2:42pm

Mon April 28, 2014
Theater

For Alan Cumming, Life Is (Once Again) A Cabaret

Originally published on Mon April 28, 2014 6:20 pm

Alan Cumming has starred in the musical Cabaret three times — a 1993 London production, a Tony-winning 1998 Broadway revival, and a new Broadway revival — and it hasn't gotten old. "It's so energetic, and it just takes up every single element of being an actor," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

Cumming plays the master of ceremonies in a debaucherous Berlin nightclub called the Kit Kat Klub. The role was originated by Joel Grey, who starred in the original 1966 Broadway production as well as the 1972 movie.

"It goes back to my stand-up comedy roots," Cumming says. "I engage with the audience and ad-lib with the audience, and that's exciting and terrifying at the same time."

Cabaret is set in 1929 and 1930. The Nazis are slowly emerging, and no one yet knows how powerful they will become. Only some people sense the danger in the air — and Cumming says the audience becomes complicit in their enjoyment of the show, while outside the club Hitler is coming to power.


Interview Highlights

On the larger message of Cabaret

The reason we're doing it again is that it has something to say. It's about the rise of Nazism and the fact that if you're not incredibly vigilant, oppression of some kind can slowly creep up and take over. I think the way that the show is fun and sexy and hilarious — then it slowly goes dark, you, as an audience member have kind of become complicit in that, and that mirrors the way you see Nazism creeping in. People think, "Oh, it'll be fine, don't worry, it'll go away." And then slowly it doesn't, and then it's too late.

On how the current Broadway production differs from the 1998 production

It's very much darker, I think partly because I'm older but also because the sex element of the show — the thing in 1998 when we came to America [that] was so shocking and took up so much of people's perception of the whole show was the depiction of sexual freedom and hedonism and gay sex and bisexuality and all sorts of things. That, I think in a way, took over a little too much, and now, I think, partly because of that production and partly because a lot has changed ... it's still fun and still very much what the story is about, but it doesn't overshadow everything.

On his own sexuality

I used to be married to a woman. Before that I had had a relationship with a man. I then had another relationship with a woman, and I since then have had relationships with men. I still would define myself as bisexual partly because that's how I feel but also because I think it's important to — I think sexuality in this country especially is seen as a very black and white thing, and I think we should encourage the gray. You know?

I don't go around in my life thinking, "Oh, my God, I'm going to have to have sex with a woman soon because I said I was bisexual!" ... It's like saying you're straight or you're gay — it's just what you are, and whatever you're doing in your life it runs obviously parallel, but it's kind of secondary to how you are inside. That's how I've always felt, and I still do, even though I'm very happily married to a really amazing man and wish to be so for the rest of my life.

On the body hair in Cabaret

The girls have got to have hairy armpits — that's part of the down and dirty thing of the club. I have extensive hair under my arms. I'm aware of that. It's actually annoying. ... I'm not a hairy person. I've longed to have a hairy chest ... I seem to have all my hair in my armpits, and actually it seems to cause great consternation to people. ...

I think this obsession we have in our culture with shaving — taking away body hair on men and women — I think it's really dangerous, it's like wanting to infantilize yourself and wanting to make something sexy that is not adult, it's more prepubescent, and I think that's really weird and dangerous, don't you?

On his outfit to opening night

You know that Otto Dix painting [Portrait of the Journalist] Sylvia von Harden? It's like a lady sitting at a table in a cafe, she's got a cocktail and a little cigarette case, she's smoking. She's got a black-and-red checked dress on and a little short haircut and a monocle, I assume she's a lesbian, but I may be wrong. ... I decided that I would do my own thing and have a modern interpretation of an image that is very much an inspiration for the production. We have those images of Otto Dix all over the walls, and [George] Grosz and all those painters. ... I'm going to go as that painting.

I think it's great, but by the time this is broadcast you'll have read how nuts I am, and how crazy people think I am, and I'll be in the back of those awful trashy magazines [with] the fashion police, but I don't care. I like it.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUM ROLL)

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guest, Alan Cumming, is starring in the new Broadway revival of the musical "Cabaret."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILLKOMMEN")

ALAN CUMMING: (As Emcee) (Singing) Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome. Fremde, etranger, stranger. Gluklich zu sehen, je suis enchante, happy to see you, bleibe, reste, stay. Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome in Cabaret, au Cabaret, to Cabaret.

Meine damen und herren, mesdames et messieurs, ladies and gentlemen...

GROSS: When I saw Alan Cumming perform this song on the Tonys in 1998, I thought I have to see this production, but I never did. I'm so happy I got to see it this time around. Cumming has starred in "Cabaret" three times: a 1993 London production; the 1998 Broadway revival, for which he won a Tony, we just heard him on that cast recording; and the new revival that opened last week.

He plays the emcee in a Berlin nightclub of debauchery called the Kit Kat Klub in 1929 and 1930 as the Nazis are slowly emerging, and no one yet knows how powerful they will become. Only some people sense the danger. The role of the emcee was originated by Joel Grey, who starred in the original 1966 Broadway production, as well as the 1972 movie. Each of the productions with Cumming was directed by Sam Mendes. Rob Marshall choreographed both American productions and also co-directed the new one.

