Monday, June 16, 2014

CABARET Never Gets Old... But Alan Cumming Does

Original 1966 Cabaret Playbill
Courtesy of PlaybillVault.com
I think it's safe to say that we (or rather, the nerds) are all going through withdrawal now that the Tony Awards and their hype are all officially over (although, I'm pretty sure my Broadway journalist friends are partying harder than accountants after tax day). Yes, Audra McDonald got that 6th Tony, setting all the records in the world and whatnot, and yes, both of the Best Actor recipients were Hollywood stars, but no one's really bitter about it. And of course, we're still confused as to why we saw performances from shows that aren't even playing in New York yet. Almost as confusing though, was the fact that we saw Alan Cumming performing as the Master of Ceremonies with the cast of this year's revival of Kander and Ebb's Cabaret. The performance had us all asking, "Wait, did I turn on the 1998 Tony Awards? Why is Alan Cumming playing the M.C.?" Indeed, sixteen years ago, stage and screen star Alan Cumming (good '90s kids remember him as "Floop" in Spy Kids) made his Broadway debut to critical acclaim as the M.C. in Roundabout Theatre Company's 1998 revival of Cabaret. Under the direction of director/choreographer Rob Marshall*, that production redefined how the show was done, developing the iconic, awesome choreography and costumes that can now be seen in just about every production from school shows to professionals.

So after a show runs for a successful eight years, the natural next step is to wait another eight years and revive it in the exact same way with the exact same star, right? If shirtless Alan Cumming looked good at 33, he'll look great at 49! The producers must have been thinking something along those lines when Cabaret opened in April. No seriously, can someone tell me who wanted him to reprise his role so many years afterwards? He's awesome, but what further artistic points need to be made that weren't made in the '90s? Setting it for a limited run (to close next January) makes me think they had no real intentions of getting awards or a long run, so what did they want?

1998 Revival Playbill
Courtesy of PlaybillVault.com
That remains to be seen, but in trying to answer this question, I found out that three other stars on Broadway this season have also played the role of the M.C. on Broadway/tour. Upon further research, I realized that Cabaret's list of actors who have played the M.C. includes many guys who are now very famous for other stage and screen roles. So be prepared to be shocked and overloaded with bootleg after bootleg of skantily-clad dancers "Wilkommen"-ing (is that even a word? I'm trying guys, I'm trying) us to the dark world of a sketchy German nightclub in the '30s.

In the original 1966 version, starring Joel Grey, he and the Kit Kat girls actually wore real clothes for the opening number, "Wilkommen." Who knew? The show was nominated for just about everything at the Tony Awards, winning eight out of eleven nominations, including Best Musical and Best Featured Actor in a Musical (for Joel Grey), as well as enjoying a 3-year run. Grey won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his reprisal of the role in the 1972 movie, opposite Liza Minnelli, who also won one of the 8 Oscars the film also received.

So check out the original M.C. and the KitKat girls at the 1967 Tony Awards!



In a carbon-copy reboot (those seem to be a trend with this show...) in 1987, Grey again reprised his role, this time with no Tony nomination, leaving the show with a meager four Tony nominations, none of which they received. It closed before the Tonys that year, after just eight months. The only footage I could find was this commercial for it, showing that it really was the same show.

So the next decade, the show was reimagined by Rob Marshall, with costumes by William Ivey Long (neither of whom won Tonys for the show). It won four of its ten nominations, including all but one of the acting awards possible. This was the first year that the M.C. was considered for Best Actor rather than Featured Actor, meaning that Ron Rifkin (as Herr Schultz) was able to win Featured Actor. Get this: Cabaret's Mary Louise Wilson was nominated (as Fraulin Schneider) against a 13-year-old Anna Kendrick (High Society), as well as Audra McDonald (Ragtime) for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. I'll just let you guess who won that one.

