While a few fortunate Broadway theatregoers were able to catch the recent Olivier Award-winning revival of Cabaret, the majority of us are anxiously awaiting its Spring 2024 arrival on Broadway. And even more, we are anxiously awaiting the casting news to see if one, both, or neither of its Olivier-winning stars, Eddie Redmayne and Jessie Buckley, will come with it.
While we impatiently tap our feet, we've at least had the cast recording to keep us company. Released in January 2023, the album features Redmayne as The Emcee and Buckley as Sally Bowles.
Playbill got the chance to catch up with Redmayne recently to chat about his wild, weird performance and, basically, harass him about his 13 year (and counting) absence from the Broadway stage.
Redmayne made his Broadway debut in 2010 when the Donmar Warehouse production of John Logan's Red transferred from the West End. The two-hander starred Alfred Molina as artist Mark Rothko and Redmayne as his assistant. Redmayne earned an Olivier and a Tony for his performance.
Redmayne says, only partly in jest, that one of the reasons he hasn't returned to Broadway is because Red was perfect. "It was one of the greatest experiences of my life—working with Fred Molina on a play that I loved, and with Michael Grandage," he says. "It went so well that I was like, 'I don't think I'm ever going to do a Broadway play ever again. It's never ever gonna go as well as that.'"
Following Red, he returned to the West End for another production with Grandage, a short run as the title role in Shakespeare's Richard II. Then his film career took off. His 2012 performance as Marius in the Les Misérables film set musical theatre hearts aflutter. Then in 2015, he was awarded an Oscar for his role as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything and garnered another nomination the following year for The Danish Girl.
He did not return to the stage until the 2021 West End revival of Kander and Ebb's Cabaret. The chance to create The Emcee anew was too good to pass up. "The abstract nature of the character—the fact that does the character even really exist? Is it a figment of the imagination? I mean, it's so ripe for interpretation," says Redmayne. "And the show is so beautifully constructed, but yet it allows for interpretation. That was the appeal."
The Emcee is so ripe for interpretation because the character only exists in the Kit Kat Club and not within narrative story of Cabaret. The diegetic Kit Kat Club numbers comment on the action of the plot—chanteuse Sally Bowles' relationship with English writer Cliff during the Nazi rise to power in Berlin—but the Kit Kat Club songs are not a part of the action.
And this new immersive production takes that meta-theatricality to new heights—London's Playhouse Theatre has been transformed to look like a '40s Berlin nightclub, with performers interacting with he audience during the preshow.
Redmayne's initial actor's instinct was to create a backstory for The Emcee, but in the end, his attempts simply were not supported by the text. So, he tried something else. "What was very liberating about playing this role was that I approached it, ultimately, in a very different way—which was throwing clay at a wall in big kind of broad gestures and then trying to refine it as it were," Redmayne explains. "Then, as we began to run the show, making sense of a psychology through it—working backwards, and working with the understanding that there's an abstraction to the character."
But Redmayne was excited about shaking his process up a bit. He'd only done film for the 10 years prior to Cabaret, and he was ready to dive into stage work again. In the months leading up to Cabaret rehearsals, he even enrolled in a training course at Lecoq (formally, L'École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq), a physical theatre school in Paris. "I was working with actors aged 18 to 60 from all over the world. It was huge improvisations, the whole thing was in French, and there were these two French doyennes of Lecoq's training going 'No!' and it was kind of brutal, but it was exactly what I needed," he says, laughing. "It took me out of my head. I felt so much more physically free to humiliate myself. By the time I came into the rehearsal room for Cabaret, the experience was one of release in some ways."
So with his newfound physical freedom, and the idea of The Emcee as an abstraction unclouded by a backstory, Redmayne was ready to create his character. The vocal performance is almost otherworldly. Redmayne explains the genesis of his sound: "There was this idea of a shapeshifter. That was something that [director] Rebecca [Frecknall] and Tom Scutt, our production designer, talked about—that my version of The Emcee could puppeteer this group of Kit Kat dancers and conjure these characters. But, ultimately, when fascism arrives, he is able to get out absolutely fine. He can shape shift his way out of that situation. And I wanted vocally for that to translate as well."
Working with Musical Director Jennifer Whyte ("She had brilliant ideas," he adds), Redmayne created different voices and sounds for different songs. In "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," he sang live over his own recorded harmony lines. "So, in that, there was a delicate side. Then there was the raucous, quite nasal version of The Emcee in 'Willkommen.' And then, particularly within 'I Don't Care Much,' I wanted you to hear him move from one voice into the other within the same song. So he's sort of demonstrating to the audience the power he has in his passivity, just to keep changing the versions of himself," explains Redmayne, then quickly adding, "That sounds bloody pretentious." (Clearly Mr. Redmayne does not understand how hard we can nerd out about a vocal performance.)
Musical theatre is in Redmayne's blood, he says. His first job, after all, was playing a workhouse boy in a West End production of Oliver! And he was a choral scholar in his years at Cambridge. And returning to Cabaret after years in film was a particular joy for him. "I do think that music and singing jumps synapses into people's souls and you connect emotionally in a beautifully honest way," he says.
But he's more proud of just being involved with this particular production. He's been back to see every new cast as they arrive in the West End. "Rebecca has created a version of the show that champions individuality," he says. "Getting to watch a production that you've been in, but in a completely different interpretation—having seen all of The Emcees and Sallys and seen the breadth and brilliance of their voices—I just feel proud to be a part of something that keeps living."
And, of course, we asked if he'll be coming to Broadway with Cabaret in the spring. Of course we did. "You know more about it than I do," said the shape shifter, easily getting out of that one.
The Rebecca Frecknall-directed production of the Tony-winning 1966 Broadway musical, currently running at London's Kit Kat Club (a.k.a. the renovated Playhouse Theatre), officially opened December 12, 2021. It currently stars Jake Shears as The Emcee and Rebecca Lucy Taylor as Sally Bowles. Mason Alexander Park and Maude Apatow just completed their three-month runs in the show.
Cabaret is slated to arrive at the August Wilson Theatre this season. Dates and cast are to be announced.