is moved to painful self-awareness and even discomfort.

Cabaret is the perfect example of Rough theatre- it forces its audience into happy complacency and criticizes them when the consequences of their complacency are made clear.

This is the third way Cabaret is tells us to kill off our escapist fantasies. Cabaret is not just about characters or even the audience giving into a fantasy… it’s about reminding us to live the rest of our lives differently, too. Our night at the theatre alienates us, makes us uncomfortable and self-aware, and so we return to our regular lives with a grain of salt and a sense of unease about where else we may be an unwitting, complacent accomplice.

“We have no troubles here” indeed.

Cabaret tells us sardonically that if we claim to have no troubles, we are probably clueless, or else simply bad people in denial. It spares the audience no discomfort in order to inform them that they’ve all been had- and that they sorely need to wise up to face the future.

I love Cabaret for this message. It’s one of my favorite musicals. It’s deeply uncomfortable, and wildly inappropriate- and yet, it is one of the most profoundly effective musicals, made only more powerful by leaning into the things that make it uncomfortable.

I’m thinking about Cabaret right now (more than I usually do, anyway) because of this news story. LaGuardia High School was forced to remove all of the Nazi imagery from their production of The Sound of Music after the principal deemed it too offensive.

Well, of course Nazi imagery is offensive. That’s the point.

As Cabaret illustrates, the offensive and uncomfortable can be powerful. This isn’t to say we should encourage senseless offensive behavior, of course. Cabaret is purposefully shocking. It contains generous sex, drugs, Nazis, violence, and even an abortion. But the inclusion of these elements is not an act of worship. Some seem to think Cabaret is a raunchy free-for-all, but not a single one of these elements are glorified, unless ironically in order play the audience as the fool. Sex is seemingly glorified, until we realize it’s just the fancy gimmick used to lure us in- and the second act is decidedly sexless. We are tempted to ignore Sally’s drug use and implied alcoholism because she is so “mysterious and fascinating”, but are forced to come to terms with the fact that she’s really a mess- not at all the lovable idol we fell in love with. By the end, the offensive content is just that- offensive. We’ve seen it for what it is, and that’s why it’s in the show.

And Cabaret illustrates, of course, that ignoring our problems is not a solution.

The Holocaust is a part of our history. The Sound of Music is based on the memoirs of the real-life Von Trapp family, who really did flee Austria when the Nazi party rose to power. And, like it or not, it seems we can’t go more than a few days recently without comparisons of either American political party to the Nazi party. We can’t pretend there were or are “no troubles here”.

Censorship in high school theatre is a widespread problem, and most often, it comes back to this idea- pretending that problems don’t exist. Instead of discussing suicide, domestic violence, drug addiction- real problems students today face- theatre departments are gagged. We are to pretend the Nazis never existed, even though Nazis are currently marching in major cities.

High school administrators are engaging in a strange sort of escapist fantasy themselves, in which everyone else is aware of the problems, but they plug their ears so as to avoid addressing them.

Never before would I have thought to compare high school admins to Sally Bowles, and yet, here we are.

When these problems are addressed in a theatre, it allows a dialogue to begin that benefits actors and audience alike. Cabaret does this brilliantly, as we’ve discussed. These benefits can be multiplied in school theatre, where the actors are students under the direction of someone who is often a teacher. The school auditorium becomes a place not just for harmless family fun, but for learning- real, meaningful learning- which is what it should have been all along.

Cabaret tells us to look for the problems in our own world and make them our business. Cabaret tells us that life isn’t carefree, and trying to pretend it is only brings unhappiness. Cabaret reminds us that escaping from the real world might mean forgetting your troubles temporarily- but in the end, they’ll still be there.

If we let ourselves get wrapped up in laughing at the man dancing with the gorilla for long enough, we’ll discover we’ve missed something important- and if we let that happen, no one will be laughing at all.