Essay: Divine Decadence—A Look Back at Porchlight’s I Am a Camera and Cabaret

Cabaret has always been about pushing boundaries. But it also has a rich and complicated past. This month Porchlight Music Theatre at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts offered not only something special but also something historic. As part of their Porchlight Revisits season, the theater presented John Van Druten’s rarely performed 1951 play I Am a Camera for two nights only on February 8 and 9. I Am a Camera along with Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin stories became the inspiration for the original 1966 Broadway musical Cabaret as well as its various revivals over the years. 

Porchlight Revisits presents rarely seen productions of Broadway and off-Broadway. Opening night of Camera included an instructive Behind the Show Backstory with artistic director Michael Weber. Seeing both productions back to back, as I did, was a fascinating way to experience Cabaret in a new way, to explore its roots and to see how it has changed and reinvented itself over the decades.

The title of I Am a Camera comes from the second paragraph in “A Berlin Diary (Autumn 1930),” the first piece in Isherwood’s 1939 novel Goodbye to Berlin, later published in 1945 as The Berlin Stories. “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking,” Isherwood writes. “Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.” These lines make their way into the play as well. 

I Am a Camera is a largely episodic play—it was criticized at the time for its lack of a plot––about a struggling young English writer, Isherwood, living in a Berlin rooming house on the cusp of 1930 and his friendship with Sally Bowles, another English ex-pat who sings at a seedy café called the Lady Windermere and dreams of becoming an actress. The subplot involves the relationship between Natalia Landauer, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish department store owner, and Fritz Wendel, a gigolo masquerading as a gentile. 

Mary Margaret McCormack (Sally Bowles) and Zachary Owen (Christopher Isherwood) in Porchlight Revisits' I Am a Camera. Photo by Oni Wright.

I Am a Camera, starring Julie Harris as Sally Bowles, opened on Broadway at the Empire Theatre in November 1951. A few years later it was adapted into a film, also starring Harris. Despite its Tony awards, the play is perhaps best known for the less than stellar review it received from theater critic Walter Kerr, with his playfully negative ding on its title: “Me no Leica.” Camera, as both play and film, was controversial in its day, condemned by some organizations, including the National Legion of Decency, for its treatment of abortion and Bowles’ promiscuity. But times have changed.

The camera reference continues with the opening moments in Porchlight’s rendition of Cabaret. Cliff (Gilbert Domally) walks through the auditorium towards the stage taking photographs, the flash of his camera lighting up the darkness. Using the small space to its best advantage, we see a recreation of Berlin’s Anhalter Bahnhof train station. Then the Emcee (a very fine Josh Walker) sings the opening words of the familiar “Willkommen” in German, French, and English, pulling the audience in. We are instantly mesmerized.

That the Porchlight cast managed to make the rather dated play work is a bit of a small miracle. Zachary Owen was excellent as Isherwood and Mary Margaret McCormick turned the fast-talking and ostensibly shallow Sally into someone likable and vulnerable while Gabi Leibowitz was a feisty Natalia. But despite their best efforts, Ramon Camin as Clive Mortimer, a wealthy American playboy, and Carrie Patterson in the thankless role of Sally’s mother, Mrs. Watson-Courtneidge, can’t quite get beyond their stereotypes. Even so, the production featured some fine, thoughtful details: the flash of a camera in between scenes and a through line to Cabaret itself by referencing, subtly, some of the musical’s songs: when Fraulein Schneider is tidying up, the melody of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” plays softly in the background; a few notes of “Maybe This Time” fills the auditorium at the conclusion.

One of the lines that generated a laugh from the audience (perhaps an uncomfortable one) was when Clive mentioned a shooting on a Berlin street. “Shooting?” Christopher asks. Clive answers, “Seemed just like Chicago,” a reference no doubt to Capone-era Chicago. Echoing that line in the film version—perhaps because director Bob Fosse was from Chicago—the Isherwood character mutters to Sally in a fake American accent, “Tell him your gangster lover from Chicago is here.”

