Perfectly marvellous: star casting in 'Cabaret'

As Cara Delevingne and Luke Treadaway join the cast of Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club, we take a look at other famous Sally Bowles and Emcee pairings.

Julia Rank
Julia Rank

Don’t tell mama! Rebecca Frecknall’s production of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s musical Cabaret at the Playhouse Theatre (Kit Kat Club) continues to thrill audiences. Cara Delevingne and Luke Treadaway will soon take over as Sally Bowles and the Emcee, the latest in a line of exciting (and often unexpected) castings.

The musical is based on British author Christopher Isherwood’s autobiographical novel Goodbye to Berlin, inspired by his life as an expat during the Weimar Republic (he became the American ‘Cliff’ in the musical).

Sally Bowles is thought to be based on Isherwood’s friend Jean Ross, a British cabaret singer and aspiring actress, who went on to be a journalist and a life-long member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. The Emcee is the invention of Kander and Ebb, a sinister, shapeshifting figure holding the show-within-a-show together, while providing a sardonic commentary on both the proceedings on stage and the wider political situation.

Sally and the Emcee are roles that allow actors to fully embrace their individual quirks, and they don’t require classically beautiful voices, hence such an eclectic array casting. There are also some fantastic supporting roles in the show. Learn more about some of the actors who have starred in this darkly brilliant show.

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Jill Haworth and Joel Grey (1966)

In Harold Prince’s original Broadway production, the roles of Sally and the Emcee were played by British-born ‘60s starlet Jill Haworth, and the then relatively unknown Joel Grey. Haworth received some critical reviews, and her career failed to take off afterwards. Grey, however, won a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical, leading to an extensive career on stage and screen.

The star name in the original production was Austrian-American actress and diseuse Lotte Lenya as world-weary landlady Fraulein Schneider. Closely associated with the work of her first husband Kurt Weill, Lenya is perhaps best known for the role of Jenny in The Threepenny Opera, as well as Rosa Klebb in the James Bond film From Russia with Love.

Other distinguished actresses to have played this supporting role include Lila Kedrova, Sara Kestelman, Sheila Hancock, Honor Blackman, and Siân Phillips. Liza Sadovy won an Olivier Award for the Kit Kat Club revival. The role is currently being played in London by well-known character actress Beverley Klein, and will be portrayed on Broadway by Kander and Ebb veteran Bebe Neuwirth.

Judi Dench and Barry Dennen (1968)

Across the pond, an Old Vic and RSC rising star named Judi Dench played Sally. Reviews of the production were mixed but Dench’s distinctive vocal performance on the cast album is a marvel. She starred opposite American actor Barry Dennen, best-known for originating the role of Pontius Pilate in Jesus Christ Superstar, which he reprised on film.

Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey (1971)

For Bob Fosse’s electrifying film adaption (which plays rather loose with the stage version), Grey reprised his role as the Emcee opposite the mesmerising Liza Minnelli as an Americanized Sally. Minnelli introduced the songs “Mein Herr” and “Maybe This Time,” which have subsequently been added to the stage version. Minnelli and Grey won Oscars for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor respectively, and Fosse was named Best Director. Sally and the Emcee became signature roles for both actors. Grey reprised the role a final time in the 1987 Broadway revival, opposite Alyson Reed as Sally.

Cliff, based on Christopher Isherwood himself, was renamed Brian for the movie, in which he was played by British actor Michael York (who played him as British - the character is American in the stage version). The role was originated in the Kit Kat Club revival by Olivier and BAFTA nominee Omari Douglas (Constellations, It's a Sin). Michael Ahomka-Lindsay, recently acclaimed for his performance in Newsies, will shortly take over.

Alan Cumming and Jane Horrocks (1993)

In Sam Mendes’s production at the Donmar Warehouse, Alan Cumming’s highly sexualised Emcee was a marked contrast to Joel Grey’s more childlike, asexual interpretation. He starred opposite Jane Horrocks as a fragile Sally. Horrocks had recently astonished theatregoers with her extraordinary vocal range and talent for mimicry in The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. Notably, she did not mimic Liza Minnelli's interpretation. The production was filmed for television.

