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.