Erica Stephan as Sally Bowles with cast of Cabaret. Photo by Liz Lauren.

“Hello, Stranger”

Cabaret, as an art form, was a popular type of entertainment in Weimar Germany, especially, but not exclusively, in Berlin, that invariably involved stories, jokes, songs (including torch songs), and dancing, often laced with sexual innuendo. There were female impersonators, clowns, animal acts, and even mud wrestling. (The film version of Cabaret includes a ventriloquist and his dummy, a juggler, and the rather mysteriously named Pretzel Woman.) Some of the cabarets were dives, similar to the Kit Kat Klub, while others were more upscale. Cabaret owners were catholic in their tastes, taking in various musical forms from throughout the world, including American jazz, cinematic techniques, and novelty acts. And a number of the cabaret performers were famous in their own right such as Anita Berber or Valeska Gert. Satire and political mockery were also prevalent: Hitler was often the butt of jokes. And most always there was an emcee.

Hal Prince, the director of the original 1966 Broadway stage production of Cabaret, invented the character of the Emcee. In the stage directions, he is described as “a bizarre little figure—much lipstick, much rouge, patent-leather hair parted in the middle.” This is the way Joel Grey, who originated the role, looked both onstage and in Bob Fosse’s 1972 film. The Emcee was inspired by a real person that Prince saw in the basement of a bombed-out church while stationed in Stuttgart, West Germany, in 1951. As Prince later recalled, he was an “androgynous little fella” and was backed by “a little tacky band…” 

In addition to Grey, the Emcee has been portrayed by Alan Cumming, Neil Patrick Harris, Michael C. Hall, and, most recently, Eddie Redmayne. There have also been several female Emcees, including Amanda Palmer of the punk cabaret duo Dresden Dolls at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 2013, at Louisville’s Repertory Theatre, Nathan Lee Graham was reportedly the first African American to play the role. 

But it was Cumming’s iconic performance in director Sam Mendes’ revivals that is perhaps the most memorable and influential. Mendes offered a disturbing interpretation: that of a sadomasochistic, punk rock type with rouged nipples and track marks running down his arms. At the conclusion of Mendes’ version, the Emcee stands on the stage in the striped pajamas often associated with concentration camps, wearing a yellow Star of David and pink triangle: the symbols of a gay Jew. It is a devastating and heartbreaking moment. The Emcee comes to symbolize the approximately 500,000 or so gay people who perished in the camps during the Holocaust. 

Porchlight’s Emcee is portrayed by the 4’6” tall Josh Walker. To my knowledge, the role has never been performed by a little person before. Walker is terrific: cheerful and friendly, vulgar and comical, but, ultimately, tragic and sad, especially when performing his singular torch song “I Don’t Care.”  

Christopher Isherwood, 1937. Credit: Howard Coster/© National Portrait Gallery, London; Free Creative Commons.

My Name Is Christopher Isherwood

The Isherwood character has also gone through various manifestations. In both Goodbye to Berlin, the stage and film adaptation of I Am a Camera, and the movie version of Cabaret, the Isherwood character is English, played, respectively, by William Prince on stage and Laurence Harvey in the film. In the 2011 BBC television film of Isherwood’s memoir Christopher and His Kind, Isherwood is played by Matt Smith of Dr. Who fame. Michael York plays him in Bob Fosse’s film, but his name is changed to Brian Roberts. Of all the actors, York most closely resembles the real Isherwood. But since the original 1966 musical and the numerous stage revivals, he has been played by an American, typically a white American. Joe Masteroff, who wrote the libretto of Cabaret, intentionally Americanized the Isherwood character because he was more comfortable writing about an American than an Englishman but also because he thought the change of nationality would have a broader appeal to an American audience. The only connection to Isherwood is Cliff’s last name: Bradshaw is Isherwood’s middle name. But the biggest change in the Porchlight production is casting a Black actor, Gilbert Damally, to portray Bradshaw. It’s not the first time, though. In 2021, Omari Douglas was cast in London’s West End production as Bradshaw. 