Let's hear how Alan Cumming sounds in the new production by the Roundabout Theatre Company, the same company that produced the 1998 Tony Award-winning production.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILLKOMMEN")

CUMMING: (As Emcee) Meine damen und herren, mesdames et messieurs, ladies and gentlemen, guden abend, bon soir, good evening. We geht's? Comment ca va? Do you feel good? Yeah, I bet you do. Ich bin euer Confrecier; je suis votre compere. I am you host. Und sagen..

(As Emcee) (Singing) Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome...

GROSS: Alan Cumming, welcome back to FRESH AIR. And congratulations, you're so wonderful in the show, it's so terrific.

CUMMING: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Thank you, thank you for coming. You've said, I think, that this revival was your birthday present to yourself. What does that mean? Did you initiate the idea of reviving it again?

CUMMING: No, no I didn't, but it was Sam Mendes who called me up a few years ago, and - I mean, there's been sort of various attempts to re-do it or to put it on since it ended. I mean, I finished - I did it a for a year, from '98 to '99, and it actually finished I think in 2004 on Broadway. But anyway, so a few years ago, Sam said, you know, I think it's a good time, kind of the rights are going to be up, and so therefore someone else will do it, and, you know, maybe - and the estate wants us to do our production again.

And I just sort of thought it would be - and the thing about the birthday is that I'm 49, and so I'll be 50 in January, January 27th next year, and so in my 50th year I am singing and dancing on - in a Broadway musical, and I'm dancing a kick line with, you know, girls who are 24. And so that was kind of the birthday present to myself, that I would be hitting 50, doing things that I couldn't do when I was, you know, 25.

GROSS: Oh, that is nice. You couldn't kick like that, or you just didn't have the opportunity?

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: Oh, my God. I was so out of shape and unfit when I was 25. And I kind of - and I think even when I did it 15 years ago, I wasn't as fit as I am now.

GROSS: So why do you love doing the role?

CUMMING: Well, I mean, just on a day-to-day - going to work and doing that, it's such fun. It's, you know, so kind of energetic, and it just takes up every single element of being an actor. It's - your body is used to its capacity both, you know, physically, vocally and emotionally, as well. But also in a kind of larger way, I think it's a really important show in that the reason it's done again - the reason we're doing it again is that it has something to say.

You know, it's about the rise of Nazism and the fact that if you're not incredibly vigilant, prescient of some kind, it can slowly creep up and take over. And I think that the way that the show is, like, fun, and oh, it's sexy, and hilarious, and - and then you slowly - it slowly goes dark, you as an audience member have kind of become complicit in that, and that sort of mirrors the way that you see Nazism creeping in and people think, oh, it'll be fine, don't worry, nothing's - you know, it'll go away. And then slowly it doesn't, and it's too late.

GROSS: I would like you to describe your character physically; what you're wearing, what your hair looks like.

CUMMING: Ha. Well, initially I have jet black hair right now, which is not natural, Terry, I'll confess.

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: And so I have jet black hair. So I have, you know, late 1920s kind of floppy on top, short at the back and the sides. And the first costume I wear is, I wear a leather coat, but I shortly take that off, and I've got this - I've kind of like a black dinner suit - trousers, but they're cut at the knees, a pair of big combat boots and this kind of strappy thing, kind of like suspenders, you know, almost like I'm topless, but I've got a suspender thing with a little bowtie at my chest, at my - what do you call that bit in the middle? The sternum.

And then it's almost like a cantilever system to hike up my manhood, if you will.

GROSS: Yes, your manhood is kind of like italicized in the...

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: It's in bold.

GROSS: It's in bold letters, yes.

CUMMING: It's sort of like a wonder bra for the male junk.

GROSS: What is your take on the host, the emcee that you play, and the club, the Kit Kat Klub that you're in? Do you have a backstory for him in your mind?

CUMMING: I'll tell you my sort of very slim backstory, is he was a rent boy, a boy from the streets of Berlin, who then kind of, you know, started working this club and was kind of funny, and so he got kind of - as he got a bit older, he got a job, and the Kit Kat Klub is basically, you know, a den of iniquity. It's got a little show, but there's kind of, you know, sex going on, there's drugs going on. It's a very low-life kind of place. So that's basically all my story for this man.

He used to be - and he has a background as a sex worker who then becomes - he can sing a bit. And I don't know his name, I don't know where - you know, I actually don't think that's important. I don't worry about that because there is a larger, broader, more - overreaching thing about this character. He's kind of like this - he guides the audience. He's like a puppeteer almost or a - sort of a pied piper, if you like, who takes the audience on this journey, kind of tells them what to think at certain times, guides them into certain things and then ultimately, because he's got their trust, can betray that trust or also make them worry for him and for what's going on in the show.

So it's almost like sort of a Brechtian character of standing outside the story and commenting on it as it's happening.

GROSS: You've portrayed this character in three separate versions of this Sam Mendes production; first when you were 28 years old in 1993, then when you were 33 years old in 1998, and now when you're 49 years old in 2014. And...

CUMMING: And next time.

