PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Cabaret — Cumming & Going & Cumming Again

By Harry Haun
April 25, 2014 offers a behind-the-scenes look at opening night of the Broadway revival of Cabaret.


"Willkommen." The greeting that begins the last show of the Broadway season comes out of the past like a hushed hiss, even more déjà vu since it comes from Alan Cumming, reprising his 1998 Tony-winning role of a seductive, serpentine emcee.

Yes, having taken the decade off, Cabaret has returned — and to the scene of its war crimes, Studio 54, where it moved four days after a crane crashed through the roof of the Kit Kat Klub (nee the Henry Miller Theatre, now the Stephen Sondheim) and continued for 2,377 performances over six and a half years. It's Roundabout's all-time topper — "by far," said company kingpin Todd Haimes, who's giving it another spin. It's so sold out that he extended the run — before a single critic had his say — through Jan. 4, 2015.

Cumming called creators and re-creators alike to the stage April 24 for a sentimental curtain call. Joe Masteroff, 94, who wrote the musical book from the stories of Christopher Isherwood and John Van Druten's I Am a Camera, and John Kander, 87, who wrote the music to the late Fred Ebb's lyrics, joined hands and bowed with the director and choreographer of the 1998 revival, Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall.

For Mendes and Marshall, Cabaret was their ticket to Hollywood, where they went on to direct Oscar-winning Best Pictures of the Year (1999's "American Beauty" for Mendes and 2002's "Chicago" for Marshall). Now they're knee-deep in James Bonds and Johnny Depps, but the show that got them there brought them back.

Having gotten it so sublimely right the first time, why would Marshall do it again? "Because I was asked. Because Todd wanted to do it again. Todd was really excited to bring it back — to this space especially because the space was created for it, and I think he just thought it was time to bring it to a new generation. Then, Alan wanted to do it. And Sam said he wanted to do it, and so I said, 'Okay, I'll come on board.'"

"It was very interesting, revisiting something from a long time ago. Looking at it with fresh eyes was fun for me, making adjustments and changes. I enjoyed that. I tailor-made everything for Michelle and then worked with Alan again. You know, Alan is amazing. He's doing even more in the show than he did originally."

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Alan Cumming and Michelle Williams
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN
Does a Cats dancer who has turned movie director ever want to return to his roots? Marshall nodded an emphatic yes. "I think I'm anxious to come back to Broadway now. It's nice to be able to do this in the middle of the film work. I feel like it's time."

Strutting around the stage like evil incarnate, breaking out into perverse song-and-dance, hovering menacingly over book scenes, Cumming is as good as one doubtlessly remembers. It's an iconic musical creation — and somehow even more impressive.

"I don't feel like I'm just repeating something," he said. "It's been long enough that I feel like I'm rediscovering something that's in my bones, in my DNA, and I've really enjoyed doing that with entirely new people. And also coming back to the experience when I did it first is so overwhelming to me. I can enjoy it more now."

Not only has he changed, so have the times. "The whole sexuality thing is not as sensational as it was before, but it really freaked some people out then."

Making her Broadway (and musical) debut in the role of Sally Bowles, a determined gadfly and wannabe chanteuse in roiling Berlin of 1929-30, is the commendably game and brave Michelle Williams, who's usually breaking hearts and winning Oscar nominations (one as Marilyn Monroe, which was more than Marilyn ever did).

"I'm not trained for the stage," Williams admitted by way of explaining why she's only getting around to it now. "I'm all instinct. I'm no training. Hopefully, some of that works for Sally Bowles." It does, which was why Harold Prince went with the late Jill Haworth over Liza Minnelli in the original 1966 production. Of course, Liza got the movie, the career and the Oscar, and, in the current edition of Forbidden Broadway, she has transitioned into the role of Fraulein Schneider without any discernible loss of volume or star power.

But let the record show that, on opening night, Williams got thunderous applause for belting out two of Minnelli's signature songs — the title tune and the smoldering "Maybe This Time" (which Kander and Ebb held back for her to do in the movie).

