Getting one Broadway musical up and running is difficult enough, but producing two star-driven shows at the same time, with opening nights four days apart?
That’s what the folks at Roundabout Theatre Company have been up to this spring. Now they’re savoring a Best Revival of a Musical Tony nomination for Violet and standing ovations for Cabaret, which is back on Broadway 16 years after winning best revival and three additional Tonys.
There’s a very good reason — make that two good reasons — for this ambitious musical double feature: the availability and enthusiasm of Violet title star Sutton Foster and Cabaret headliner Alan Cumming. Foster won the second of her two best actress Tony Awards for Roundabout’s 2011 revival of Anything Goes, and she’ll be back on the aisle at Radio City Music Hall on June 8, celebrating a sixth Tony nod for her moving performance as a disfigured yet resilient young woman in search of love and healing.
Cumming, of course, launched his career in America with his seductive, Tony-winning portrayal of the Emcee in Roundabout’s 1998 revival of the Kander & Ebb classic. The Scottish-born actor recently extended his Cabaret run through January 4, which means juggling eight shows a week with his Emmy-nominated role as high-strung political fixer Eli Gold on CBS’s The Good Wife.
Both stars speak glowingly and gratefully of their connection with Roundabout. “I’m thrilled a spot opened up for Violet,” says Foster, who fell in love with her character after headlining a concert of the musical last summer. “I knew that the American Airlines Theatre would be perfect for the show,” she adds. “It has just over 700 seats, so it’s really intimate. Our story is told without a lot of spectacle, and it’s nice to be in a house where the audience is close.”
Cabaret spent most of its original run at Studio 54, a house that has subsequently been home to Roundabout’s revivals of Assassins, Sunday in the Park With George, Pal Joey, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and others. “It’s got such echoes of decadence,” Cumming says of the former disco. “You walk in, and for all intents and purposes you’re in the Kit Kat Club, which helps take the audience to another place. The idea of immersive theater was unusual when we did the show 16 years ago, but it’s a lot more prevalent now.”
Three of Cumming’s four Broadway credits are Roundabout shows, including a 2001 revival of Noel Coward’s Design for Living and a 2006 revival of The Threepenny Opera, as Macheath. “They are not afraid to do material that nobody else would take a risk on,” he says of the company. “When we first did Cabaret, there was no guarantee it was going to be a hit. It’s considered a crowd pleaser now, but our production has elements that are very provocative and upsetting.”
Cumming, who toured England as Hamlet and won an Olivier Award in a Dario Fo play before moving to America, praises Roundabout for “keeping repertoire alive that would otherwise disappear. You know you’re going to get something that’s not just a cookie-cutter show, with great artists who are there because they want to be, rather than simply for financial gain. It’s the difference between just being entertained and also being engaged and challenged. All three shows I’ve done have been quite odd and provocative, and I love that.”
Sutton Foster, a more recent addition to the company’s roster of artists, says: “My two favorite all-around experiences have been Anything Goes and Violet, and it’s mainly because of Roundabout. [Artistic Director] Todd Haimes and [General Manager] Sydney Beers took such good care of me on Anything Goes, and now the American Airlines Theatre has become a home away from home. Susan Fallon, the wardrobe supervisor, has set up each dressing room to feel like your own little apartment. There is this sense of community, a real sense of coming together to put on the best show possible.”
For Foster, there’s also the satisfaction of bringing a little-known musical — set in the deep South exactly 50 years ago and featuring an interracial relationship — to a wider audience. Violet represents the actress’s third collaboration with composer Jeanine Tesori, following Foster’s Tony-winning star turn in Thoroughly Modern Millie and Tony-nominated performance as Princess Fiona in Shrek the Musical.
“I feel so passionately about this score and this show,” she says. “Violet is a beautiful and powerful story about forgiveness and acceptance, faith, love, and ultimately letting go. It’s about a girl searching for a miracle to be healed — to be beautiful — but she learns that the real healing is within herself. She is her own miracle.”
Twelve blocks north, another specific moment in history — 1930 Berlin — is being brought to life for a new generation of theatergoers. “It feels great to come back to Cabaret older and wiser, with a different perspective on myself and the character,” says Cumming, who was 33 when he opened on Broadway the first time and is now an extremely youthful 49. “We had a young student audience at a recent Wednesday matinee, and it’s exciting to hear their response.” Meanwhile, the ensemble (which doubles as the orchestra) is even more talented this time around. Declares Cumming, “I feel very heartened about the future of the world because of these kids. I’m having an amazing time.”
Production photography by Joan Marcus.