GROSS: And I've seen the new production, and I've seen excerpts of both of the other productions, and there's things that are very similar. One of the differences is that, you know, you've gotten older. And I think that changes the character. You know, the rent-boy-turned-emcee in this kind of seedy club at age 28 is different from that same character at age 49 because that character hasn't made it out of that club.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: He's still there at age 49. So in that sense he becomes kind of even darker.

CUMMING: I think that's absolutely true. I think this production of the production is darker, partly because I'm older and because this sort of sex element of the show, the sensationalist - the thing that in 1998 when we came to America was so shocking and took up so much of people's perception of the whole show was this, you know, depiction of sexual freedom and hedonism and gay sex and bisexuality and all sorts of things.

That I think, in a way, took over a little too much. And now I think, you know, partly because of that production but partly because the world has changed, that is still an element, it's still fun, it's still very much part of what the story's about, but it doesn't overshadow everything. And also it has allowed the kind of darkness to come out a little bit more.

GROSS: You know, in speaking about the sexuality of this production, it's sexualized in a different way than, say, the movie "Cabaret," which I think a lot of people are familiar with. In the movie version of "Cabaret," Joel Grey starred in the role of the emcee or the host, and I think he played it kind of - he's great in it, and I think he played it kind of like a ringmaster in a circus of sexual deviance. And I think deviants is that they would have been called at the time.

I'm trying to use a word from the period. And you play it like you are sexually seducing us into your kind of debauched world.

(LAUGHTER)

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: And I feel like - I mean, I do feel that. I feel like I'm saying, you know, the gesture I do at the very beginning of the show is my finger and going come here, come here, come here, and that's I think a sort of overriding metaphor for what I think that character does. And he's going come on, come on, you know you want to, and you know it's going to be fun. And then of course, and the audience does want to, and they do come.

And then of course that's when they become complicit in the whole horror.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Alan Cumming, who is now starring in the revival of the revival of "Cabaret."

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: Based on a revival.

GROSS: Based on a revival, exactly. And this is at the Roundabout Theatre at Studio 54 in New York. Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Alan Cumming, who's now starring in the Roundabout Theatre revival of "Cabaret," and he was in the original production of this revival in 1993. He was in another revival of it in 1998. And now he's in this revival. They were all directed by Sam Mendes with choreography by Rob Marshall.

So the character that you play in "Cabaret" is very sexual ambiguous, I mean in terms of sexual orientation - gay, bisexual - who knows?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Into everything is I think - whatever he wants it.

CUMMING: Yeah.

GROSS: You came out as bisexual I think the same year that "Cabaret" was revived in the United States, in 1998, with you starring in it. And you've been married for how long to - you have a husband.

CUMMING: I have a husband. I've been married to him for - hang on, since 2007, so seven years.

GROSS: So did you time coming out with the production of "Cabaret"?

CUMMING: It was all a huge press campaign.

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: It was all a massive, Machiavellian plot.

GROSS: Clever.

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: No, I am...

GROSS: That's the point of sexuality, actually.

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: Power. It kind of is. What I think you're getting at, I'll give you a little press here that I hope will answer your question. I've always felt I was bisexual. I used to be married to a woman. Before that, I'd had a relationship with a man. I then had another relationship with a woman, and then since then I've had, you know, relationships with men. So I still would define myself as bisexual, partly because that's what I feel but also because I think it's important to - I think that sexuality in this country especially is seen as a very black and white thing, and I think we should encourage the gray.

You know, I mean, I don't kind of go around in my life thinking, oh, my God, I'm going to have to have sex with a woman soon because I said I was bisexual.

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: I just - that's what I feel inside. It's like saying you're straight, or you're gay, or you're bi - it's just what you are. And whatever you're doing in your life almost - it runs obviously parallel, but it's kind of secondary to how you are inside. And so that's how I've always felt, and I still do, even though, you know, I am very happily married to a really amazing man, and I wish to be so for the rest of my life.

The other thing is that the coming out thing, in 1998, when I came to America, there was such a huge explosion of interest in the show and in me, and I had never - I hadn't really - you know, I was kind of well-known in Britain, but I hadn't really ever discussed my sexuality in a public way like that. And because of playing this character, and I know all the kind of - it's like, you know, Puritanical shockwaves it was sending around America, a lot of people were just constantly, constantly, constantly asking me about it.

And so I decided to take matters into my own hand, and I did an interview and a cover story for Out magazine, and I thought that was a good forum for it to be discussed calmly and adultly(ph), and so I did that. So it was kind of as a result of all the speculation and - but it was really funny. I remember people saying so - first question in an interview for some, like, weighty tome, would be: So, are you gay?

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: And I would go: Why, do you fancy me? And then no, just someone in my office was asking. And I'd say oh, really, well. You know, I thought really, is that the most important thing? And sometimes it is the most important thing because people can't - if people don't have a black and white answer, they can't get beyond that. And so you have to kind of - I think you've just to get it out the way, and that's what I did.

And it wasn't like I - it's one of those things. When you become famous, and people are more interested in your personal life often than your work, it's a weird thing because you think, oh, I seem to be sleeping with more boys now. Should I do a press release?

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: You know, it's a really difficult one to know when to announce.

GROSS: Were you afraid that if you didn't say something yourself that you'd be outed in a really nasty way by somebody trying to hurt you and not realizing - it's not really even like it's a bad thing, but people reveal secrets in nasty ways.