"That's what good teachers will do," Williams remarked, giving credit where credit is due. "I've had a lot of learning to do, yeah. And tons of vocal work. When we started rehearsing, I couldn't make it to the end of 'Cabaret,' and now... '

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There are easier ways to make a Broadway debut than taking up musicals and a role with an indelible stamp on it. "I know," Williams nodded rather hopelessly, "but I couldn't resist it. The music is so beautiful. The part is so well-written. I couldn't say no. It was certainly better than any screenplay that I'd read for a long time."

Musically, Williams' leading man — the strapping Bill Heck — was in the same boat without a life preserver. "I've always sung, but just sorta casually," he grudgingly allowed. "I thought they were kidding when they cast me in a musical, but, if you ever get a chance like this, you gotta take it. It was terrifying at first because this is new ground for me, but everyone was so pleasant and talented and supportive that it was a genuine joy for me to do. Really, it was very satisfying."

Linda Emond, last seen on Broadway playing Linda to Philip Seymour Hoffman's Willy Loman, has another steep descent into tragedy here as Fraulein Schneider, the watchdog landlady who is softened up by her Jewish fruit-peddling boarder.

"I get the fun of dancing with pineapples ["It Couldn't Please Me More"] and the Studio 54 disco ball ["Married"] — all that fun stuff. Unfortunately, the Nazis show up, and some very hard decisions have to be made ["What Would You Do?"]."

The character has the best of both worlds for an actor, but who knew the actress could sing? "People forget I made my Broadway debut in 1776. I was Abigail Adams." And Cabaret turns out to be her second Broadway musical.

On the fun side of Fraulein Schneider's ledger is her running war with a prodigiously promiscuous prostitute-boarder, Fraulein Kost, who keeps a constant stream of sailors pouring in and out of her apartment, much to the shocked dismay of Fraulein Schneider: "What must the neighbors think I'm running here? A battleship?"

Gayle Rankin as the Kost in question and the disapproving Emond get some nice comic sparks out their repeated clashes. The secret, according to Rankin: "Linda's a great scene partner. I basically just listen to her, and my performance is set."

Fraulein Kost is a small, tart role, but Peg Murray won the Tony for it in the original 1966 Broadway production — over Lotte Lenya's Fraulein Schneider — and inherited that much larger role when Lenya left the show. She and Joel Grey, who won the Tony and later the Oscar as the emcee, are the last surviving members of the original cast.

Linda Emond and Danny Burstein
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

The subplot love story between Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, her Jewish boarder who plies her with fresh fruit, is where the heart of the story is centrally located, and it inexplicably didn't make the cut for the movie, which focused on a bisexual love triangle. With those characters went some great songs.

Ron Rifkin won a long-overdue Tony playing Schultz in the 1998 revival; now, it's Danny Burstein's turn. Somehow, he keeps coming up with a new face for every new character. For this, he grew a particularly unprepossessing mustache and shaved his head back. Voila! Herr Schultz, a sweet-tempered, old-school nerd. "When you play that role, you feel this enormous responsibility," insisted the actor. "You're the only Jewish character in the play. In a way, you're representing the six million Jews who died. And I also feel the ghost of Jack Gilford with me. I hope he would have approved. I loved him so much."

Andrea Goss, a chorine who comes in petite, doubles as a Kit Kat Klub girl (Frenchie) and a gorilla (in the "If You Could See Her" number) when she doesn't have to go on for Sally Bowles. She said the gorilla is always played by a woman. (The viciously anti-Semitic tag-line for that song, by the way, was not used until the movie in 1973.)

Cabaret is generally regarded as Masteroff's masterpiece, but his heart goes out to the gentle She Loves Me, the Sheldon Harnick-Jerry Bock musicalization of "The Shop Around the Corner." "It's an orphan," he sighed. "Whenever it plays, it gets great reviews — and the audiences say, 'Yeah, it's cute.' They really do. It never does big business." Perhaps a definitive film version would remedy that — eh, Rob Marshall?

"This opening night was amazing to me," Masteroff admitted. "We all know opening nights can be very good, or they can be disappointing. With this one, the cast rose to the occasion. Even the audience was respectful. You know, opening night audiences can get carried away. It was the best I've ever seen, this production — a shame some of the critics weren't here tonight."

