“Life Is a Cabaret” — An Interview with Samantha Stoltzfus
|October 1, 2013||Posted by Dusty Behner under Interviews|
Dusty Behner graduated from UHM’s theatre department in 2005. Her credits include professional touring actor and professional costume designer.
*Spoiler Alert* This interview contains spoilers for the plot and production choices of Diamond Head Theatre’s (DHT) current production of Cabaret, which opened Friday and has recently announced additional performances.
I love tear jerkers. Good ones make us feel for the characters, care about the situations they are in, and want to see the good overcome the evil and the guy get the girl. I love historical dramas even more. The story of Cabaret is one that includes, in the mix of tear jerker and historical drama, our love affair with prostitution.
The movies Moulin Rouge and Pretty Woman and the play Cabaret are examples of instances that make law abiding citizens who would normally look down on prostitution care about the poor girls who were forced to make a living doing whatever they could.
I know what you’re thinking: Woah, woah! The Kit Kat Girls are just burlesque dancers and singers, not prostitutes. My response is that Germany in the 1930′s after WWI was not a fun time for anyone. When the Cabaret character Frauline Schnider talks about surviving a world war, revolution, and times when a loaf of bread cost thousands, she wasn’t exaggerating. People were starving in the streets due to the war debt that was placed on their country’s shoulders. When the Feurer gave the German people a scapegoat to blame for the horrible depression their country was in and promised that economic change and prosperity was around the corner, people followed him to that sad, sad end.
The Kit Kat Klub Master of Ceremonies tells the patrons to leave their troubles at the door because the girls are beautiful, and it works for American aspiring-writer Cliff Bradshaw. He gets so caught up in Sally Bowles, the star of the Klub, that he doesn’t notice the Nazi party gaining speed around him until he is directly involved and can’t bury his head in the sand any longer.
The musical is based on the largely autobiographical book Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood, which John Van Druten later adapted into I am a Camera. Sally was based on the real life seedy night club singer Jean Ross.
Dusty Behner: Where did Sally come from? In the book, she is the daughter of a mill owner and an heiress from England. Why would someone who comes from money be stripping and singing in a club like the Kit Kat Klub?
Samantha Stoltzfus: In I am a Camera, Sally Bowles tells Christopher Isherwood that it was her father that told her to “go off to London and learn acting”; however, I believe it was Sally’s choice to leave home. She also states, “I’ve got to have a free soul,” which I believe led her to Berlin. Money is a wonderful thing; it’s something most people work their whole lives for, but Sally… she wanted excitement, an extraordinary life, and more than anything, she wanted to be a great actress. Sally stated in I am Camera, “You’re almost as bad as my mother. She never stopped nagging at me. That’s why I had to lie to her. I always lie to people, or run away from them if they won’t accept me as I am.”
DB: In the book, Isherwood describes Sally as a bad singer, but she was irresistible because she knows it and doesn’t care. In the play, Cliff insinuates that Sally slept her way to being the headliner of the Kit Kat Klub, suggesting that she isn’t a very good singer. How do you think Sally got to be the headliner? How does that affect your portrayal of the character?
SS: She certainly used her sexuality to get what she wanted, but it was more her mysterious fashion that intrigued men…. she looked fascinating with the promise of sex—although I don’t believe she always needed to use it. I also don’t think she necessarily needed to sleep her way to the top, but she did, as a hobby or a story to share. She boasted widely about her lovers, and even in Isherwood’s book, her love-making was something she shared constantly and openly. I never viewed Sally Bowles as a great singer, and so with that in mind, I perform the “character” of Sally Bowles, and decided not to focus on “singing pretty.”
In Isherwood’s book Christopher and His Kind, he explains how for the film version of I Am a Camera, Van Druten and he discussed with Julie Harris, who played Bowles, “the possibility that nearly all of Sally’s sex life is imaginary; they agreed that the part should be played so that the audience wouldn’t be able to make up its mind, either way.”