CUMMING: Yeah, I thought that I was actually - one of the others reasons, I was having a relationship with a man for the first time, I mean, well aside from, like, someone at college. I was living with a man for the first time, and I was just really worried that he was going to - he and his family and my family were going to be harassed by the British press, actually.

So - because I had been harassed in the previous relationship I'd had with a woman. You know, I saw some really nasty things happening, and so I just wanted to avoid that again.

GROSS: So since you were out in 1998, when you first revived "Cabaret" in America, did it change your performance at all? Did it release something within you to be kind of publicly out as gay or bisexual because the character seems to be gay or bisexual and is very - it's a very sexual dance that you do in the show.

CUMMING: I mean, I felt very - I mean, I think when I came to New York, I felt more comfortable as a person. I definitely felt more comfortable with where I was in my life and the sexuality thing being a part of that and just - actually when I did it in 1993, I was crazy. So that was quite for the character, as well. But there wasn't - it was more sensual when it came to New York, definitely, and I think that's partly to do with Rob Marshall's input into the choreography.

So I definitely felt, as a person and as a man and as an actor, as a sort of performer in general, much more open, and I think that really worked.

GROSS: You said that in the 1993 British production of "Cabaret" at the time that you were crazy. What did you mean by that?

CUMMING: I was crazy. I was - I actually had a nervous breakdown shortly after that.

GROSS: Oh.

CUMMING: Yeah, so I was pretty nuts. I had just played "Hamlet." I was exhausted. I was in the process of breaking up with my wife. I was - just a lot of things, it was like the perfect storm of horror, and yeah, it was a really bad time for me. And I - and it was actually the start of a huge series of events in my family and things about stuff that had happened in my childhood so that it was just, you know...

GROSS: Did you say bad stuff that happened in your childhood?

CUMMING: Yeah, yeah, about my father and things like that, which I'm detailing in my forthcoming memoir. But it was just, you know, it was a really - I mean it kind of was interesting because the role was very complex, and, I mean, certainly "Hamlet" is very complex and dark and deep. And then of course coming to do the emcee after that was really - but I was - I was, you know, I was not in a healthy place. I was in a weird place, and I think that was, in a way, kind of going and doing that show every night was really good for me. It kind of took me out of my depression a bit.

But, you know, I wasn't - I had a sort of eating disorder. It was terrible. And then shortly after that, as I say, I kind of just really had to go away, and, you know, let things have their course and kind of have a bit of a breakdown.

GROSS: I look forward to reading about that in your memoir, which is published I think in October.

CUMMING: Yes, it's available October 7.

GROSS: Yeah, and it's called "Not My Father's Son."

CUMMING: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: So let me just ask you one other question about sexual orientation. You...

CUMMING: You're bashing on at this one, Terry.

GROSS: No, no, here's the question. You described yourself as bisexual. Does that make some people angry, like, no, you have to decide. You're really gay, aren't you? Or do you know what I mean? People want...yeah.

CUMMING: Yes, I think it does. I mean, I think there's that - I mean, I think it's slightly - I mean, and sometimes I just say I'm gay, sometimes I - you know, if I'm having a conversation with an adult like you, an intelligent person like you, I try and talk about it in this way, and I explain why I sort of define myself in that way.

But I - if I'm called gay or queer or something all the time, I'm perfectly happy with that. But when I have my druthers, that's how I would describe it. I mean, I think the idea that people say oh, you're just really gay, you're afraid to say it, that doesn't apply in my case. Hi, I'm Alan Cumming, I'm gay. There you go.

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: That - really for me, I think, I want to push the idea that, you know, bisexuality is not something that is just a transitionary state to becoming homosexual or, you know, that you help out when they're busy sort of thing.

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: I'm glad you got that. Not many Americans get that, Terry.

GROSS: Alan Cumming will be back in the second half of the show. He's starring in the new Broadway revival of "Cabaret," produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company. Here he is on the 1998 cast recording. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "CABERET")

CUMMING: So you see, everyone in Berlin has a perfectly roommate. Some people have two people. (Singing) Beely-deely dee. Beely-deely, deely, deely, deedly dee...two ladies, two ladies....and I'm the only man, yeah....

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Alan Cumming. He's starring in the new revival of "Cabaret" as the emcee of the Kit Kat Klub, a decadent nightclub in Berlin in 1929 and 1930, as the Nazis are beginning to gain power. It's Cumming's third time in that role. He also starred in the 1993 London revival and the 1998 Broadway production by the Roundabout Theatre Company, which also produced the new revival of the musical. His other recent credits include co-starring on "The Good Wife," as Eli Gold and on "Web Therapy" as Austin Clark, hosting "Masterpiece Mystery" and starring in the film, "Any Day Now.""

Here's Alan Cumming performing the song "Money" from the 1998 cast recording of "Cabaret."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONEY")

CUMMING: (Singing) Money makes the world go around. The world go around. The world go around. Money makes the world go around. It makes the world go 'round.

(Singing) A mark, a yen, a buck or a pound. A buck or a pound. A buck or a pound. Is all that makes the world go around, that clinking-clanking sound, can make the world go 'round.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Singing) Money money money money money money. Money money money money money money. Money money money money money money. Money money.