The movie version of Cabaret pursued other Berlin stories from Isherwood — and not especially to Masteroff's liking. "I liked parts of the movie. I thought the scenes in the Kit Kat Klub with Liza Minnelli were wonderful. That's an area [director] Bob Fosse really knows, but I thought toward the end it turned into nothing because there are really no Jews in it, except for a family you never saw, and you can't do a Holocaust movie without a few Jews around. I just thought the movie neglected that. Bob Fosse often said you couldn't do a serious musical in the movies, and so he avoided it, but on the stage you couldn't get away with that. You're doing a story about Germany right before Hitler. You can't just pretend it's not happening."

In attendance was Mrs. Burstein (the former Magnolia Hawks and Marian Paroo: soprano Rebecca Luker). "Just concert work" is what she's up to. First order of business is a little time-traveling with Howard McGillin May 11 (at 7 and 9:30) at 54 Below in a reprise of Time and Again, the Skip Kennon-Jack Viertel musical they world-premiered in 1996 at the Old Globe. Also singing along: Lewis Cleale, Mandy Gonzalez, Jessica Molaskey, William Parry, Maureen Silliman and KT Sullivan.

Hunk Heck said his Mrs. — Maggie Lacey, whom he met playing his wife in Horton Foote's The Orphans' Home Cycle — was otherwise engaged in The Figaro Plays: The Marriage of Figaro, which Stephen Wadsworth is directing at the McCarter Theatre.

Bill Heck
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Composer Marc Shaiman was inordinately revved up about the Carnegie Hall salute he and lyricist Scott Wittman are getting April 28 from The New York Pops and music director Steven Reineke. "It's a pleasure to be able to pick the best songs from all these things we've done," he said. "It's so many showstoppers, one after another, that some people may actually die. I understand there's an older clientele there, so we may literally knock 'em dead. I think there are 17 songs." Dispensing them will be Patti LuPone, Will Chase, Martin Short, Andrea Martin, Marissa Jaret Winokur, Nikki Blonsky, Ricki Lake, Christian Borle, Kerry Butler, Linda Hart, Capathia Jenkins, Jenifer Lewis and Katharine McPhee.

Johnny Depp, in shades, hat and a Travolta-esque white jumpsuit, made his star entrance with Amber Heard — no doubt a deep bow to Marshall, who directed him in "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" and "Into the Woods," which is due in movie theatres on Christmas Day. Depp's the wolf, and Meryl Streep's the witch.

The slick, stylish dancing partner Cumming plucked from the audience on opening night for a quick spin — Cynthia Nixon — said she'll be joining Ewan McGregor and Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Real Thing the night before Halloween at the American Airlines Theatre. She did the original Mike Nichols-directed production of Tom Stoppard's play in 1984 when she was 18; now she's playing that character's mom.

Other first-nighters: Neil Simon and his Sugar, Elaine Joyce; another Pulitzer Prize playwright, Lynn Nottage; a blissfully beaming Gary Rankin, who came all the way from Scotland to see his little Gayle make her big Broadway bow as the sailor-sated Fraulein Kost; Emily Bergl; actor-singer George Dvorsky; Jim Dale, whose Just Jim Dale bows June 3 at Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre; Katie Finneran, who will take the plunge into cabaret May 28-31 right under Cabaret at 54 Below; Jessica Hecht; Troy Britton Johnson, the roller-skating romeo of The Drowsy Chaperone, who has "written a couple of musicals that are happening"; Rachel York; Charlotte Parry, who was so good in The Winslow Boy; Tracee Chimo and Molly Ranson, both of Bad Jews; Lee Radzwell and daughter-in-law Carole; cabaret accompanist Alex Rybeck, and a host of hot young directors (Alex Timbers, Leigh Silverman, Pam MacKinnon, Daniel Aukin and choreographer Marshall's choreographer sister, Kathleen). A Tony cluster in attendance: Jane Krakowski, Denis O'Hare and Kristin Chenoweth.