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How Joel Grey, Alan Cumming, and Randy Harrison found the heart of ‘Cabaret’

Randy Harrison in the national tour of “Cabaret,” which is en route to the Opera House.
Randy Harrison in the national tour of “Cabaret,” which is en route to the Opera House.(Joan Marcus)

It’s rare for two actors to be closely identified with the same role, but that’s the case with Joel Grey and Alan Cumming, whose portrayals of the leering, enigmatic Master of Ceremonies in “Cabaret’’ stand as career landmarks for both.

Though the primary story line of Kander & Ebb’s “Cabaret’’ traces the turbulent romance between British singer Sally Bowles and American writer Cliff Bradshaw in Weimar-era Berlin as the shadow of Nazism begins to spread, the most compelling character onstage is usually the Emcee, silkily presiding over decadent doings at the seedy Kit Kat Klub.

Grey and Cumming each won Tony Awards for their performances as the Emcee: Grey (who originated the role) in 1967, Cumming in 1998. For both actors, once was not enough. So Grey returned to play the Emcee in a 1987 Broadway revival of “Cabaret,’’ and Cumming tackled the role again on Broadway, starting three years ago. More widely seen than any of these stage performances, of course, was Grey’s Oscar-winning turn in the 1972 film version directed by Bob Fosse.

All of which is to say that Randy Harrison has two very big pairs of shoes to fill as the Emcee in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s touring production of “Cabaret,’’ which arrives at the Boston Opera House for a two-week run starting Jan. 31, presented by Broadway in Boston.

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In separate interviews with the Globe, Grey, Cumming, and Harrison (Showtime’s “Queer as Folk’’) described how they located the essence of the fundamentally elusive character all three have in common. Grey and Harrison spoke by phone, while Cumming responded via audio files to e-mailed questions.

Q. What do you think accounts for the staying power of “Cabaret’’? Does it speak to our times in some way?

Grey: There are the historical aspects of it in terms of Nazi Germany and that entire horrifying story. But as much as that, in my opinion, was the curiosity and fascination with Weimar Germany, and with the decadence and outrageous behavior that is expressed on the stage — and cost the viewer nothing. They get to be part of the orgy, and they don’t get their hands dirty.

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Cumming: I think the reason “Cabaret” has such potency is that although it is set in 1929 and later, it actually is about something incredibly universal. It has two main themes for me that continue to be very prevalent in the world and we need to be reminded about. One is how we must embrace difference, how we must not be afraid of people who are different to us, in all forms. The other one is that we must be vigilant for extremism. When extremism starts to seep into our society, we must be incredibly vigilant and not let things slip. Both of those things, I think, are hugely important in the America we find ourselves in in 2017. So I think “Cabaret” right now is more important and more powerful and has such a hugely strong message than perhaps ever before in this country. And I really, really wish that I was still doing it on Broadway right now, because I think it could not be more pertinent.

Harrison: It’s a story that always needs to be told, about the consequences of political disengagement. The show talks directly about discrimination and racial profiling and religious profiling and the use of hate and fear to motivate people politically and socially, and the potential dangers. It is something that is extraordinarily relevant always, but especially in such a politically charged time as now, when there is a lot of anger and hate.

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Q. What drew you, personally, to the show?

Joel Grey in 1967
Joel Grey in 1967(ASSOCIATED PRESS/file)

Grey: I remember hearing the score for the first time, and thinking “These are the most amazing, evocative, disturbing, and exciting songs I’ve ever heard in my life.” We all believed in it. We all knew we were doing something dangerous that was not necessarily the kind of fare that theater parties were used to, that the theatergoing public might not embrace it, might be offended by it.

Cumming: When I was first asked to do it in 1993 [at the Donmar Warehouse in London], I didn’t actually really want to do it. I just didn’t feel that it was really for me because it was a musical and I suppose I didn’t really feel that the musical form was the best way to deal with such a topic. What changed my mind was talking to [director] Sam Mendes, and his assurance and his desire for me to take part, and the way we approached the production, which was to re-create as earthily and grittily and honestly as possible what it would be like to be in one of those clubs, and what the people’s lives in those clubs were. So we weren’t doing this showbiz version of a terrible moment in history. We were trying to, in a way, create a site-specific, immersive piece of theater.

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Harrison: I grew up with the movie. Certainly the images of Joel Grey as the Emcee were part of my upbringing. It’s an iconic score, part of the American vernacular by now. Those songs have a very vital life. I saw the 1998 production [starring Cumming as the Emcee]. It was a highlight of my theatrical experiences during that time period. The real, complete breaking down of the “fourth wall,” the freedom he had to improvise with the audience, the environment that was created in such a realistic way: I remember feeling so implicated because of his performance. There was something really contemporary and shocking, but it felt very true to how I imagined the period. You felt like you were a member of the Weimar era, like you were somebody who was at the Kit Kat Klub and you were responsible for the rise of the Third Reich.

Q. The Emcee is such an ambiguous figure. How did you find your way inside that character? What was the key for you to unlock that puzzle?

Grey: The Emcee was a real person and a metaphor. But there’s no way to play a metaphor. So I had to find a full biography and reason for being on that stage, and being that messenger, that betrayer. I had seen a lot of American vaudeville, which just really was a basis for the way in which this character behaved. As far as I was concerned, this was truly ambiguous sexuality. It was not homosexual; it was anything to get the audience’s attention, anything to get his ass saved in the political atmosphere of the country going to [expletive]. My ambition was to make this character as deadly as I could, and still the most important thing was the fact that he was attractive and inviting and a lot of fun. So the audience believes in him. He was not marching at the beginning, whereas some of the subsequent visions of the show seem to start at the end. Everybody did not know what was going to happen. That was what was so powerful about it.

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Alan Cumming in 1998
Alan Cumming in 1998(Sara Krulwich/New York Times/file)

Cumming: Because of those discussions I had with Sam about this need for authenticity if I was going to be a part of it, the idea that the Emcee was not just the Emcee of the show-within-the-show, he was also this kind of puppetmaster and kind of symbol, if you like, for the actual audience in the theater. That really excited me, to kind of guide the audience and sort of trick them in a way and delude them. What I think is really great about this production is that by the time the ending comes the audience are so [complicit] in what’s happened, because they have enjoyed all the stuff going up to it. They have seen the slide, and they have chosen to look away as well. So actually, when you see me at the very end — or the Emcee character at the very end — I think it’s much more shocking for the audience because they realize they have been kind of [complicit].

Harrison: I feel honored to be in the lineage of such extraordinary performers. It’s a role that allows for a lot of individuality and flexibility in the performer. My way in was the experiences that I’ve had doing downtown cabaret and what that can communicate. Once the audience comes into the picture, the role really comes alive. It changes the way the role functions, based on their response. In this version, he sees what’s happening more than the other characters. He’s aware of the danger to some extent. But he’s kind of run over by the momentum.


Interviews have been edited and condensed. Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.