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'Cabaret' comes back to Broadway starring Eddie Redmayne and Gayle Rankin

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

You probably recognize the music from the first notes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILLKOMMEN")

EDDIE REDMAYNE: (As Emcee, singing) Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome. Fremde, etranger, stranger.

SIMON: "Cabaret," the 1966 Broadway musical by Joe Masteroff, John Kander and Fred Ebb. It's drawn from Christopher Isherwood's memoir of high times and hot jazz and is set in a fictional Berlin nightspot called the Kit Kat Club.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILLKOMMEN")

REDMAYNE: (As Emcee, singing) Im Cabaret, au Cabaret, to Cabaret.

SIMON: At a time when sequins, high-stepping flappers and forbidden love gives way to goose-stepping and beating Jews on the street. A new revival of "Cabaret" has opened on Broadway after winning seven Olivier Awards in London. Eddie Redmayne plays the Emcee, and he joins us from New York. May I say willkommen to you?

REDMAYNE: You may indeed. Hi.

SIMON: And Gayle Rankin the British chanteuse who comes to Berlin. I get to say fraulein Sally Bowles.

(LAUGHTER)

GAYLE RANKIN: Hello, darling (laughter). I had to (laughter).

SIMON: Oh, my gosh. Wait. Sorry. Let me just catch my heart for a moment. Thanks so much.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Eddie Redmayne, you've played the Emcee before. I was about to say early in your career, but really, before you started your career.

REDMAYNE: That's absolutely true. Yes, I was a kid. I was at high school when I - we did a little school production. I think I was about 14, 15 years old. It was one of those moments in my life where I would say really I fell in love with theater. It thrilled me, and it made me think, and it moved me. And so I always sort of credit it weirdly as being the thing that that got me into acting full and proper.

SIMON: What does the Emcee do for the audience?

REDMAYNE: I think one of the reasons the Emcee is such a iconic role and one that so many actors lean into is he's so enigmatic. He was conjured by Hal Prince and Joel Grey as a way of connecting the Sally Bowles story, and so he almost lives in an abstract place. And so for an actor, that is joyous because there are sort of no limitations on the one hand, and it's also quite daunting. He sort of starts as a puppeteer almost, the kind of the Shakespearian fool, perhaps...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TWO LADIES")

REDMAYNE: (As Emcee) Come on, my little ones.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) Beedle dee, deedle dee, dee.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Beedle dee, deedle dee, dee.

REDMAYNE: (As Emcee, singing) Beedle dee, deedle dee, beedle dee, deedle dee.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) Beedle dee, deedle dee, dee.

REDMAYNE: (Singing) Two ladies.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As characters, singing) Beedle dee, dee dee dee.

REDMAYNE: ...Who then, over the course of the piece, rises to the all-knowing king or the sort of from puppeteer to conductor, and he becomes rather than the victim, he's almost the perpetrator. And so this person that's hopefully pulled you in at the beginning of the evening and seduced you and made you laugh, you realize is actually conducting the entire piece.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF YOU COULD SEE HER")

REDMAYNE: (As Emcee, singing) If could see her through my eyes, she wouldn't look Jewish at all.

SIMON: And Gayle Rankin, you have played other roles in "Cabaret" before Sally Bowles, haven't you?

RANKIN: I have. I made my Broadway debut, actually, playing Fraulein Kost in the Sam Mendes revival 10 years ago with Alan and Michelle and Emma Stone. Eddie and I were just talking about it just the other day, and he was like, is this so weird? Is it so weird? And I was like, you know what? It's not weird. It's not weird. And it doesn't - I feel like a new person and in a new world 'cause that's - you know, "Cabaret," it comes back, and the world is new a decade later. It's new, and it's also the same.

SIMON: Help us look inside of Sally's mind and heart. What brings her to Berlin in the early '30s?

RANKIN: You know, there's not a lot that's given to us, you know, about Sally.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEIN HERR")

RANKIN: (As Sally Bowles, singing) But I do what I can, inch by inch, step by step, mile by mile.