CUMMING: (Singing) If you happen to be rich, and you feel like a night's entertainment. You can pay for a gay escapade. If you happen to be rich, and alone, and you need a companion, you can ring-ting-a-ling for the maid. If you happen to be rich and you find you are left by your lover, though you moan and you groan quite a lot.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Singing) Money money. Money money. Money money. Money money...

CUMMING: (Singing) You can take it on the chin, call a cab, and begin to recover on your 14- carat yacht. Money makes the world go around, the world go around, the world go around. Money makes the world go around, of that we can be sure - on being poor.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN AND ALAN CUMMING: (Singing) Money money money, money money money. Money money money, money money money. Money money money money money money. Money money money money money money. Money money money money money money.

GROSS: That's Alan Cumming singing "Money" from the 1998 cast recording of "Cabaret." And he's starring in a new revival of it. I really do love the way you sing.

CUMMING: Thank you.

GROSS: And I want to hear how you prepared to sing for this role. But before we talk about that, I want to play you something that John Kander had to say. I interviewed John Kander, who wrote the music, Fred Ebb wrote the lyrics for "Cabaret." And I asked him what he did before composing the music for "Cabaret" and what he listened to. And here's what he told me.

JOHN KANDER: For "Cabaret," I listened to a lot of German jazz and vaudeville music, also the late '20s and very early '30s, and then promptly forgot about it. It sounds like a very kind of crude way of doing research, but it works for me. You listen and you listen and you listen and then put it away and don't think about it anymore. And I have this absolute belief that the styles of the music that you've been listening to seep into your unconscious and come out in your own language.

GROSS: And that was John Kander on FRESH AIR in 2003. And my guest is Alan Cumming who's starring in the new revival of "Cabaret." So John Kander said that, you know, he listened to all this music and then just let it seep in, as opposed to actually thinking about it when he was composing.

CUMMING: Yeah.

GROSS: What did you listen to? And did you have that attitude too, that it would just naturally seep in?

CUMMING: I'm a big believer in seepage.

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: I am. I really am. The first time around I, and this time again, you know, I read a lot of stuff about the Weimar, of cabarets and just generally the history of that time. What was great when we did it in London the first time was that Stephen Spender, who was one of the chums of Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden and those boys who where, you know, in Berlin at that time, he was still alive then. He came into rehearsal to ask and to sort of, you know, talk to us and we got to ask him questions. So that was amazing, that someone who was actually there. And I said - it was so funny because they said, you know, just be very respectful don't, you know, stay off the whole sex thing, blah, blah, blah. So we were asking questions and I could tell we were getting along. And I said: So Stephen, you boys from Oxbridge, you didn't really go across there to kind of chronicle the surge of fascism and the change of the sort. You really went in there to get shagged, didn't you? You just went to get boys.

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: And he was like, yes, of course, we did. Yes, of course. And I just, I love the idea that this kind of amazing period of history has been chronicled so amazingly by Christopher Isherwood and many other people, but in this case, by him, was actually, you know, a happy accident because they really just went there. They were from England, you know, puritanical, shameful England. And they went to Berlin where you could have sex with people all the time and go to dirty bars and no one would know. So that was a key for me into getting into this role and to understanding what it was like in that time. And I think well, I asked a lot of questions about what the clubs were like. And what I loved is that actually Christopher Isherwood wrote another book called "Christopher and His Kind," which is the, it's an autobiography that kind of is the own sanitized version of the two books, "Goodbye to Berlin" and oh, "Mr. Norris Changes Trains" is the name in Europe. I can't remember what you call it in America, but the two books that "Cabaret" is based on. And the autobiography is like, you know, the real story of what happened, but even then he's still not able to be fully open and present, so he writes in the third person. And I thought that was fascinating, too, that he talks about Christopher went into the bar and looked at the boy and he bid him 10 marks and blah, blah, blah.

But what I find really amazing and very different about that and about understanding all of this is that when you would have sex with the boy, they would become your friend. They would kind of, it would be sort of a nobility to it that they would become like in the way that Ernst says to Cliff in "Cabaret," you know, we are now friends, we have something that's exchanged between us. And it's not necessarily a sexual thing, but in this case with these boys it was. And I think that's something we just don't comprehend in, certainly in America and not in Britain so much, this idea of the camaraderie that comes with sex, of casual sex. So that I thought was really fascinating, too, so that you can be joyful and have no shame about just a casual encounter and you can actually be friends with that person afterwards.

GROSS: My guest is Alan Cumming. He's starring in the new Broadway revival of "Cabaret." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Alan Cumming, and he's now starring in a revival of "Cabaret" at the Roundabout Theatre, Studio 54 in New York. So you've met and performed with Liza Minnelli.

CUMMING: Yes. Liza.

GROSS: What did she mean to you before you met her?

