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Posted by admin on June 7th, 2024

Emcee squared: Joel Grey and Eddie Redmayne on ‘Cabaret’

Eddie Redmayne had never seen “Cabaret” when, as a 15-year-old student at Eton, he was first cast as the Emcee, the indecorous impresario of the bawdy Berlin nightclub where the musical is set. So Redmayne did what anyone wondering about the character would do: He watched the 1972 film, and studied Joel Grey’s performance.

Redmayne, 42, has played the Emcee three more times — at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe following high school; in London’s West End, winning an Olivier Award in 2022; and now on Broadway, where he has just picked up a Tony nomination.

“Cabaret,” set in 1929 and 1930, is about an American writer who has a relationship with a British singer working at the Kit Kat Club; the queerness of some of that nightclub’s habitués and the Jewishness of some of its neighbors become risk factors as the Nazis gain power.

Redmayne had never met Grey, who originated the role on Broadway in 1966 and who went on to win both Tony and Academy Awards as the Emcee. So I asked them to lunch, to talk about a character both have played several times, and about a musical that has continued to move audiences.

We met at Le Bernardin — Grey’s choice — and for two hours they shared stories, Redmayne reverential and thoughtful, Grey puckish and supportive. At times, when words seemed insufficient, Grey reached out to clasp Redmayne’s hand.

Although the lunch was the first time Redmayne and Grey had had a real conversation, they had greeted each other a few days earlier, on Grey’s 92nd birthday, when the actor, accompanied by his actress-daughter, Jennifer, attended a “Cabaret” performance; as the two arrived, the starry crowd (including the musical’s 97-year-old composer, John Kander) rose to its feet.

At curtain, Redmayne, who also has an Oscar and a Tony (for “The Theory of Everything” and “Red”), paid an emotional tribute to Grey’s performance as an inspiration for his career, led the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday” and presented Grey with a pineapple-shaped cake (pineapple, as a treasured fruit, is the subject of a “Cabaret” song).

There was no pineapple at our lunch, but there were other delights (Grey turns out to be partial to sea urchin).

These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

EDDIE REDMAYNE: My family have just left. I don’t know how you found it, Joel, but I have two young children, and we always thought we would travel together and do everything together, but they’ve just started new schools in London.

MICHAEL PAULSON: They’re too young to see “Cabaret,” right?

REDMAYNE: They are, in theory. How old were yours when they saw it?

JOEL GREY: Jennifer was glued to the proscenium arch. She would go with me to every matinee.

REDMAYNE: This is wonderful, because my kids have been singing the music for years. It’s so inappropriate!

PAULSON: Do you explain anything?

REDMAYNE: They’ve seen little snippets of numbers. My wife thinks it would go over their head and they would just like to see it. But my fear is more for the patrons. “There’s a 7-year-old and a 6-year-old here?”

PAULSON: So you guys had not met before last Thursday?

REDMAYNE: This is pretty much our first time of meeting proper. It’s very surreal to be doing it in recorded company. My first interaction with Joel was on our opening in London, and I opened a card from him, and I’ll never forget that moment. That coupled with the other evening, when I knew Joel was in, but I didn’t know where he was sitting, and we caught each other’s eye, and Joel went like this to me [puts his hands over his heart, and then reaches out] and I’ll never, ever forget that moment.

PAULSON: Joel, remind us how you ended up in this role?

GREY: I was playing at Jones Beach. It was the worst job I ever had in my life. I played a sailor or something, and I was ready to quit. And the telephone rang. It was Hal Prince. He said, “I wouldn’t quit quite so soon. I have a part for you in my next show.”

REDMAYNE: Did he send you a script?

GREY: There was no script. And he said there’s no talk. Five songs. I didn’t know how I was going to make those songs live. But that was my job.

PAULSON: How did you think about who, or what, this character was?

GREY: I was in St. Louis or something, and I went to a terrible nightclub, and there was a terrible emcee, and he did every low, abusive, physical stuff to the audience, and they loved him for it.

REDMAYNE: It’s interesting, that idea of emcee as abuser, as someone almost attacking an audience at moments. In the 19th century, emcees stemmed in some ways from that — people coming to watch them be humiliating.

