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Posted by admin on March 15th, 2024

Life Is a Cabaret! The Shimmering Kander and Ebb Classic Heads Back to Broadway Starring Eddie Redmayne

When I was 15 years old, I saw Cabaret for the first time, at a community theater in northeast Ohio. Though I considered myself sophisticated in important ways (I recall that I was wearing a wide-leg Donna Karan bodysuit that evening), my experience as a theatergoer was then limited to The Sound of Music and Ice Capades: Let’s Celebrate. I wonder if my parents, who had season tickets to the theater, knew that the show wasn’t exactly “family” entertainment. Set in 1931 Berlin as it careens toward the abyss, Cabaret depicts alternating stories. There’s the doomed romance between a fledgling novelist named Clifford Bradshaw and a young singer of supreme charisma (and mediocre talent) named Sally Bowles. And then there’s the seedy nightclub, the Kit Kat Club, which is populated with a highly sexualized cast of misfits and overseen by a ghoulish Master of Ceremonies. The show’s ethos—the glamour and terror, the irreverence, the campiness, the unreality—shaped my taste forever, and I knew that I had just experienced one of the greatest works of art ever created. I would never look at theater, or life, in the same way again.

Over three decades later, I’ve seen more stage productions of Cabaret than any other show, including a revival starring the original Emcee, Joel Grey; I’ve seen the Bob Fosse film version over 50 times. I’ve pretty much always got one of Fred Ebb’s sardonic lyrics jangling around in my head. Today, it’s “You’ll never turn the vinegar to jam, mein Herr,” and I couldn’t agree more.

Youthful exposure to Cabaret also turned out to be a life-changing event for the star of the new production opening this month on Broadway, Eddie Redmayne. “Weirdly, when I was 15, it was the first thing that made me believe in this whole process,” he says. Redmayne was a student at Eton when he first played the Emcee; he had never seen Cabaret when he was cast. On this late-autumn evening, Redmayne is speaking to me from Budapest, where he is shooting a TV series. “It reaffirmed my love for the theater,” he says of his first experience. “It made me believe that this profession, were I ever to have the opportunity to pursue it, was something that I wanted to do.”

Now, as he prepares for the transfer of the smash-hit 2021 London production of Cabaret (in which he also starred), Redmayne is reflecting on the power and durability of the John Kander and Fred Ebb masterpiece. “The show was just so intriguing and intoxicating,” he says, adding that the character of the Emcee posed many questions when he portrayed him for the first time, but provided scant answers. A few years later, when he was an art-history student at Cambridge, he again tackled the part of the Emcee at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. At a dingy performance space called the Underbelly, he did two shows a night, the audiences getting rowdier and more intoxicated throughout the evening. He’d get up the following afternoon and stand along Edinburgh’s Royal Mile handing out flyers for the show, dressed in latex. “There was just a sort of general debauchery that lived in the experience,” he says. When his parents came one night, they were alarmed to find that their son had turned into a “pale, lacking-in-vitamin-D skeleton.”

Flash forward 15 years. The Underbelly cofounders and directors, Charlie Wood and Ed Bartlam, would approach Redmayne—now with an Academy Award for The Theory of Everything and a Tony for Red under his belt—with the idea of again playing the Emcee. Redmayne was eager to return to the role, but many questions remained—principally, who might direct it. In 2019 he happened to have been seated in front of the visionary young director Rebecca Frecknall at the last performance of her West End production of Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke. It was an emotional evening for Frecknall, who’d been working on the project on and off for a decade. She and Redmayne were introduced, but “I had mascara down my face and probably didn’t make a very coherent first impression,” she tells me from London, where her new show, The House of Bernarda Alba, has just opened at the National Theatre.

Redmayne was astonished by the depth and delicacy of understanding that Frecknall brought to Summer and Smoke, a romance with the classic Williams themes of loneliness, self-delusion, and unrequited love. A few months later, Redmayne asked Frecknall if she’d consider directing a revival of Cabaret. “I said, ‘Of course I’ll do it, but you’ll never get the rights,’ ” she recalls. Those rights were held up with another production but were shortly thereafter released, and Frecknall went to work assembling her creative team—among them musical supervisor Jennifer Whyte, choreographer Julia Cheng, and set and costume designer Tom Scutt. Frecknall’s transcendent production of Cabaret opened on the West End at the tail end of the pandemic and succeeded in reinventing the show anew, winning seven Olivier Awards, including one for Redmayne and one for Frecknall as best director.