CUMMING: I mean, it's hard to - it's almost like she was like a movie star from a long, long time ago, like the kind of like a silent movie star or something. She had that kind of, there's a mist swirling around her. And I'd seen the movie of "Cabaret" and I just, it was more like a lot of the thing - it's hard to describe it. It's more like I was aware of the effect, the effect she had on the world and on people, rather than knowing that much about her. You see what I mean?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

CUMMING: It was an - till I was 30 I didn't really, I've never been to America. I, you know, was aware of American culture and things in Britain, but I didn't ever sort of engage in it fully because I don't know why, I just didn't. And then, of course, when I met Liza, she came into my dressing room with Fred Ebb. And I was in this tiny dressing room, it was like kind of size of a shoebox and she came in and gave me a hug and said, Alan, I want to be your friend forever, which is such a darling thing to say. And then I saw Fred, I went oh, Fred. And when I finish talking to Fred, I realized that Liza had pushed herself against the wall and had her face in my wet towel, which was hanging on a hook on the wall in order for me 'cause the room was so small, in order for me to talk to Fred.

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: And I went oh, Liza, you're squashed into my towel. And she's like, Alan, I'd be squashed into your towel forever for you. She just...

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: She's just a most lovely, hilarious person. And so I've been doing these concerts with her and stuff and just I - now I just think lovely Liza and we have a real laugh. And I think we just go on - I don't know why - we just have a really great understanding of each other. And...

GROSS: Did she give you any advice about "Cabaret?"

CUMMING: Well, I can't really say it's on the radio.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That sounds good.

CUMMING: It's more just a kind of - like when she came to see "Macbeth" - the "Macbeth" I did last summer - or last two summers - she said this thing, which is, I really great - I actually really love it. I love this saying. I'll just do, I'll paraphrase it. But she says, well, she, you know, just before I was about to go on, I was really terrified. She went: Darling, take no prisoners and F - bleep - the wounded.

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: And I think that's great. I mean obviously, not literally. But as a, go get 'em and just, you know, don't let anything hold you back.

GROSS: Right.

CUMMING: It's a great sort of way of thinking about performing and I'm always a big, I'm a big believer in that you just have to dive off the cliff, and so is Liza.

GROSS: So here's a very intellectual question I wanted to ask you. You'll appreciate the depth of this.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: In a lot of your choreography in "Cabaret" your arms are raised over your head. You did not shave under your arms. I don't know what the protocol is for men now. Like men defoliate their chests like, you know, for movies.

CUMMING: Oh, yes.

GROSS: So I don't know what the story is supposed to be for under your arms. I worked really hard on that question.

CUMMING: Terry Gross. Terry Gross, I'm appalled.

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: Well, you notice the girls don't shave under their arms either. You notice that?

GROSS: No, I didn't notice that. Oh, no, I didn't notice that.

CUMMING: Yeah. The girls have got to have hairy armpits - that's part of the, you know, the down and dirty thing of the club. I have extensive hair under my arms. I'm aware of that. I have - it's actually annoying because I always wanted to...

GROSS: I've seen more. It's really not that - yeah. Go ahead.

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: Yeah. But it's not - I mean I'm not a hairy person. I've longed to have a hairy chest, I mean I have. I have a little kind of tuft in my sternum. Gosh, I said sternum twice in the sense that I don't think I've said sternum for years before this. But I have a little tuft there and that I've got odd ones across my chest. And I've always - I remember when my dad got a hairy chest, I remember like I was old enough to think oh, he suddenly got hairy chest. He was probably in his 30s or something and I've, I'm now nearly in my 50s and I - it hasn't happened. But I seem to have all my hair in my armpits and actually it seems to cause great consternation to people.

I did a thing for the Scottish Independence campaign. I did a photo with it on Twitter and the hashtag is, Go For It Scotland. It's a thing to encourage people, you know, who are not able to vote in the independence referendum to sort of just show their support. So I started this thing I was holding sign up that said, Go For It Scotland. Then you saw my armpit hair and this sleeveless thing on. God, more people talk about my armpit hair here than about the actual issue of independence...

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: ...which kind of defeated the purpose a wee bit. But I don't know. I just, I trim them sometimes but I actually, really - just as a sort of a side point, if you're going to, you know, ask a silly question, I'm going to say a thing about it. I think this obsession we have in our culture with shaving - taking away body hair, like, on men and women - I think it's really dangerous, and sort of like wanting to infantilize yourself and wanting to kind of, you know, make something sexy that is not adult. It's more sort of prepubescent, and I think that's really weird and dangerous, don't you?

GROSS: I do, actually.

CUMMING: Thank you.

GROSS: Thank you for saying that.

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: You're welcome.

GROSS: Well, Alan Cumming, since so many of our listeners also know you from "The Good Wife," I thought we should talk about that a little bit...

CUMMING: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and maybe hear a scene featuring you as Eli Gold. So the scene is from episode 15 of season one. Your character, Eli Gold, is called in to help Chris Noth's character, Peter Florrick, make a political comeback. And Florrick has just gotten out of jail on corruption charges and is under house arrest. He's wearing an ankle bracelet, but he hopes to be vindicated and to run again for Cook County state attorney. And the scene, if come to Florrick's home to meet him for the first time. Two of Florrick's consultants are there and they have a couple of photos that they want you look at. You're all gathered in the kitchen and the beeping sounds that we hear quietly in the background are coming from the dishwasher.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GOOD WIFE")

(SOUNDBITE OF DISHWASHER)

CUMMING: (as Eli Gold) So this is a kitchen cabinet.