GREY: The audience loved him. I hated him. But he started to affect all of my thinking. I was struggling with the role. I was just singing the songs, and it wasn’t anywhere near enough. We were on our way out of town, to Boston, and I said to Hal, “I want to try something different today.” I touched every chorus girl on their bottoms, on their heads. I was so awful. They were furious. I was outrageous. We finished the opening number, and I started to cry. I was sure I’d be fired. And then Hal came up to me and put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Joely, that’s it.”

REDMAYNE: I’ll never forget when we were doing our first full run in London, and just before we were going on, our director [Rebecca Frecknall] said, “Eddie, none of your opening, with ‘Willkommen,’ is working. Just scrap it all and entertain us.” So suddenly all of the structure that I had was thrown out of the window. Of course, it was a genius note, because it got me out of my head and made me be willing to make a total fool of myself.

PAULSON: When you first did this, you were still in high school?

REDMAYNE: Even at that age, I dreamt of acting. I loved music. And there was something about that part that was so un-pin-downable. It was like a butterfly. There is nothing on the Emcee — he lives in abstraction. And even at age 15 I found that enthralling.

PAULSON: Did the character evolve each time you came back to it?

GREY: You want to tear it to pieces and put it back together again. That’s a way of freshening a performance, for me anyway.

REDMAYNE: When I was 15, it was all instinct. The production that I did at Edinburgh — everyone was drunk, and there were two shows a night, so we’d do one show and then everyone would go out and then a drunker audience would come in and we’d do another show, and it was really intimate and pretty grotty but thrilling. You’d spend most of the day handing out flyers, trying to glean an audience. And I’d always dreamt of playing the Emcee again.

PAULSON: How did you prepare?

REDMAYNE: Because I hadn’t done theater for 10 years, I applied to this school in Paris, Lecoq, which is physical theater. And I had this amazing three weeks in this amazing old boxing ring-gymnasium in Paris. Once you have success as an actor, quite often directors stop directing you. They go, “Just do your thing.” What I needed and wanted is what this course gave me. Day 1 you put on a mask, and within five minutes we were having to improvise. After about 30 seconds these two French teachers went, “Non, non, non, ça marche pas!” [It’s not working.] And it was everything I needed. Each time you had to improvise, you had to make a fool of yourself, and it meant that when I arrived in the rehearsal space I was fully up and present for humiliation.

GREY: There’s a lot of humiliation in that role. You’re offensive, and you’re careless.

REDMAYNE: It’s the vaudevillian thing you were talking about of being able to insult and assault people. It takes a certain amount of —

GREY: Courage!

REDMAYNE: Courage. If that’s not who you are as a human being.

GREY: And if you’re a little bit of that, it helps.

PAULSON: Is the Emcee a victim, or a perpetrator, or a narrator, or what?

REDMAYNE: In my interpretation — God, that sounds wanky — he is the perpetrator. He is the guy at the end who is able to shapeshift his way back to the beginning, and he is able to assimilate and accumulate this extraordinary group of individuals and exploit them.

PAULSON: So your Emcee is an amoral survivor?

REDMAYNE: And a nihilist. For me, the biggest question of the piece is, “What would you do?” And the Emcee follows that with, “I don’t care much.”

PAULSON: What about your Emcee, Joel?

GREY: He was a soulless victim trying to hold on. And to not let anyone know that he’s Jewish. It’s his big secret.

PAULSON: Eddie, when you watched Joel’s performance, were there things you knew you wanted to keep, or to change?

REDMAYNE: I was so young when I watched it, I don’t think I had the technique. But certainly this time ’round, when I did it in London, I tried to stop listening to Joel, and to stop listening to all the other versions that I had. They’re amazing, but I felt this time I had to try and let the accumulation of that sit in me somewhere, so you’re arriving on the shoulders of these brilliant artists who have been before you, but trying to come at it afresh.

PAULSON: How did you each begin?