When Cabaret begins its run in April at the August Wilson Theatre, starring Redmayne, Gayle Rankin, Bebe Neuwirth, and Ato Blankson-​Wood, it will be just the second major production of the show directed by a woman. (Gillian Lynne directed the 1986 London revival.) In Frecknall’s version, Sally emerges as the beating heart of the show. “I find that most of my work has a female protagonist,” says Frecknall, who has also directed radical new interpretations of A Street­car Named Desire, Chekhov’s Three Sisters, and Romeo and Juliet. “And I have a different connection to Sally,” she says. “I was really drawn to how young she was…and how she uses that sexuality and how other people prey on that as well.” The role of Sally Bowles, originated in this production by Jessie Buckley, who also won an Olivier for her performance, will be played this spring by the brilliant Scottish actor Gayle Rankin.

“When I first met with Gayle, I was blown away by her passion and fearlessness,” says Frecknall. “She’s a real stage animal and brings a rawness and wit to her work, which will shine through. She’s going to be a bold, brutal, and brilliant Bowles.” Redmayne also praises Rankin for the depth of emotion she brings to the part, and for the vulnerable and volcanic quality of her interpretation.

Rankin arrives at a candlelit West Village restaurant on a chilly winter evening in a sumptuous furry white coat that would put Sally Bowles to shame. Her platinum hair is pulled back from her face and her dark blue eyes project a wry intelligence. Rankin lives near the restaurant and mentions that she has recently joined a nearby gym—not that she’s going to have much time for workouts in the coming months. Over small seafood plates (of her shrimp cocktail, she shrugs and concedes, “It’s a weird order, but okay”), she shares her own rich history with Cabaret.

She grew up in a small Scottish village, watching Old Hollywood movies with her mother and grandmother. At 15, she left home to attend a musical theater school in Glasgow; on her 16th birthday, she visited New York for the first time with her family. “It sounds like a cheesy, made-up story,” she says, but when she and her parents took a tour of the city on a double-decker bus, they passed by the Juilliard School. “I thought,” she says, “ ‘I am going to go there.’ ” The following year, she and her father flew from Glasgow to New York for her audition. She would become the first Scottish drama student to attend the institution.

At Juilliard, there’s an annual cabaret night, in which all third-year drama students perform songs. Rankin sang “Don’t Rain on My Parade” from Funny Girl, but she recalls her acute sense that she could have chosen a number from Cabaret. “I think I secretly always wanted to be that girl,” she says of the classmate who did perform those songs.

A couple of years after she graduated Juilliard in 2011, Rankin’s agents approached her with an opportunity to audition for Sam Mendes’s 2014 revival of his celebrated 1998 Broadway version (first staged in London in 1993), with Alan Cumming reprising his Emcee role. She was cast as Fräulein Kost—an accordionist sex worker who is revealed as a Nazi—playing opposite a revolving cast of Sallys, including Michelle Williams and Emma Stone.

Rankin has recently emerged as a fierce presence in films and in television (The Greatest Showman and two HBO series—Perry Mason and the upcoming season of House of the Dragon), but then “it kind of came across my desk this summer to throw my hat in the ring for Sally.” How does Rankin make sense of this fascinating, mystifying character? “Everything is so sort of up for grabs…. People feel as if they have a claim over her or know who she is. And the real truth is, only Sally gets to know who Sally is.” She has been rereading Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 semi-autobiographical novel Goodbye to Berlin—the inspiration for the show—in which the English writer sets the dying days of the Weimar Republic against his relationship with the young singer Sally Bowles. (In 1951, the playwright and director John Van Druten adapted the book for the stage with I Am a Camera; in 1963, Broadway director-producer extraordinaire Harold Prince saw that the play could be musicalized and hired Joe Masteroff for the libretto and the songwriting team of Kander and Ebb.) Isherwood based Sally—somewhat—on Jean Ross, a British flapper and chanteuse who later became a well-regarded film critic, war correspondent, political thinker, and Communist. (He gave the character the last name of writer and composer Paul Bowles.) For the rest of her life, Ross maintained (correctly) that Isherwood’s portrayal of her diminished her reputation as an activist and as an intellectual.

“Ross wanted so badly to write to Isherwood,” says Rankin, “and to condemn him: ‘You slandered my name. You said all these things about me that weren’t true.’ And as far as she got in the letter was ‘Dear Christopher.’ ” As Rankin builds the character, it’s this notion of the real Sally—not the fictive version constructed by Isherwood—that she finds so captivating, and heartbreaking.

The upending of Sally as an “object” is another core conceit behind the production. “I felt that other productions I’d seen had this slightly stereotypical male-gaze idea,” Frecknall says. She views Sally’s musical numbers as describing different facets of female identity. “Don’t Tell Mama” deals with the fetishization of youth and virginity, and in Frecknall’s production, Sally, disturbingly, appears in a sexy Little Bo Peep costume; “Mein Herr,” a song about manipulation, control, and female sexual desire, is in conversation with the cliché of the strong, “dominant” woman. “I think Sally’s very clever at being able to play an identity, and also play it against you,” she adds. The character “has secrets to tell us,” Rankin says. “Important things to share with us. And I think that’s the umbilical cord between her and the Emcee.”