Here is the amazing Alan Cumming and the cast of Cabaret performing "Wilkommen" at the 1998 Tony Awards! You'll see what I mean about the vast costume changes made from the original to this one. I like to think their budget was too tight for all that colored silk nonsense.


In its six-year run, Alan Cumming's replacements included men who are now considered top-notch stars, like Company's Raul Esparza, Rent's Adam Pascal, as well as now Hollywood stars Michael C. Hall (Dexter), John Stamos (Full House), and Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother). In addition, Norbert Leo Butz (now a two-time Tony Award-winner who was a genius even back then) led the 1999 national tour. Michael C. Hall, Neil Patrick Harris, and Norbert Leo Butz were all also on Broadway this season, though only NPH was nominated for (and received) a Tony Award.

I love this video of Nobert Leo Butz performing at the M.C., because he still has his distinct Norbert voice and movement, whereas most actors seem to blend in when put in an iconic role like this one. Of course, the performance I found was "Wilkommen," and I'm starting to wonder if there are any other songs in the show, or if they just repeat this one for two hours.


Now check out this video of Michael C. Hall singing "If You Could See Her" (FINALLY) on Broadway, sometime between 1999 and 2000.


My personal favorite element that was not changed over the last 16 years is the poster. They literally just made the background darker and changed nothing else from 1998 to 2014. Seriously? So now, here is the 2014 revival cast's performance at the Tony Awards, despite not receiving a Best Revival of a Musical nomination. Compare this performance with the earlier one. Identical, right?


So Broadway installments of Cabaret now have an eerie and uncanny way of repeating themselves and alternating: mega-hit, carbon copy flop, mega-hit, carbon-copy flop, etc. So in about 2024, I'll be looking to see a new envisioning of Cabaret, which will win all the things and change musical theatre forever, but be followed in 2040ish by a replica lasting less than a year. When will they learn?

*That awkward moment when you mistakenly write "Rob Ashford" (who is also a director/choreographer) instead of "Rob Marshall" and Alan Cumming totally calls you out on Twitter... Yeah, so the original version of this piece said Ashford, not Marshall. I was also told that the reimagining of the show can be attributed to Sam Mendes, who directed the London version in 1993 and served as primary director for the Broadway revival. Thank you to my readers for sharing their expertise!

Sally Henry www.BroadwayWorld.com/author/Sally-Henry // Twitter: www.twitter.com/bwayginger // Facebook: www.facebook.com/singularsensationbway

Read More:
Cabaret Revivals on PlaybillVault.com
Cabaret movie
Alan Cumming on Broadway
Joel Grey on Broadway

4 comments:

  1. Congratulations on attracting Alan Cumming's attention. Getting called out by a star puts you in good company. Mark Steyn wrote a review of the Gwynneth Paltrow movie version of "Emma" for a magazine and a reader wrote a letter to the editor correcting an error. The letter-writer was Sir Alec Guinness.

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  2. haha thanks! Wow, I guess now I can be compared with Mark Steyn. I'm ok with this. :) but seriously, that's awesome!

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  3. Oh my God yes, Cumming, whom I've loved in numberous projects, especially his own film, "The Anniversary Party" gave such a hideous portrayal of Master of Ceremonies, so over the top and extremely self indulgent, with that in your face "look at me" prevention, that I wanted to throw up. Granted my only exposure to his performance was watching several videos from the Broadway production, most notably the opening number, "Wilkommen" in which I found him to be appallingly awful. Joel Grey simply broke the mold. He OWNS that role and no I can think of could ever improve on it. That's interesting too, for as much as I loved Liza Minnelli in Bob Fosse's superior movie treatment over every Broadway production since its inception in 1966, 51 yrs. ago, I can still see other talented singer/dancer/actresses succeeding by some measure as Sally Bowles if not as good as hers. There will never as mentioned, at least imo,. be anyone who could come close to embodying the role that Joel Grey inhabited so effectively, and thin only set up any subsequent treatments for failure.

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  4. Typo re the word "prevention"+ the word thin in the final sentence should read as,"thus".

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