GREY: One of my great resources was my wife’s makeup case. She had all kinds of ancient makeup, and they smelled different, and they tasted different. She had quit performing, and I found her makeup case, and I used all those old sticks. As a matter of fact I’ve been thinking about my old makeup box — I know it’s somewhere at home, and I want to see it.

REDMAYNE: I’m not really a dancer, but I approached it originally in quite a physical way. Normally you build a character up through layers, whereas here it was like throwing clay at a wall and then trying to sculpt it. Gradually the idea of him going from being a sort of puppeteer to conductor. Do you know [Herbert] von Karajan? I was watching quite a lot of his conducting. But also Mary Wigman, an amazing dancer from that period — there’s this dance called the witch dance that is thrilling, compelling and terrifying. And Egon Schiele drawings. I was just throwing everything in a bucket.

GREY: Me too. That’s what you do. And that courage comes from, I think, terror.

REDMAYNE: It’s a great relief to hear you say that, because fear is a big part of what drives my work. Every night I’m in this lift, underneath the stage. I get locked into it, and I hear the iconic drum roll start, and it feels like I’m going to the guillotine, until the moment when the spotlight comes on, and something washes over you. What is that, Joel?

GREY: That’s “let’s pretend!”

REDMAYNE: The mixture of terror and euphoria, and how closely those things live alongside each other, is probably one of the addictions, and why we do it.

GREY: Maybe the more confused you are in a moment, the closer you are to the dark, if you’ve really given yourself over to it.

PAULSON: Joel, what is it like to watch Eddie perform in a role you created?

GREY: We’re like brothers. When he goes out there, and he takes something, no matter how tiny, that he’s felt from me in my work, then it’s just a matter of handing it down and feeling happy that someone else is taking something from that big bowl of ideas.

PAULSON: When Joel did the show, there were a lot of people alive who had lived through World War II. Now there’s much more distance.

REDMAYNE: When Joel did it, 20 years after the end of the war, there was a political pertinence then. And now we’re doing ours with a terrifying relevance. The piece is either so sharp that it’s specific to the moment, or it can be read as rippling across the decades.

GREY: We need to feel that we are living on a dangerous street. And we are.

PAULSON: The Kit Kat Club is hedonistic and it’s boundary pushing. Have those boundaries changed?

REDMAYNE: I’ve got an amazing book in my dressing room on the culture of these clubs and sex at the time in Weimar Germany. It was an extraordinary moment. A bacchanalian, beautifully hedonistic time. I don’t know if it is more shocking now. In fact, the world is so open now, that element of shock isn’t necessarily something we’re really looking for in the production.

PAULSON: You both have described the Emcee as problematic. Do you find yourselves liking him?

GREY: I think he’s just trying his best.

REDMAYNE: I don’t like him, but I don’t even see him as a real person in my take. I see him almost as a Greek chorus, or as Puck. I’m never normally someone to judge people you play — I’ve played some pretty horrendous characters. But he’s so amorphous that he’s almost impossible to pin down.

PAULSON: He’s sort of outside the dramatic action.

REDMAYNE: Does he conjure the whole thing? He brings on Fräulein Schneider. He’s leading Cliff into the story in order to destroy him. He’s telling the story.

PAULSON: The show takes quite a dark turn, after starting like it might be a party. Sometimes I wonder if people know what they’re in for.

REDMAYNE: That’s our job — to really entertain an audience so that the tragedy of the piece catches you off guard, and you’re complicit. You can start with an audience at the top of “Willkommen” who make you feel like you’re in a rock concert, and then you can have silence at the end.

REDMAYNE: Can I ask you a question, Joel? “Willkommen” for me is like a wave. If I catch the rhythm of it, with the audience, then I feel like I’m off to the races. But if you don’t catch the wave, when you’re the Emcee, when your job is to corral, and yet you don’t feel it? To not sit outside yourself and beat yourself up about it, but to move on to the next thing — do you ever remember having that feeling?

GREY: It’s a play, and things are elusive. And sometimes you can’t get ahold of them. There are days that are just impossible, and you don’t even know what to do, but that’s life, too.

REDMAYNE: I can’t bear it, but I have to go. That was heaven. Will you email me when you’re coming back? I will feel you on my shoulder. [Source]

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