Willkommen Back: 'Cabaret' Star Gayle Rankin Returns to Broadway as Sally Bowles

gayle rankin cabaret
Gayle Rankin on Playing Sally Bowles 'Cabaret'Andrew Arthur
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Gayle Rankin made her Broadway debut in 2014 in Cabaret. It only feels right that a decade later, she's making her return to Broadway in the same show—but a very different production, and trading the role of Fräulen Kost for Sally Bowles. "It holds a lot of meaning and a lot of weight," she says. "Cabaret's become as a marker in my life about my own growth, as a woman, and as a performer. To see your life marked by a piece of art is really rare. I'm not really sure how this could get more meaningful to me."

Just a few days before the premiere of Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club (now playing at the August Wilson Theater), Rankin is speaking with Town & Country about what it means to take on the iconic role of Sally Bowles, who's been played by everyone from Judi Dench to Liza Minnelli, Natasha Richardson, and Michelle Williams, to name a few. "I've had a very intimate relationship with the material for a long time," Rankin says. "Part of me was unconsciously yearning for working on my version of Sally."

That version of Sally Bowles—the famed fictional British flapper singing in a Berlin nightclub—is entirely Rankin's own. "It was really important for me to try to find what is rooting my Sally in the present day: her struggles, her journey, her message—what she has to tell us and share with us. I find her to be extraordinarily smart, ahead of her time, which isn't always at the forefront of people's minds about Sally always, but that was really important to me," Rankin says.

a group of people in clothing
Rankin as Sally Bowles in Cabaret. "I look at Sally as one of the bigger challenges of the canon of musical theater, if not just the theatrical canon of classics. SheMarc Brenner

She got the role almost a year ago, while the production was already running on the West End. Yet, Rankin consciously chose not to take in that show, wanting to "have a bit of space" and find her own Sally Bowles—a role she calls top of her "artistic fucking bucket list." Still, she reached out the women, like Jessie Buckley, Amy Lennox, and Aimee Lou Wood, who played Sally in the Rebecca Frecknall-directed production for advice. They told her "that it's going to be okay," she says, "and to enjoy it."

Rankin continues, "There's nothing any Sally can impart to another Sally—like, there's no human that can tell another human how to do it. She's such a deeply personal journey, but she's a hard, beautiful, insane ride. To know that there are people that I can text and be like, 'I am freaked out. I am scared about my voice. I'm scared about my body. I'm scared about my heart.' It's just amazing."

For her own Sally, she drew from inspirations she's keeping private, but also a few she shares—including Sinead O'Connor, silent movie star Anita Berber, Dolores O'Riordan, Joan of Arc, Marlene Dumas paintings, and Louise Brooks, among others. "Inspiration comes from everywhere," Rankin says, "my job is to absorb that and use my own techniques and processes to fold it all in." She also turned to Jean Ross, whom she calls "a quite formidable woman," the real-life woman who inspired Christopher Isherwood's character.

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Ross, according to Rankin, tried to write to Isherwood numerous times after he published his novella Sally Bowles (which was later republished in the novel Goodbye to Berlin and his Berlin Stories anthology). "All she could get down on paper was 'Dear Christopher,' and that was it. That's all as far as she could go, because she was just so bereft, I think. That, for me, is such a key to how Sally feels—that level of misunderstanding is so motivating and heartbreaking and sets her on fire. That's a huge North Star."

If she could meet the real Jean Ross, who passed away in 1973, Rankin says, "I would just want her to talk. I wouldn't even want to talk. I would just want to say, 'Just go. Say nothing, say everything. Don't tell me.' I read this thing the other day that the most radical thing a woman can do is not have to explain herself. And I [thought], Fuck! That's fucking amazing. That's how I feel if I was able to talk to her, just would want her to say or do whatever she wanted, because it feels like so much of her autonomy was taken away. And I don't think Chris Isherwood intended that—that's just a representation of love and how people can hurt each other."

In the first reviews of Cabaret, Rankin's portrayal of Sally has received widespread praise; the New York Times calls her "Maybe This Time" performance "riveting" and Entertainment Weekly notes "Rankin is nothing short of spectacular as the ostentatious performer, knowing when turn on her character's charming nature and when to pull back the curtain to reveal a weariness that makes it feel as if life's hardships have been weighing on her shoulders for centuries."

Rankin's spring is just getting started; in addition to starring in Cabaret, she's also in House of the Dragon season two, joining the cast as the mysterious Alys (pronounced like Alice), a witch. (The Game of Thrones prequel returns this June.) In Fire & Blood by George R.R. Martin, the show's source material, Alys has prophetic visions and becomes a major force on the Greens side of the Targaryen civil war. Joining the behemoth production, Rankin says, was an incredible experience. "For as huge as it is, it's quite an intimate set. My particular storyline is quite, for the moment, contained. Contained, let's say—very wild, but contained."

Hesitant to say any thing else about her storyline—mindful of HBO's strict spoiler policy—Rankin will say of Alys: "I'm obsessed with her. I've always given the opportunity to play people who are pretty prophetic, which is cool, but it's a lot of pressure!" she says with a laugh. "She's so fucking cool. I want to really ground her and find her humanity—I always try to find my way into that, but she has a lot of power, too. Just really exciting. I don't think we've seen half of it yet, so that will be fun."

In fact, Rankin sees some key links between Alys and Sally—namely, their prophetic tendencies. "Sally, in so many ways, was so ahead of her time. She has these secrets to share with us, that only get unfolded by the people who get to play her. I feel lucky, so lucky, to be one of those people, and I think Alys has a quality of that too."

a person in a garment
"I donMarc Brenner

Perhaps Rankin feels Sally Bowles is a prophet because she is a woman who feels just as present in 1930 Weimar Germany as she does in 2024 New York City. "I feel honored to be working on a piece of art that is the conversation with the world," she says. "It's just heartbreaking. It's scary Sometimes, I do feel this kind of very present feeling—I don't know how better to describe it than a feeling of like, we are all in this room right now hearing these words. There's a feeling of foreboding." She adds, "Where else would I rather be right here? We're living in a time of upheaval; which way is the world going to tip? When there's a piece of art that reflects that feeling, so people are hungry for it because it's the unknown, it's about mortality. We're scared. We want to know what to do, and we want to feel less alone."

Cabaret is there to make audiences feel less alone: Saying, in essence, we have navigated turbulent times before, and will again. "There's something timeless about Sally, and the material," Rankin says. "It's why Cabaret has revived so much: for better or for worse, in beautiful ways and devastating ways, we need Cabaret. We really do. Our world does, and we need a version of Sally, too."

For Town & Country, Gayle Rankin is styled by Karen Clarkson, hair by David von Cannon, and makeup by Samantha Lau. Photos by Andrew Arthur. Gayle wears Versace in the lead image.

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