EXCLUSIVE: Oscar-Winning Director Sam Mendes Re-Enters the Dark and Intimate Kit Kat Klub With Broadway's Cabaret
19 Mar 2014
"It was very, very difficult in the early days because ensemble dancers and singers on Broadway [were] not used to playing instruments well, and many of them hadn't practiced and had to dig up their high-school sax or their school violin and [said], 'I haven't played this since I was 12, but I'll give it a go!'" explained Mendes. "Patrick Vaccariello, who is the musical director, was a f*cking hero because he was the guy who said, 'Okay. You haven't played this since you were 12, but I can see you've got some technique there… We'll work with it.'"
Although the first orchestral play-through in 1997 (for the show's '98 Broadway bow) "sounded like they were playing the score on kazoos," Mendes admitted, the company "gradually grew in confidence." By Tony time, the show took home four awards, including a trophy for its leading man, Cumming, who returns with Mendes for its 2014 incarnation.
"Now," Mendes said, "when we came to auditions [for the 2014 revival], it was fascinating. You came to audition for this 'revival of a revival' — as it were — [and] the standard of playing is astonishing because of all the John Doyle [actor-musician] productions alone… It's been wonderful to see how things have moved on, and now what's expected of performers on Broadway is not only do they [have to] sing and dance brilliantly, but they also have to be multi-instrumentalists on top of all that, and they have to act! It's been a pleasure."
But, why — after a five-year, successful run on Broadway — would Cabaret return to Studio 54 a decade-and-a-half later? Because Roundabout Theatre Company — the driving force behind the production — gave Mendes his Broadway debut.
"At a certain point, you think, 'Well, you know what, the Roundabout were very, very good to me. They gave me the chance. They tenaciously fought for what I wanted,' [so] I said, 'I'll do it for you.' In '95, I agreed to do it, but only if [they] found me a nightclub," Mendes explained. "They spent two years looking for it, and they found me what is now the Stephen Sondheim [Theatre], which then was the Henry Miller's. It was, in fact, a nightclub, and during that period — and people don't believe me when I tell them this — that was a nightclub after we closed the show every night. At 11 o'clock at night, we took down our set, and people turned up, and they danced on our set until five in the morning… and probably took a lot of drugs because we used to find syringes. They'd come in the morning, clean it up, and we'd do the show. It was chaos, but it had a crazy atmosphere, and that was the show…
"When we won the Tony Awards that night, that nightclub was open for business… It took a lot of punishment — and it had a rather nasty smell after a few weeks — but nevertheless, that was the spirit of the show, and the Roundabout fought to get that space. [When] a construction crane fell on the roof of the Henry Miller, we had to close the show, and we all thought, 'Shit. What's going to happen?' [Artistic director] Todd Haimes at the Roundabout had the balls to come and say, 'We're going to find somewhere else' and literally kick the wood off the door of Studio 54 and walk into this derelict space. I remember it very clearly — me walking in going, 'Oh my God, this is even better. This is incredible, and look at the history.' Even when you walk through the door, you see the old Studio 54 logo on there. So it is an accumulation. You can't be unaware that that mirror ball in the roof was the mirror ball under which [Andy] Warhol and [Mikhail] Baryshnikov mingled… This is Studio 54, and I loved that, and [Todd Haimes] had the balls to do that, and the show was one of the happiest experiences in my life. It ran for five years. And, when he said, 'We want to bring it back, and we need it, and we need you to do it,' I thought, 'I owe it to him.' I'm very, very fond of him, and I'm very fond of the show, and I'm very happy to be bringing it back."