The casting choice has some basis in history. During the Weimar Republic, African Americans toured Germany and performed on German stages and in German nightclubs and cabarets. (In early 1926, Josephine Baker brought the La Revue nègre to Berlin.) Although still confronted with racism, African Americans in Germany could, unlike in Jim Crow America, eat in restaurants, stay in hotels, and attend shows. When Hitler came to power in 1933, several thousand Blacks were already living in Germany. But Nazis not only discriminated against them, they also imprisoned and murdered them, according to the Holocaust Encyclopedia. Specifically, the Nuremberg Race Laws of 1935 banned racial mixing. 

Even so, the color-blind casting of a Black actor to play a figure historically based on a white man can be seen as a provocative choice especially since the casting doesn’t lead to any changes in the script, any shift in the viewpoints of Bradshaw’s fellow characters, or even how he is perceived by others. Rather, Damally––excellent here, by the way–– who portrays Bradshaw as an African American from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (a city that had a sizable Black population in 1930), is accepted at face value. In some ways the casting raises more historical questions than it answers. Would a Nazi sympathizer befriend an African American? Would a German landlady, even a poor one struggling to pay her bills, rent to an African American? And would Sally Bowles agree to marry an African American and move with him to Pennsylvania especially when mixed marriage was illegal in many states until 1967?

Either way, the Isherwood/Bradshaw/Roberts character has evolved over the years. Due to concerns over censorship, Isherwood buried his homosexuality by writing about his platonic relationship with Sally Bowles in Goodbye to Berlin and I Am a Camera. But by the time the film of Cabaret was released in 1972 and the first Broadway revival was mounted in 1987, he was bisexual. 

The author's Cabaret collection. Photo by june Sawyers.


Divine Decadence

Sally Bowles is among the most famous fictional characters in musical theater history. But she is as much a chameleon as the Emcee. There’s Isherwood’s Sally, Van Druten’s Sally, Hal Prince and his collaborators Sally, Bob Fosse’s Sally, and Sam Mendes’ Sally. In addition to Harris and Minnelli, she has been played by Jill Haworth, Natasha Richardson, Michelle Williams, Emma Stone, and, most recently, Jessie Buckley. 

“Sally Bowles” is the second story in Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin. Sally is supposed to be a second-rate singer who performs at a dive bar called the Lady Windermere. Isherwood describes Sally as having a “surprisingly deep husky voice.” She sings “badly, without any expression, her hands hanging down at her sides.…” Less vivacious Liza Minnelli, more world-weary Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel. Still, Isherwood finds Sally’s performance effective, largely because she doesn't seem to care what anyone else thinks of her. 

Julie Harris in I Am a Camera was the first Sally Bowles to appear on stage or screen. In Isherwood’s story and Van Druten’s play, she is rather blandly described as “rather pretty, rather sophisticated, rather child-like, exasperating and irresistible.” On the other hand, her outfit is very specific: “She wears black silk with a small cape over her shoulders, and a page boy’s cap stuck jauntily on one side of her head.” This is how Harris appeared in both the stage and movie adaptations of I Am a Camera, which is a far cry from the flamboyant clothing worn by subsequent Sallys. 

Sally Bowles is based on a real person, Jean Ross, the eldest daughter of Charles Ross, a cotton industrialist of Scottish descent. Born in Alexandria, she was brought up in the then British protectorate of Egypt––in luxury. Ross was no empty-headed hedonist, vamp, or femme fatale. She was whip-smart with a sharp tongue and quick mind. After leaving Berlin she returned to England, working as a screenwriter in the British film industry alongside German directors—she had learned enough German to communicate with them—and later became a journalist and political activist. She wrote about the Spanish Civil War, for example, for the Daily Express and later wrote film reviews for the Communist newspaper the Daily Worker. All told she spent roughly 18 months in Berlin. 

In other words, Ross was far removed from the Sally Bowles of pop culture. And yet, even though Ross was not an admirer of the way Isherwood portrayed her in his work, they remained friends until her death in 1973. Interestingly, Liza Minnelli based her interpretation of Sally Bowles not on Ross but on the American film actor and dancer Louise Brooks, even down to the latter’s bob hairstyle.

