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The Newbie and the Emcee: Alan Cumming Welcomes Michelle Williams to Cabaret

Michelle Williams and Alan Cumming, photographed by Norman Jean Ray. Styling by Alicia Lombardini; Hair for Williams by Jessica Gillin; Makeup for Williams by Melanie Inglessis; Grooming for Cumming by Michael Moreno. On Williams: Jacket by Adidas; Jeans by BLK DNM. On Cumming: Jacket by Tom Snyder.

Michelle Williams gasps: “I haven’t seen a bus with Cabaret on it, and we just drove past one,” she says from her car. “There’s no face on the bus, thank God. Oh, look—there’s a Jersey Boys bus. There’s a Newsies bus! I never noticed all these musical buses!” She’s headed to rehearsal for her Broadway debut as Sally Bowles (opening April 24), and this MTA moment is one of many novel ones she’s had lately. “Every time I rehearse, there’s a tiny bubble of a breakthrough,” she says. “And now those are happening in front of people.” She emits a nervous laugh. In her first previews, she says, she’s realized “how many things you can be thinking while you’re performing: There’s a thousand people out there … Oh, I really need to tack this slip to the dress, ’cause it’s getting stuck when I lift this … Didn’t really land that as well as I did the last time. And you’re singing and you’re dancing at the same time!”

Her co-star Alan Cumming is, by comparison, an old Broadway hand. (He played the lascivious Emcee in 1998 and won a Tony.) What he’s finding new, he says, is watching Williams “become more multi­layered and fragile” as Sally—but he’s seen it mostly from the wings. “We don’t really connect [onstage]. I introduce her three times, I think, and that’s it!” Sally “exists in the real world of the play, and the Emcee is more of an ethereal presence. But they’re both hanging on in a world that’s changing.” Williams, for her part, sought out the traces of that world, traveling to Berlin’s Hotel Adlon (“Sally’s favorite place”), visiting the apartment of Christopher Isherwood (on whose stories the show is based), exploring places where “someone like Sally might have performed—which are now organic grocery stores but have a picture of Marlene Dietrich hanging in the front. We went looking for an intact ballroom, but it was more of a rave.”

 *This article appeared in the April 7, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

Photos: Norman Jean Roy; Norman Jean Roy