CHRIS NOTH: (as Peter Florrick) Yup.

CUMMING: (as Eli Gold) And this, this must be the faked photo. Do you have the original?

NOTH: (as Peter Florrick) No.

CUMMING: (as Eli Gold) The envelope it came in?

NOTH: (as Peter Florrick) Thrown away.

CUMMING: (as Eli Gold) Thrown away or destroyed?

NOTH: (as Peter Florrick) Thrown away.

CUMMING: (as Eli Gold) Well, that was clumsy.

NOTH: (as Peter Florrick) Yeah. So Eli, look, considering your reputation, I think we're going to have to talk about a few ground rules.

CUMMING: (as Eli Gold) And what have you heard about my reputation?

NOTH: (as Peter Florrick) That you speak your mind. Your mind tends toward expletives. You're a classically trained pianist. And it requires Saturdays off.

CUMMING: (as Eli Gold) Who told you about Saturdays? schiksta Bambie over there?

NOTH: (as Peter Florrick) I've also been told that in a street fight, you're the man.

CUMMING: (as Eli Gold) You want me to watch my swearing?

NOTH: (as Peter Florrick) Listen, considering my circumstances, my home will remain our base and my wife and children live here.

CUMMING: (as Eli Gold) You need to replace the strainer. OK, first of all, Peter?

NOTH: (as Peter Florrick) Yes.

CUMMING: (as Eli Gold) The only reason I'm here is because what I've heard about your reputation.

GROSS: (as Peter Florrick) Which is?

CUMMING: (as Eli Gold) You're a son - can I say son of a bitch or is that too salty?

NOTH: (as Peter Florrick) That's fine.

CUMMING: (as Eli Gold) You, sir, are a son of a bitch, but a son of a bitch who likes to change things for the better. I've also heard that you're toxic and if I join your merry little band of political hobbyists here, I'm going to end up regretting it.

NOTH: (as Peter Florrick) That sounds about right.

CUMMING: (as Eli Gold) OK. Here's my first piece of advice. Fire Bambi.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) Hey.

CUMMING: (as Eli Gold) And hire your son. This is the best piece of research this campaign has done.

NOTH: (as Peter Florrick) Yes. But we're still trying to figure out who is it.

CUMMING: (as Eli Gold) Oh, I know who it is.

NOTH: (as Peter Florrick) Who?

CUMMING: (as Eli Gold) It's a federal investigator doing scout work for a possible indictment.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) How do you know that? You can't know that.

CUMMING: (as Eli Gold) Oh, I know a lot of things, lady. The question is when will you know it? Look, you're under federal investigation. What you need to find out is why.

GROSS: That was a scene from "The Good Wife" with my guest Alan Cumming as the operative Eli Gold. Was this tough talking operative an unusual role for you?

CUMMING: Yes. I mean, I think everyone was shocked when I was cast in that role, including myself. And also, I didn't really want to do it. I was sort of like what? Because, you know, I wasn't asked to come and do it for seasons and seasons. I was asked to do one episode. And I was like pfft. You know, what the hell. I didn't understand it. I was like who is this person? What's going on?

The only thing I knew about this show was that Juliana - I saw Juliana at a bus stop. And I remember...

GROSS: You mean on a poster on a bus stop?

CUMMING: Yeah. Not literally. I mean she was literally on a bus stop. No. That would weird. Juliana just sitting on top of a bus stop.

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: Anyway, it's funny. My manager and my agent, you have all these people who are working for you and working with you and then sometimes you're like, god, they get paid so much money; what the hell do they do? And actually they said to me do this. Do this character. Do this episode. And, look, imagine if I had followed my own advice. I wouldn't have done this at all and really great thing in my life wouldn't have happened.

So that's, you know, sometimes they're worth it.

GROSS: And your character's changed a lot.

CUMMING: He's changed. You know, every season he has a new job. That's the thing I love about television.

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: You know, some things - he had a daughter. She just disappeared. I don't know where. And his ex wife. She was supposed to come back, she didn't come back. I love that - I've been a political operative, then I was a campaign manager. Then I was a crisis manager. Then I was a campaign manager again. And now this time I'm a chief of staff. I mean, they're all vaguely related but they're not the same.

And then I was a partner. I became a partner at Lockhart and Gardner, I remembered the other day, and I don't seem to be anymore. You know, that's just television. Things happen. I quite enjoy it.

GROSS: Yeah.

CUMMING: In a way you have to just be light with it and just play the moment because often nobody knows where it's going to end up, you know? And it has a lot to do with other circumstances. But I'm actually really excited about what's happening. We're going to do another season, season six now, and I'm quite excited about going back and of what the story is going to be.

It's funny, though. I was playing the emcee and Eli Gold at the same time and so what's funny is towards the end of this season you'll notice that Eli's hair gets a little darker and instead of having, you know, salt and pepper hair that was my hair, because I dyed my hair black for "Cabaret" - they had to put, like, you know, paint in gray streaks into my black hair and Eli gets a little thinner as well, as his alter ego is dancing up a storm.

GROSS: That explains Eli's spit curl. I was wondering about that.