DB: Not only is Sally possibly a prostitute, but she makes bad personal decisions as well. She spent all of the money that she had to buy a fancy fur coat in an economic depression. She smokes and drinks all day, even though she is pregnant, and in one version of the show, she does a line of coke. She paints her nails green, not a flattering color even by today’s standards, when she is supposed to be attracting men to the Klub. What’s going on in her head? Is it just because she was originally written as a 19 year old girl, or do you think something else is going on?
SS: Smoking and drinking every day was more of a way of life in 1929, especially in Berlin. As for the sexual openness, it was common in Cabaret clubs, and in the entertainment industry of Berlin especially. Though not portrayed directly on stage, there are many times when I believe Sally does do a line of coke in this show—she uses it as a “pick me up,” with no regard to how it may affect her baby, or her relationship with Cliff.
As far as the fur coat, she bought something beautiful for herself because I suppose that she needed beauty in her life to keep herself interesting. She wasn’t necessarily planning her next step, and if anything, she could rely on the men of Berlin to find her exciting enough so she could finagle her way into a room, as she does with Cliff during “Perfectly Marvelous.” She lives every day that way: no plans of the future…. “It’ll all work itself out.”
As far as the green nails, she simply thinks it is pretty. I remember reading in I am a Camera that Christopher thought it was a shame she painted her nails green because it drew attention to her old and dirty hands. In the playbook’s “Note to Producers,” Van Druten writes: “Sally is selfish, thoughtless, easily moved to anger and boredom. She thinks of no one else for more than a moment. She sees herself in every possible attitude, in every possible situation, and instantly starts to act it.”
DB: Sally says that she doesn’t know who the father of her baby is. Whose baby do you think it is? Do you think it is Cliff’s but she doesn’t want him know and force her to have it?
SS: Personally, I always hoped it was Cliff’s baby because it gave her a greater sense of loss at the end of the story; she was so close to really having something, but I don’t think she ever really wanted it. The thought of a life together was a temporary idea she fantasized about, but as soon as Cliff wanted to leave Berlin, reality was reinstated; she couldn’t stop “smoking in bed” or cease “drinking before breakfast.” In I am a Camera, Cliff and Sally put their lives together for a short period of time, before she quickly reverts back to her original ways. In reality, Christopher Isherwood and the real-life Sally Bowles (Jean Ross), never interacted sexually. Their relationship was that of a brother and sister, and the baby she decides not to have is of a man who left her.
DB: For you, what makes Sally decide that it’s time to get an abortion? She insinuates that she has had more than one in the past—what do you think made her do that? How many do you think she has had?
SS: I don’t know how many abortions Sally Bowles has had—possibly numerous, but certainly not thousands. She comments on it as though it is “nothing”; however, I know it saddens her. As stated previously, she wasn’t ready to settle down with Cliff in America. After revisiting the club, and performing the title number of the show, my belief is that she realized she had returned to a place that could never hurt her, a euphoric state of protection. America… Cliff… a baby could pull her away from all of that, she had returned home and remembered that “life is a Cabaret.”
In I Am a Camera, Sally says, “They said you were ruining me. That I’d lost all my sparkle and my effervescence. And that it was all due to you. I’ve let you eat me up, just sitting here, pouring myself into you.”
DB: There are several articles about Cabaret saying that the show is remounted on Broadway in times of political unrest. A revival is going to open on Broadway again next year. Do you think the revival is partially due to all of the politics affecting women and gay people in our country? Do you think that in a version in 2014, the persecution of the Jews is representative of what women and gay people are facing, or do you think that the Jews are representative of how the American Right feels about the people we are fighting in the Middle East? Or do you disagree with the political connections of the play to our time?
SS: In all honesty, I think it is just a reminder of what happened in the 1930s and the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany. However, whenever you see a piece of art that speaks of war or distress in a society, we as an audience connect to our present political situations and hardships. It is certainly a reminder of the ever present political struggles and the prominent discrimination going on in our own nation. I stand backstage and watch as the swastikas roll down, spraying dust and debris onto the stage, and I feel such sadness: for my ancestry and for the over six million people affected by violent discrimination.
