In the early 1990s, when director Sam Mendes began to articulate his ideas for a re-envisioned revival of Cabaret — stripping down the material, setting the story in a semi-immersive nightclub and enlisting a cast of actor-musicians — he said, "They thought I was mad!"
However, his vision was given life at the Donmar Warehouse in London's West End in 1993, where Alan Cumming — who reprises his acclaimed performance two decades later (beginning March 21 at Studio 54) — served as the Emcee, inviting theatregoers into the dark and risqué Kit Kat Klub and asking them to leave their troubles at the door.
"You see it reinvented in that way, and it's fresh, and it comes alive for a new generation — a new audience — and that's what I was seeking to do, so we went in with two ideas: It was going to be a rough theatre aesthetic [with] no mic-ing, and it was going to be set in a nightclub. So we ripped out all the seats at the Donmar, put everyone at tables and chairs [and] sold booze," said Mendes, from the downstairs lobby of Studio 54, with a laugh. "That's a key element! You get to drink! … That's how it began."
"It's an amazing journey," he continued. "Everything then moves from that central idea, which is, 'What if it's a nightclub? It's a small nightclub. It's a poor nightclub. They do everything on a shoestring.' We're going to go for some sort of social realism. People are going to make costumes out of very little. Nothing is going to look fitted or, in any way, like a costume. It will look like someone's raided the dressing-up basket. The actors will play the instruments — this was key — and essentially, it's site-specific. We had these two big ideas, I suppose, which now have become more commonplace on Broadway and Off-Broadway, which is site-specific theatre and [a cast of] actor-musicians."
Mendes, whose production of Cabaret was awarded the 1998 Tony Award for Best Revival (following an acclaimed run in the West End), was one of the first of its time, and the landscape of actor-musicians (who are also proficient in song and dance) was scarce.
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