It was another night of recycling on Broadway, this time a 1998 preview performance of a Sam Mendes production of “Cabaret.” Into the footlights stepped Natasha Richardson as the wobbly Sally Bowles, straining to belt famous songs, her make-up smeary, her life a mess.
That night, as the play wound to its devastating close, the ground shifted. And it wasn’t merely because I slipped on a tossed Playbill. It was that performance.
Heartbreaking, smoldering, riotously funny and finally, tragic. Natasha Richardson, already a known entity behind the footlights, owned Sally Bowles. Sorry, Liza.
As the lights came up, the audience – muted sobs, stunned silence – was as much of a mess as poor Sally.
The performance, fueled most nights by a hearty steak at Natasha’s favorite less-than-chic West Side eatery, was duly awarded with a Tony, as was the pitch-perfect production. After her “Cabaret” run, as the vibrant and striking actress chose even more daring roles (“Closer,” among others), her acting chops grew even more pointed and poignant. Her star had long risen, and her fan base among theatergoers grew exponentially.
And now we wait. She breaks our hearts once again, but I will always remember her witty repartee on stage and off, her agility dealing with the printed word and small talk among the hoi polloi outside a stage door.
Her theatrical legacy need not be repeated here, merely a personal memory and a vivid memory of experiencing her never-to-be-repeated performance. “Maybe this time, I’ll be lucky, maybe this time, he’ll stay,” she sang, as we ached for star-crossed Sally.
Natasha Richardson, beloved by all who ever watched her glide across the stage or light up a B-movie, will forever be Sally Bowles to me.