DB: The 1998 Broadway version of Cabaret was very edgy, with the Kit Kat Girls bruised up, downtrodden, and soliciting sex acts; the Emcee very overtly sexualized, and the final scene depicted the Emcee in a concentration camp uniform. Do you think that this is a more accurate description of what it might have been like for the Kit Kat performers in the 1930′s after the Nazi’s took over?
SS: As the musical Cabaret begins (1929-1930), it is set before the start of the Third Reich, and although the Nazi’s are coming to power, they are in the distance, so Berlin is still a beautiful place to be. Throughout the musical, we see the Nazi Party coming into power more and more. As the musical comes to an end, the Kit Kat Girls have worn faces, smudged eye makeup, and a tired disposition. The emcee removes his makeup, displays the pink triangle, a badge worn by those in concentration camps prosecuted for their homosexuality. There is an evident contrast of time passed in Berlin from the jubilant beginning of the production (“Wilkommen”), to the end, with a weary “Finale Ultimo.”
DB: The real life Sally survived the holocaust; what do you think was your Sally’s fate after the final scene of the play? Another version of Cabaret showed all of the Kit Kat boys and girls, including Sally and the Emcee, being stripped naked followed by the sound of gas being sprayed into the theatre. A little extreme, but do you think that happened to your Sally?
SS: I honestly believe Sally survived, perhaps because Jean Ross survived, or possibly because Sally Bowles left Christopher in I am a Camera before he had left Berlin himself. He says, “She’ll just go on and on, as she always has—somewhere.”
DB: The real life Sally never wanted to associate with the plays, movies, or books. Your character wants Cliff to dedicate his book to her. Do you think that she ever got to read it?
SS: Jean Ross was not amused by Christopher Isherwood’s writings; he described her persona, Sally Bowles, as a woman who didn’t care for politics or literature and spoke constantly of her lovers and her nail varnish…. Jean was involved in politics and journalism; she was an intelligent and engaging woman. Jean Ross believed she was being trivialized by Christopher’s version of her, and she was afraid she wouldn’t get respect being portrayed as this character “Sally Bowles.” In an interview with Alan Cumming, Alexander Cockburn states, “This picture of this flapper, this rather ditzy girl was really because Isherwood was describing a boyfriend, but in those days you couldn’t really write a book saying I went out with my boyfriend.”
DB: The curtain call for DHT’s version of Cabaret is jarring for the audience. The actors come out from behind the curtain and then walk off the stage in a line. Is this a way of making the audience realize that the party is over for these people?
SS: The music written for the bows is rather short, so once the bows are finished and the orchestra is acknowledged, the cast waves to the audience and walks off-stage. After a lugubrious and somber show like Cabaret, if feels misguided to exit dancing to music.
DB: Anything else you’d like to include? A fun story or sad story about the show? Research that you did?
SS: Research—Oy! I researched as many things as possible: I looked at Goodbye to Berlin, I am a Camera, and Christopher and His Kind, both the movies and books. There is so much material available concerning the story of Cabaret: books, movies, plays, documentaries—I am still finding new things! I have seen Cabaret with Liza Minelli in the past; however, the differences between the movie and the musical production are so vast that I decided to look into Christopher Isherwood’s life a little bit more closely, as well as Jean Ross’s. Alan Cumming has an incredible documentary about the life of Christopher Isherwood in Berlin that connects the play, musical, and movies.
Above all, I trusted our director Mr. John Rampage, who has played the Emcee and just about every other character in past productions locally and on the mainland. I am eternally grateful for this incredible journey. He has entrusted me with Sally Bowles, this complicated character, and helped her come alive. I am eternally grateful for his insight and encouragement. There is another thing: My family published a book about their lives in Germany during the rise of the Nazi Party, and although they later escaped Germany during the war, their lives were forever changed by Hitler.
They wrote, “So the Schmidts stayed near home most of the time, and though he was never enamored with the Nazis, Willi kept his mouth shut, went to work, and collected his paycheck.”
When I read this, I was reminded of Fraulein Schneider’s decision to part with Herr Schultz. Many Germans were simply just afraid.