The 50th Anniversary Roundabout Theatre Company’s tour of “Cabaret” is currently playing in Chicago before coming to The Marcus Center from February 23-28. “Cabaret” takes the audience inside Berlin nightlife just as the Nazis were rising to power in 1931. The show features a string of multi-talented performers who act, sing, dance, and play an instrument. In anticipation of “Cabaret”‘s Milwaukee run, one of these quadruple threats, Alison Ewing, took the time to share a bit about her experience in the production and what makes “Cabaret” such a timeless success.
Emily Carl: How would you describe the history of “Cabaret” and its longevity?
Alison Ewing: This revival started with the direction of Rob Marshall and Sam Mendees in 1998 and that’s when Sam Mendes did the production in London and then brought it to Broadway. It played on Broadway for 7 or 8 years and now the same production been done in several different countries. This tour is the same staging and the same show that they had done that was such a Tony Award-winning succcess in 1998. But before that, of course, there was the movie with Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli, there was also a show in the 80’s with Joel Grey on Broadway, and then there was also the original production in the 60’s, so it goes back a long, long way.
EC: What can you tell me about the 50th anniversary tour? Does it stay true to the 1998 production?
AE: Yes, it does stay true to the 1998 production. This is a big tour- we have many, many cities planned right now. I believe we have dates announced through the end of the summer and I know that they are planning for many more cities after that but they haven’t really been announced yet. This production is reflecting back on what Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall did before they became famous award-winning movie directors, so you’re getting to see a slice of Sam Mendes- our director- who just directed the latest James Bond film and won an Academy Award for his work on “American Beauty”, and this show was done by Rob Marshall and Sam Mendes before they exploded into fame. So it’s kind of a wonderful production because you get to see their wonderful work doing theater right at the peak of their creative careers- right as they were coming into becoming these extremely successful people. Our Resident Director B.T. McNicholl has done a wonderful job of maintaining the same show that you saw just in the most recent production on Broadway with Emma Stone and other famous people playing Sally Bowles as well as the 1998 production as well.
EC: You’ve been involved in many tours of “Cabaret” from national to international runs in Paris. How does it feel to be a part of such an iconic show?
AE: Yeah, I really do feel like I’ve come full circle a little bit, because the first time I did this show was at the end of 1998. I started the tour playing Lulu, a Kit-Kat girl.. and this was 18 years ago, so now I’m coming back to this play again and I’m playing the oldest Kit-Kat girl named Fraulein Kost. It’s a role I always wanted to play and do when I was younger but I wasn’t the right age at the time. So it’s wonderful to come back to the same production that I’ve done over and over and be able to see it from a whole new angle and be able to play a different role. It’s like I’m creating a new character in a new show for myself, but it’s like revisiting an old friend as well. I have done this play across the country, I’ve done the play in New York, and then I also did the production in Paris in French with a whole Parisian cast about 7 years ago. What’s amazing for me is that no matter where we do the play- in the States, in Canada, in a different country- people seem to always be moved by it in the same way.. be moved by the music and the baudiness and the political relevancy, as well, to our current political times. People really seem to come after the show to say, “Thank you! We were so touched, we were so moved, it meant a lot!” So it’s just lovely to see that that we could take one piece of work all over the world and affect people wherever you go.
EC: What was it like working with Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall in 1998?
AE: It was great! At the time, Sam was also doing a lot of filming for something so he would come in intermittently for a full run and give us notes, where Rob was with us a lot more. At the time, I was more of a dancer so I did spend a lot of time with Rob and he was directing but he was also the main choreographer. So, for me, that was so wonderful because he’s able to take a certain kind of movement and make any level of dancer be able to look great. I think that’s a really great skill of Rob’s. This show is special because we have a lot dancers but we also have a lot of musicians, some of whom are more of a musician than a dancer or more of a dancer than a musician, so he was able to take all different types of people and bring us together and make a dance number or make a scene look like a whole beautiful piece. In the same rite, the latest Resident Director B.T. is able to maintain that show that was put together in 1998 and brilliantly be able to bring the same integrity to what the show had, like a genius robot or something [laughs]. He has all this knowledge about what the show should be and was able to put it together so wondefully and has this sense of the original production.