For me, it was very important for me to kind of figure out Sally's relationship to artistry and creativity and why she ended up at the club. And there's a huge, you know, kind of cultural discussion about whether Sally has talent or whether she does not have talent. And that's a really fascinating thing, I think, to me. And I think it's amazing how people think they can decide or that they know that she's not - quote-unquote, "not talented" or is talented. It's just wild to me.

SIMON: I have to ask. There are so many famous names who have played the two parts into which you two step now - Dame Judi Dench, Natasha Richardson, Michelle Williams. Alan Cumming, Joel Grey have played the Emcee. I didn't even mention the film with Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey, now, did I? So do previous productions inspire you, or do you just have to, you know, leave them in the fridge?

REDMAYNE: I've been such a passionate fan of "Cabaret" since I was a kid that I've seen everything in the sense that I've - you can see some of Sam's production on YouTube. I saw Sam's production with Emma and Alan. I've watched the film. I even saw a random Spanish version when I was...

RANKIN: Oh.

REDMAYNE: ...Younger. And they've been so brilliant, the productions before, that I hope we come sort of standing on their shoulders and with great respect for them, but also trying to do something new and fresh. And one of the things that was important for me was that idea - one of the Emcee's first lines is leave your troubles outside, and that for audience members coming to see this in New York, you enter via a sort of back alley.

You get taken down into the underbelly of the theater, where there is an entire cast of performers playing in these really beautiful spaces, and you get a bit discombobulated. It's labyrinthine, and you get sort of lost, so that by the time you are taken actually into the theater itself, which sits in the round, hopefully, you have genuinely left all memory of 52nd Street outside.

SIMON: I got to say, your production reached through to me with something I hadn't quite realized before. Things are terrible and getting worse on the streets. They're beating Jews and putting them into ghettos. There's a refuge in the club. There's also a refuge in Fraulein Schneider's boardinghouse, where she, for the first time in her life, really has a relationship with a man who happens to be a fruit seller and a Jewish man. Both your characters have that refuge in the club, and they have their characters in the boardinghouse. But, you know, refuges - well, real life can bring them down, can't they?

REDMAYNE: Absolutely. And I feel like the play, in its essence, is a warning in some ways. It serves as a warning about when hate can take over humanity and when humanity is lost to hate. And that feels so relevant at this moment. There are so many examples of that throughout the world today, but I hope that the brilliance of what Kander, Ebb and Masteroff created was that it seduces you in and in a way that feels really sort of magnificent but then begins to touch on these - this repetition of history that resounds and serves as a warning.

RANKIN: And it kind of - what's so scary about it is how the refuge is created, and then you slowly realize that actually, there's a poison inside of your refuge.

SIMON: What do you take in from the audience every night?

REDMAYNE: Well, I mean, one of the joys for me as a performer is the intimacy of the space. So there's not really a sort of a bad seat in the house at the August Wilson, and the other character in the room with the Emcee is the audience. And what I have loved about our experience in New York is people because it's an event almost, the evening, from the second you pass the threshold. The theater's been redesigned and reconfigured in a way. People are getting dressed up. So you have people in black tie next to people in fetish gear next to people in jeans and a T-shirt, and you get all sorts of characters.

RANKIN: And to have a relationship with the audience, you know, and to enjoy how fun...

REDMAYNE: Yeah.

RANKIN: ...This is and can be throughout the show till the very end - what is written in this piece, there's - we're still laughing through tears at a certain point toward - for the very end of the show, and that's what's so kind of timeless and important about this space, that there's something that doesn't die inside of our club.

SIMON: Gayle Rankin and Eddie Redmayne star in the new production of "Cabaret" on Broadway. Thank you both so much for being with us.

REDMAYNE: Thanks for having us.

RANKIN: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOMORROW BELONGS TO ME")

REDMAYNE: (As Emcee, singing) The sun on the meadow is summery warm. The stag in the forest runs free. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Matthew Schuerman
Matthew Schuerman has been a contract editor at NPR's Weekend Edition since October 2021, overseeing a wide range of interviews on politics, the economy, the war in Ukraine, books, music and movies. He also occasionally contributes his own stories to the network. Previously, he worked at New York Public Radio for 13 years as reporter, editor and senior editor, and before that at The New York Observer, Village Voice, Worth and Fortune. Born in Chicago and educated at Harvard College and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, he now lives in the New York City area.