As a character, Sally can be problematic. Depending who is playing her, she can be at various times thrilling, mesmerizing, and tragic but also shallow, exhausting, and exasperating. She loves to talk—mostly about herself. In the wrong hands, she can be unlikable. Fortunately, both of Porchlight’s actors—McCormick in I Am a Camera and Erica Stephan in Cabaret—find the vulnerability under the loud and noisy exterior. And when Stephan sings the iconic title song, she spits out the words in a drunken, agonizing display of pain and misery. 

Changes, Changes

Most of the time the plot points and other features of the various Cabaret productions have remained the same over the years. The “divinely decadent” Sally still wears the same emerald green nail polish and still swigs Prairie Oysters. (A Prairie Oyster is a beverage consisting of eggs and Worcester sauce stirred up together and was considered a traditional cure for hangovers. Isherwood did not invent it—the drink is mentioned as far back as James Joyce’s Ulysses and, even earlier, in P.G. Wodehouse’s 1916 short story “Jeeves Takes Charge.”)

Sometimes, though, details are changed or added. The post-1972 revivals incorporated some of the details and songs from the film, including “Mein Herr” and “Maybe This Time,” as is the case in the Porchlight production. During Walker’s marvelous solo turn in “Money,” oversize newspaper headlines scream out the words “Banks Fail” and “Wall Street Panic” to let the audience know just how dire things are in Weimar Germany. Some changes are so minor that only the most fanatical of fans would notice: Seville oranges become Italian oranges or when Herr Schultz tells Bradshaw he has a cousin in Buffalo and mentions him by name (“Do you know Felix Tannenbaum?”). 

Other changes in the Porchlight production are, well, curious. In “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” the Kit Kat Klub singers and dancers are dressed in togas as if they stepped off a Grecian urn. Even more head scratching is changing the gorilla from “If You Can See Her” to a mouse that turns into a rat. More significantly, one of Hal Prince’s most innovative ideas was to feature a large mirror that allowed the audience to see itself reflected back. Surprisingly, the Porchlight production has no mirror.  

Evergreens and Perennials

With its themes of anti-Semitism, prejudice, fascism, and the dangerous rise of nationalism, Cabaret never gets old. It comments on whatever is going on in the world at the time from McCarthyism to the Vietnam War to Watergate to Trump’s America. Each generation offers its own interpretation. Like another perennial classic, say, George Orwell’s 1984, it never seems outdated or irrelevant. 

Cabaret is part morality tale, part cautionary tale. Through the years the message remains the same: it could happen here. Ordinary Germans, like ordinary people everywhere, can turn complacent and when their country is in trouble they often look to someone—a strongman—to fix things. The characters in Cabaretrepresent these ordinary people. Some, like Sally Bowles, use alcohol and promiscuity to escape from the real world (“You mean—politics? But what has that to do with us?”). Fraulein Schneider raises her hands in despair and accepts the status quo (“For, in the end, what other choice do I have?”). Cliff Bradshaw wakes up from his sleepwalking to see the truth (“The party is over!”). Ironically, only Herr Schultz, the Jewish fruit shop owner, remains optimistic despite the rising acts of anti-Semitism (“I know I am right. Because I understand the Germans . . . After all, what am I? A German”).

Or as Cliff says, “There was a cabaret and there was a master of ceremonies and there was a city called Berlin in a country called Germany—and it was the end of the world, and I was dancing with Sally Bowles, and we were both fast asleep.” 

Cabaret was vital when it was first produced. It is vital now. One suspects it always will be.
Cabaret is running through March 19 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St. For more information, call 773-777-9884 or see PorchlightMusicTheatre.org 

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Picture of the author
June Sawyers

June Sawyers has published more than 25 books. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, New City, San Francisco Chronicle, and Stagebill. She teaches at the Newberry Library and is the founder of the arts group, the Phantom Collective.