Alan Cumming and Natasha Richardson (1998)

The 1998 Broadway production was based on Mendes’s production, with Rob Ashford as choreographer and co-director. Cumming reprised his role as the Emcee, with a cast-against-type, thrillingly de-glamourised Natasha Richardson as Sally. The production won Tony Awards for Best Revival of a Musical and Best Performances by a Leading Actor and Actress in a Musical for Cumming and Richardson.

Note how Joel Grey previously won Best Featured Actor in a Musical (perhaps even more surprisingly a Best Leading Actor in a Musical nomination went to Jack Gilford as Herr Schultz, which really is a supporting role). When the show first opened, Grey was billed fifth. It shows just how much the status of the role of the Emcee has grown to become the co-lead.

Cumming reprised the role again in 2014, opposite Michelle Williams in her Broadway debut. Williams was replaced by Emma Stone, who was succeeded by Sienna Miller.

Jessie Buckley and Eddie Redmayne (2021)

Rebecca Frecknall’s production opened with two true A-listers in the lead roles. Both won Oliviers for their performances. Jessie Buckley rose to fame in BBC talent show I’d Do Anything, and her screen credits include Wild Rose, Chernobyl, and Women Talking. She received a 2022 Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for The Lost Daughter. Oscar, Tony, BAFTA and Olivier winner Eddie Redmayne made his musical theatre debut as the Emcee. He will shortly reprise the role on Broadway, opposite Scottish actress Gayle Rankin (House of the Dragon).

Our critic for London Theatre observed, “As the musical gets progressively darker, Redmayne's Emcee becomes more and more absurd, almost half American Horror Story: Freakshow and half Martha Graham dancer, and his final iteration is the most horrific.” Meanwhile, Buckley’s Sally was “all bravado and belt, the ultimate starlet.”

Amy Lennox and Fra Fee (2022)

Buckley and Redmayne’s immediate successors were Amy Lennox and Fra Fee, experienced theatre performers who previously co-starred in The Last Five Years at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast. Fee’s credits include the title role in Candide at the Menier Chocolate Factory, and As You Like It and Translations at the National Theatre. Lennox was Olivier-nominated for her role as Lauren in Kinky Boots.

Madeline Brewer and Callum Scott Howells (2022)

American actress Madeline Brewer is best known for her roles in Orange is the New Black and The Handmaid’s Tale. Welsh actor Callum Scott Howells, who had his breakthrough in Russell T. Davies’s miniseries It’s a Sin, was an unusually young Emcee at 22.

Aimee Lou Wood and John McCrea (2023)

Aimee Lou Wood shares the same first name as the Sex Education character for which she won a BAFTA TV Award for Best Comedy Performance. For her performance as Sally, she won the WhatsOnStage Award for Best Takeover Performance. John McCrea created the role of Jamie New in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, winning a WhatsOnStage Award and Critics’ Circle Theatre Award, and receiving an Olivier nomination.

Maude Apatow and Mason Alexander Park (2023)

The daughter of Jud Apatow, Maude Apatow is known for starring in teen TV drama Euphoria opposite Zendaya, and played Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors off Broadway. She was joined by fellow American Mason Alexander Park as the Emcee, who was the first openly transgender actor to star in Cabaret. Their screen credits include Cowboy BeBop and The Sandman.

Rebecca Lucy Taylor (Self Esteem) and Jake Shears (2023)

A proper pop pairing! Rebecca Lucy Taylor was originally known as one half of the band Slow Club, before going solo as Self Esteem. Scissors Sisters frontman Jake Shears made his stage debut on Broadway in Kinky Boots in 2018, and he wrote the lyrics to Elton John’s music for Tammy Faye, soon to be seen on Broadway.

Cara Delevingne and Luke Treadaway (2024)

From 11 March, Cara Delevingne and Luke Treadaway join the cast. Olivier winner Treadaway (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) and model Delevingne (in her stage debut) are bound to shake things up yet again. Delevingne is also known for her screen credits including Suicide Squad and Paper Towns. Long may the Kit Kat Club remain open for business!

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Photo credit: Cara Delevingne and Luke Treadaway in Cabaret. (Photo courtesy of production)

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