Randy Harrison stars as the Emcee in an ultra-relevant Cabaret
It has been 50 years since Cabaret first jolted audiences right out of their comfort zones, and yet it’s hard to imagine a better time for the show to be touring the country.
For the last year, the Roundabout Theatre Company’s brilliant production of Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall’s revival has been on the road. It stars Randy Harrison, best remembered for playing Justin on Showtime’s landmark drama Queer as Folk, as the Emcee. To say that he has big shoes—or suspenders—to fill would be an understatement.
Although the role of the Emcee was created by Joel Grey, who won both a Tony and an Academy Award for his bizarrely sinister performance, the role was reimagined anew by Alan Cumming, who also took home the Tony for the 1998 Roundabout revival. One of the most iconic roles in musical theater, Harrison calls this one of the most satisfying experiences of his professional career. “It’s this role that’s so specific and yet I’ve never played a role where I’ve had more freedom,” said Harrison.
Cabaret takes place in 1930s Berlin as the Nazis began their quiet ascent to power. The Emcee’s musical numbers inside the Kit Kat Klub frequently serve as commentary on the scenes that are taking place around it, and Harrison says that it is imperative for his character to maintain a strong and personal opinion about what’s happening on stage. “So much of what I do is sort of skewing the audience perception of the action that’s happening on stage,” Harrison said, “whether it be a satirical number that’s a comment on that scene or just reacting to a scene in a certain way so that the audience has a double layer of meaning in how they watch it.”
Although Cabaret is ultimately a grim and chilling musical gut punch, it is vital that the carefree decadence of Weimar Berlin shines through in the first act, contrasting greatly with the peril and doom that’s to come. For Harrison, this is something he’s been able to enjoy more the longer he’s been on the road.
“There is so much joy in the role,” he said. “There’s so much delight and dirty joy and bliss, and that keeps me going. The tragedy of the show will unravel as it will, but the more I can enjoy myself, the more I can find glee in the material and camaraderie with the audience.”
But what makes Cabaret a vital component to our times is the frightening and disastrous political climate that has drawn apt comparisons to the rise of an extremist party. These comparisons are not novel, but they do make for an exceptionally resonant night at the theater. According to Harrison, the audiences across the country have been very politically engaged, which has given him more to play with in his audience interaction. “We were in North Carolina right after HB2, and I was able to subtly comment on that in the beginning of Act Two. The response was insane,” he recalls. “It’s been great and terrifying and devastating.”
For Harrison, performing in Cabaret the past several months has been surprisingly therapeutic. “The day after the election, I could barely function, honestly,” he said. “I was like, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do the show,’ but then I got onstage and it was everything that I needed. It’s such an outlet for all the rage and despair and frustration and fear that we’re feeling as a country. I’m so glad that I don’t have to get on stage and do Cats right now,” he joked.
Harrison felt particularly powerless this past June when 49 people were murdered inside of Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, while Cabaret was on a small hiatus. “I felt so powerless and so useless,” he said. “I felt like I had to get on stage and perform a show that is specifically about a minority that was targeted and murdered and how a society allowed that to happen. It’s been a terrifying time in general, but doing something that I think addresses exactly what we’re going through in such an artful and powerful way is an enormous blessing.”
CABARET. THROUGH 2.12 AT THE BOSTON OPERA HOUSE, 539 WASHINGTON ST., BOSTON. BROADWAYINBOSTON.COM
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.