It was a risky choice to pick a classical actress known for her Shakespearean performances to play a morally dubious singer in a new musical, but that was what happened when Judi Dench originated the role of Sally Bowles in Cabaret for its UK premiere on 28 February 1968.
John Kander and Fred Ebb’s musical had premiered on Broadway in 1966 to Tony Award-wining success. Set in Berlin in the 1930s against the rise of the Nazi Party, it followed Sally Bowles, an English singer and star attraction at the Kit Kat Klub, a place of decadence and sexual ambiguity presided over by an extrovert, money-grabbing emcee.
When the show came to London’s Palace theatre, director Harold Prince looked to Dench, then a 34-year-old classical actress who had never appeared in a West End musical, to play the role of Sally Bowles. At the time Dench was best known for her work with the Old Vic theatre company and the Royal Shakespeare Company, with roles including Juliet in Franco Zeffirelli’s production of Romeo And Juliet and Ophelia in Hamlet.
By most accounts, Dench was a surprising and successful Sally Bowles. Speaking to the International Herald Tribune in 1995 Dench said of Cabaret: “It was kind of a way out thing of Hal to ask me to do, but I had the most wonderful time.”
The versatility she showed with Cabaret was a sign of things to come. Dame Judi, as she was named by the Queen in 1988, went on to become one of Britain’s most enduring and celebrated actresses across stage and screen, in drama and comedy, with several future forays into musical theatre, including The Good Companions in 1974, A Little Night Music in 1995, for which she won a Best Actress in a Musical Laurence Olivier Award, and, more recently, a musical version of The Merry Wives Of Windsor for the RSC in Stratford. However, her attempt to originate the role of Grizabella in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical blockbuster Cats in 1981 ended in disaster when she was injured prior to opening night and had to be replaced in the production by Elaine Paige.
Cabaret has been revived in the West End on three occasions; in 1986 at the Strand (now Novello), with Kelly Hunter as Sally and ballet dancer Wayne Sleep as Emcee; Sam Mendes’s production at the Donmar Warehouse in 1993, with Jane Horrocks as Sally and Alan Cumming as Emcee; and in 2006 at the Lyric, when Anna Maxwell Martin, another actress best known for her dramatic roles, played Sally, with James Dreyfus as Emcee. That production is still running, currently [Feb 2008] with Amy Nuttall as Sally.