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: And his slight German accent.

GROSS: Yes. If you're just joining us, my guest is Alan Cumming and he's now starring in a great production of "Cabaret" that's actually a revival of a revival of a revival. He's been in all three of those revivals starting in 1993 in England. This production is a Roundabout Theater production and it's at Studio 54 in New York.

Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR and if you're just joining us my guest is Alan Cumming who stars in the new revival of "Cabaret" at Studio 54 in New York. It's a Roundabout Theater production and he plays the host, the emcee, the role that was originated by Joel Grey. And he's terrific. So we are recording this on Thursday, April 24th and tonight is your opening night.

CUMMING: That's right.

GROSS: So what does that mean? Like, are you nervous now? I can't believe...

CUMMING: Nah.

GROSS: ...you're doing this interview now. I'm so happy that you were able to come today. So are you nervous? You've been doing this for weeks in rehearsal and...

CUMMING: Yeah. We've been previewing for a month. You know, we've done...

GROSS: I mean previous.

CUMMING: ...all kinds of rehearsals.

GROSS: I mean previous. Yeah. Um-hum.

CUMMING: Yeah. So, no. I mean, like, last night. I was like, oh, you know, our fate is sealed.

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: And it's been a bit like "Groundhog Day" because you just kind of - you're in this state where, you know, tomorrow all the reviews will come out. All of it will come out. You know, it's just been a nice experience staying under January and all that stuff. And tonight is really - I mean, it's kind of nerve-wracking because it's the big - the kind of ta-da, here we are!

But actually, all the people in the audience are your friends and your agents, who are your friends as well, often, and nice people.

GROSS: And the critics. And the critics.

CUMMING: No. The critics are not in tonight.

GROSS: No?

CUMMING: The critics come, actually, you know, actually probably when you were there, there was critics. And they come, like, over a period of, like, three or four nights the week before you open.

GROSS: I was there for previews. I thought critics weren't allowed to review it off a preview.

CUMMING: No. They come - towards the end of previews they come in and then - so that on the - it's different how they do it here in America. In London, like, when you do a play in the West End, like, the first night is like full of critics. You can actually see them with their - when you're on stage you can see them with their little notepads. You can even hear them sometimes scribbling away in their bitter little fashion.

But in America, they come - they're spread out over three or four nights. I mean on Broadway, anyway. So all the critics have been and so tonight is just this big celebration. And then we have a party. And then, you know, you've got to do press and stuff like that. And it's kind of like sort of fun but actually, the thing that I am - last time I did it, it was so overwhelming for me, the whole experience, all this stuff.

This time around I feel like I can enjoy it more because I understand what's going to happen. I understand that tonight is, like, going to be a bit like speed dating.

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: I'm going to just - seriously. I'll be like, hi. Oh, thank you so much. Oh, a photo? Yeah, sure. Hi. Oh, thank you. That's lovely. A photo? Yeah, sure. Like that. And so, you know, and eventually the time comes when I say can we have the security around me? I don't want to talk to anyone else. I'm just going to have a drink with my friends.

And, you know, so I understand. I feel like I'm an old pro now and I can do what I have to do but also draw the line and say now I'm going to have some fun. And then also guess what I'm going as? I mean guess what my outfit is?

GROSS: What?

CUMMING: You know that Otto Dix painting Sylvia von Harden?

GROSS: No.

CUMMING: It's like a lady sitting at table in a cafe. She's got a cocktail and a little cigarette case. She's smoking. She's got a black and red check dress on and a little short hair - and a monocle. I assume she is a lesbian but I may be wrong. And I'm going as her.

I've got an outfit that my friend Trevor Rains, the designer - because, like, all these people wanted to dress me, you know, and it becomes a kind of sort of weird, like, you know, you don't want to be rude to people and it's like all these people want to dance with you or have sex with you and you just - you don't want to let them down.

So I decided that I would do my own thing and go and have a modern interpretation of an image that is very much an inspiration for the production. Like, we have those images of Otto Dix all over the walls.

GROSS: Oh. Oh. I see.

CUMMING: All over the walls. And so - and Grosz. And all those painters. And so...

GROSS: George Grosz. Yeah.

CUMMING: George Grosz. So I'm going - it's like a kind of pair of shorts and a little top with a little zip. And I've got a monocle and everything and I'm going to have a pretend, you know, like an electronic cigarette. And I'm going to go as that damn painting.

GROSS: Oh, that sounds great.

CUMMING: I'm sure everyone - I think it's great but I'm sure everyone - by the time this is broadcast you'll have read how nuts I am and how crazy people think I am and I'll be in the back of those awful trashy magazines and fashion police but I don't care. I like it.

GROSS: Oh, that sounds great. Alan Cumming, this was so much fun.

CUMMING: Thank you.

GROSS: And congratulations on your performance. It is so good.

CUMMING: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Thank you so much.

CUMMING: Thank you. I'm a big fan and it was lovely to talk to you.

GROSS: My interview with Alan Cumming was recorded last Thursday. Cumming is starring in the Broadway revival of "Cabaret" by the Roundabout Theater Company. You can see a picture of him in his opening night outfit side by side with a photo of the Otto Dix painting that inspired it on our website freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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