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Stage Door: Michelle Williams in "Cabaret"


Jose here. I have a confession to make that might make me very unpopular around here: I don’t get Michelle Williams. I understand the reasons why she’s beloved and acclaimed and why she’s earned three Academy Award nominations so far, but I can’t bring myself to declare myself as part of her fanclub. The reason behind this is that I can’t fully fathom her as a true sexual being, yet time after time she’s asked to portray characters for whom sex is an essential trait. For instance, as much as she aced the moves, comedic timing and picaresque tone of Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn, she played the most famous sexual icon of all time as a timid porcelain doll, whose internal turmoils kept her from having an emotional life. What is the point of having Marilyn onscreen if you’re not having at least mildly naughty thoughts about her?

Yes, as problematic as the previous question might sound, my point is that there should be a clear dividing line between oversexualization and over-intellectualization. With Williams, you can always see her thoughts before her reactions, which is why I was extremely wary when it was announced she’d be taking on the role of Sally Bowles in the latest Broadway revival of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret. The previous revival of the iconic Tony Award-winning production closed in 2004 and brought unsurpassed acclaim for the creative team of Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall who cast Alan Cumming as the Emcee and the late Natasha Richardson as Sally Bowles (they both won Tonys for their work).

With the Tonys practically around the corner and taking into consideration theater fans’ never-ending paranoia about movie stars stealing their territory, can Michelle Williams unseat frontrunners Kelli O’Hara, Sutton Foster and Jessie Mueller? I believe the answer will be a big no. She might get nominated though, because the Tonys do like acknowledging movie stars’ work (except if they’re completely unremarkable like poor Jessica Chastain in The Heiress last year) and I was pleasantly surprised by MiWi’s voice; however that’s all she really has going for herself in this show.

The character has been completely desexualized, to the point where she’s often wearing pink robes and very girlie attires as if to warn people to stay away from her. In her very first big number, “Don’t Tell Mama”, Williams’ turns Sally into an “adult girl”, very much like her Marilyn, who coos and aahs, but warns us not to think of her as a sexual being. I’m not sure if this was a conscious choice (but it probably wasn’t since we often hear other characters talk about Sally’s libido) yet it makes for a very problematic plot since we are never sure what Sally wants from the world.

Her mannerisms have been practically copied from Liza’s (and honestly who can blame her?) but sometimes her accent sounds like she’s trying to emulate Dorothy Whitney's Mag Wildwood from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. When juxtaposed with the rest of the cast (Cumming is once again, brilliant beyond words) Williams feels misplaced, as if she’s always the one trying the hardest, something that we might argue works well for Sally, but feels more accidental than planned. I would like to think that she was trying to project Sally’s inner life by making her performance-within-a-performance even more obvious to the audience but more and more I believe that maybe this time she wasn’t completely ready to take on the part.

Have you seen this production yet? If so, what did you think of Williams? 


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Reader Comments (16)

Interesting to hear, Jose! I'm dying to see this because I am also extremely curious about Williams in this role. Sally (just like Chicago's Roxie) is a character that works whether or not the actress is ridiculously talented, so I can't imagine it's something she'll end up being embarrassed by, but MAN does that picture at the top NOT inspire confidence.

April 7, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

i saw it last week and i'm really kinda annoyed with the laziness of reviving a revival without changing a damn thing. Even the same cast members! it's one of my favorite shows (which i saw 3 times previously), but it already ran for years. why not revive it with a new vision?

i was also not impressed with michelle. she seemed a little lost despite trying really hard. sally needs to be effortlessly charismatic and kooky, neither of which michelle is. she also came across as a person with genuine mental instability which works as she begins to unravel at the end, but not at the beginning when we're supposed to buy that people are charmed by her. they would run in the other direction.

i know that the thing with this revival is that sally doesn't have to be a good singer, but then she better act the hell out the songs. which she totally does not. "maybe this time"-which is a huge acting moment-had her standing emotionless the entire time with her only inner monologue being, god, i hope i can hit the notes.

wow. i got a little carried away. obviously i have some thoughts on this...

April 7, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterabstew

I love Michelle, I think she's amazingly talented. But I do see your point about her sexuality. She used to be much sexier when she was younger and curvier, like on Dawson's Creek, Dick and Halloween H20. Now she's more refined.

April 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSad man

Michelle was convincing as a sexual being as well as many other things in Blue Valentine. That was the performance that knocked my socks off. She is amazing.

Obvs can't comment on Cabaret because I haven't seen it but agree on some of your points regarding Marilyn.

April 7, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermurtada

The production isn't eligible for the Tonys.It's not a new production. They're doing the same staging/choreography as the 1998 one. It's not an official revival.

April 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJJ

I'm not surprised. Her performance as Marilyn Monroe was absoutley terrible.

April 7, 2014 | Unregistered Commentero.s.

The production isn't Tony-eligible, but I believe the new cast members will be. The Tony Administration Committee does what it wants.

April 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

I don't get the love for her either, Jose. She thrives on playing dour, uncharismatic characters for the most part, and the passivity of the Suite francaise character has me worried yet again. Time for her to get a new agent.