EC: How do you balance between acting, singing, dancing, and playing an instrument?
AE: Well, it’s hard! The first thing I would say is that it does take a little bit more warmup time. Usually when you get a show up and running you come a half hour before the show, you put your makeup on, and you go out to the stage. But for this show, all of the girls that are in the show- especially the Kit-Kat girls and boys in the ensemble- come very early.. I’d say an hour and a half to sometimes two hours before because you need to put your makeup on, you need to go stretch, you need to go to physical therapy or you need to roll, then you need to warm up your instrument or your three instruments. There’s one girl who is a swing and her job is to know all the parts in case anybody gets sick, so she knows all the parts and she plays trumpet, french horn, and another type of horn, so she’s up there changing instruments and watching everybody on stage so that she can know every single person’s track in the show. It’s a lot! The beauty of all the extra work that everybody in the ensemble has to do is that the show and everybody in the show feels a sense of responsibility that makes our show wonderful. Every person in the show is vital. If one person on the stage goes out, then another person has to go in, which means we have no horn player for the show, which means we have to find someone to cover that part. So it’s like a house of cards and everybody is vital so everybody feels important in the show.
EC: What instrument do you play?
AE: When I did the show before- when i was Lulu- I played violin, but now I’m playing the accordion.
EC: Oh! That’s a leap!
AE: Yeah, it’s a leap! It’s pretty funny because that accordian is heavy and I’m just shlocking it all over the place. I mean, I’ve never been pregnant before but with that accordian in front of me, I feel like I have triplets! (laughs)
EC: Did you grow up knowing how to play these instruments or did you learn for the show?
AE: I had piano skills growing up, fortunately, or I would not be able to do this because when you go into rehearsal, they just throw this music at you and say “OK lets give it a whirl!” So I have skills of reading music from piano and being able to play violin, so I had to rely on my piano skills from Mrs. Murphy- my piano teacher when I was in middle school and high school- and when we started rehearsals I took that accordian home every night and did a lot of practicing. The problem with accordian is you’re playing piano, but it’s kind of upside down when you can’t really see what you’re playing, so you have to do it by feel and that was the hardest thing to get used to- playing piano stacked up and down.
EC: This isn’t you typical musical in that it touches on one of the most harrowing eras in world history. Does that affect the kind of audience that might want to go to the show or does it still appeal across the board?
AE: I think the beauty of this show is there are people who know the show who know what it’s about who come because they love the show and it’s not your typical musical. There is a very deep impact at the end of the show that brings people to tears and people do come because of that, but there are also other people who come because they want to see a musical and they remember Liza Minnelli singing the iconic song “Cabaret” and they want the music. So you get a bit of both. I’ve seen people in the audience with big smiles on their faces because they’re listening to “Mein Herr” and they’re listening to “Maybe This Time”, they’re listening to “Money Makes the World go Round” and they’ve come here because they want to hear those songs. Across the board I’d say people who know the end of the show or people who were expecting a big musical theater finish get something very different with more gravity instead. Everybody seems to be affected in the same way and that’s what’s so great about the show.. usually a show will have it’s time and then die off, but “Cabaret” seems to come back again and again and again because it remains so relevant…now even more than in 1998. There are some lines in the show where Herr Schultz, who is the Jewish fruit peddler, wants to marry Fraulein Schneider and she’s having second thoughts and he has this line, “Politics will come, politics will go. There are Socialists and Social Democrats. What do you want to do? Wait til the next election and then decide?” and the whole audience breaks out into applause every night. He has to just stand there during a very serious scene and wait for the audience to stop clapping and hooting and hollering. This never happened before, but there’s such political polarization in our country now that, unbelievably, what they’re talking about with World War II is ringing true to our audiences now and every night I can’t believe how relevant our show is to our current poiticial time and it think it’s important for all kinds to come see the show and get a different perspective of how politics and history repeats itself in a way.
EC: What do you hope audience leave “Cabaret” feeling?
AE: I hope they feel entertained, but I also hope they have a deeper sense of being moved by these people’s stories in our show. I hope they laugh, I hope they cry, and most importantly I hope they’re deeply moved.
“Cabaret” comes to The Marcus Center February 23-28. Tickets are available online or by calling 414-273-7206.