Although Sally and the Emcee share the stage for less than five minutes, the Emcee’s musical numbers can be seen as a kind of meta-commentary about Sally’s actions. “What interested me was the idea that the Emcee was a character created by Hal Prince and Joel Grey,” says Redmayne, referring to the actor who portrayed the Emcee in the original 1966 production. “He doesn’t exist in the book Goodbye to Berlin and was their conceit to connect the story of Sally Bowles.” Rankin believes that there is a kind of mystical bond between the two characters. “As to whether or not he’s a higher power, or higher being, he does have an access to a higher knowledge,” Rankin suggests. “I think Sally feels that too.”

And who is the Emcee? A supernatural being? Puppeteer or puppet? There are no clues in the text. Prince conceived of the character as a metaphor representing Berlin itself. “The idea of him as an abstraction,” Redmayne says, “and so purposely intangible, meant that I actually found a new way of working.” Redmayne built the character from the ground up, starting with big, broad gestures that would be gradually refined. The “very fierce, ferocious intensity” of Herbert von Karajan, the famously dictatorial Austrian conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic and a Nazi party member, served as a particularly fertile inspiration.

Historically, the role of Emcee has been coded as gay, and embodied, in most prominent productions, by gay actors. Frecknall’s production had to address what it meant to cast Redmayne, a straight white male actor, in the role. “Tom [Scutt] and I felt very clearly that, well, it’s not going to be the Emcee’s tragedy,” Frecknall says. A person like Redmayne—given his class, ethnicity, and sexuality—would emerge from the catastrophe unscathed. Redmayne concurs: “As the walls of fascism begin to close in, he has the privilege to be able to shape-shift his way out of it.” The character’s journey is from Shakespearean fool to Shakespearean king.

In Hal Prince’s 1966 production, Grey’s delicate, meticulous performance as the cane-twirling Emcee is pure nihilism—as a representation of Germany’s conscience. In the later Mendes iteration, the Emcee emerges as the central victim: In that production’s chilling last scene, Alan Cumming’s louche Emcee removes a black trench coat to reveal a concentration camp uniform; a burst of bright white light follows, from, presumably, a firing squad. But in Frecknall’s version, the Emcee is exposed not as a victim of the system, but as the chief perpetrator. The show, she notes, “becomes the ensemble’s tragedy.”

“I was really intent that we cast it very queer and inclusive,” says Tom Scutt, Cabaret’s multitalented set and costume designer. We are sitting on a black banquette in the lobby of his hotel, across the street from Lincoln Center, where he’s working on Georges Bizet’s Carmen. To mount a revival of Cabaret in 2024, Scutt contends that “there’s no other way. That was really at the headline of our mission.”

There are two casts in the show: the main company and the prologue cast, which provides pre-curtain entertainment. In general, the members of the prologue cast don’t come from traditional musical-theater backgrounds, but from the worlds of street dance and hip-hop—“dancehall, voguing, and ballroom scene,” Scutt notes—and in the London production, some of the prologue performers have been promoted to the main cast. “There is something deeply, deeply moving about how we’ve managed to navigate the usual slipstream of employment.”

Part of Scutt’s intention with Cabaret has been to “smudge and diffuse’’ the audience’s preconceived notions. Inclusive casting is one mode for change; iconography is another. In this case, that has meant no bowler hats, no bentwood chairs, no fishnet stockings. The aesthetic is less Bob Fosse and more Stanley Kubrick. “We started off in a place of ritual,” he says. “I really wanted the place to feel as if you’ve come into some sort of Eyes Wide Shut temple.”

Scutt has reimagined the 1,250-seat August Wilson Theatre as an intimate club—warrens of labyrinthine new corridors and passageways, three new bars, and an auditorium reinvented as a theater-in-the-round. Boris Aronson, the set designer of the show’s iconic original 1966 production, suspended a mirror on the stage in which the audience members would see their own reflections—a metaphor that forced the audience to examine its own complicity; but in Scutt’s design, the audience members must look at one another. Access to the building is through a side entrance; as soon as you arrive, you’ve already lost your bearings.

In many ways, it’s remarkable that such a weird and complex work of art masquerading as a garishly entertaining variety show has had such longevity. Scutt has an explanation about why this piece—created by a group of brilliant Jewish men about the rise of antisemitism and hate, about the dangers of apathy—​continues to speak to us so profoundly almost 60 years after its Broadway debut.

“I can’t really think of anything else, truly, that has the same breadth of feeling in its bones,” Scutt suggests. “I honestly can’t think of another musical that does so much.” As grave, and as tragically relevant, as the messages of Cabaret are, he and the members of the company have found refuge in theater. Both Scutt and Frecknall grew up singing in their churches as children; theater is to them a secular church, a space where human beings can congregate and share healing. “It was made with such pain and such love,” Scutt says. “Which is absolutely the piece.” [Source]


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