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJordan

I am firmly in the PRO Michelle camp. She is insanely talented and furthermore she has the savviness to appear in good material. Brokeback, Me Without You (if you haven't seen it PLEASE check it out), Wendy and Lucy, Mammoth, Land of Plenty, etc. And I actually liked her interpretation of Marilyn as a coy, self-aware, drugged up mess (even though the movie failed her). Regardless, she definitely deserves props for having a thriving, acclaimed career after Dawson's Creek. Hope to check out Cabaret this summer if I get the chance. It's my all-time favorite Broadway musical.

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAaron

Don't have an opinion here but I thought she brought a lot of sexuality to Blue Valentine (what an evolution there from 20something to grown woman) and Take This Waltz (lust has rarely been so realistically portrayed). Ditto your Marilyn observation though. That film had all sorts of problems.

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterW.J.

I'm always been on the fence with her. She can be so good(Dick, Brokeback Mountain). However she often manages to be downright terrible(Blue Valentine, Oz). It's not surprising she got the Sally Bowles gig. She has fame and that matters more than charisma to people who want to turn a profit. She should be commended for trying some new though, even if she isn't actually trying anything new.

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTy

I'm also definitely in the PRO camp (Brokeback, Valentine, Wendy and Lucy, I even liked her in Marilyn) but then I saw her in Oz. Granted, maybe no one could be good in Oz, but she just took it SO seriously and was SO earnest in such a bland, humorless way. It made me think she can't really do comedy but then I remembered why I was impressed with her in Marilyn - I knew she could nail the depressed, drugged-out moments, but she also had moments of such light, amused perkiness. I didn't think she had in her. I'm disappointed that her big cheesy blockbuster performance was so flat but I'm still on her side. Hopefully one of these days she can find a good comedy.

Take This Waltz is on my Netflix queue and I can't wait to see it. But yeah, I don't think she normally has the effortless charisma for a part like Sally Bowles.

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

I never saw her TV show, but I've liked her ever since she played the young alien in Species, who without words looked smarter and more dangerous than the people who caged her.

I like the way Williams' sexuality is conveyed as part of a complete person. It's not that fore grounded, look at me I'm sexy, run of the mill, selling point fragmentation that is kind of sad. Although I guess she played that in Marilyn, but there was a person behind it.

I think Williams is a brave and smart actress. It's too bad that Cabaret, like Chastain's The Heiress, doesn't quite make it. But both these actresses are working on making their craft better (and it's pretty great to start with), and I have tremendous respect for that.

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered Commenteradri

I think she can do comedy...her singing "I Honestly Love You" into the fan in Dick was hilarious...and she was quite funny in Synedoche, New York.

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMB76

I have seen the current Roundabout production of Cabaret and Michelle William's performance was just terrible. She could not dance, she could not sing on key, and her acting was underwhelming. Not only did she fail to meet Broadway standards for a leading lady, her performance wouldn't earn her a role in the chorus of a high school production of this musical

To make matters worse for Michelle, she shared the stage with the incomparable Alan Cummings, a daunting task for even the most talented Broadway veteran. Cummings gave a virtuoso performance as the emcee, while supporting cast members were all very fine. It is Michelle alone who was responsible for marring this production.

I was outraged that the director/producers felt it necessary to hire a Hollywood starlet with no musical theatre experience, rather than a talented but lesser-known Broadway veteran. Michelle's gall in accepting this role and the producers gall in casting her is astounding. Did these producers really believe that the audience would be made up entirely of tourists who would not recognize a musical theatre amateur when they saw one? Has Broadway reached such a low point, that talent is no longer a consideration, and all that matters is a "name"?

This production of Cabaret should have knocked my socks off; surely Alan Cummings' emcee is a performance that I will never forget. But Michelle Williams had no business being on that stage; she should be embarrassed as should the Roundabout's producers for wasting the audiences' time and money.

April 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJQ

Saw the show this past Saturday. Perfect
Up front Table. The opening number was
So electric, Alan Cumming mesmerizing, the band and chorus
So spot on- my heart was actually beating
Faster and I was stoked for a great evening.
When Michele entered and first spoke, my heart sank,
She just didn't seem to have any charisma. The scene with the
Prarie oysters, where she worms her way into
The BF's room, was lacking in the manipulation, and sexy charm
You expect of this character. I couldn't imagine all these guys sleeping with her.
As the evening went on, I felt I was watching a young
Shirley McClaine, she's a pip- would make a great
Charity, or Peter Pan. There was no magnetic lust.
She's also physically very tiny and very very skinny.
Her Dancing was fine and I thought her Maybe Next Time, and the title number
Were well done, in the riveted teary introspective style,
But powerful and truthful. After the 11:00 number,
She was supposed to be nervous and cold. Her accent was more
Garbled, and with the shaking head, I felt
I was watching Kate Hepburn. The odd acting
Totally dilited the climactic ending.
Sorry, I think she's a good film actress, but its interesting to see, if you
Don't have the presence live, it just doesn't work.
I will say many in the audience did enjoy. The entire mezz.
Gave a standing ovation, but only 1/3 of the orchestra
On a positive note, all others very good, and a
Great Entre Act opens Act 2, with the great big beautiful Band
Playing that Georgeous Title Number.

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAS

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