Life is Still a Cabaret

March 30, 2014

Director and choreographer Rob Marshall returns to his landmark production.



Here we go again. Trailing scads of Tonys and Oscars and other glittering prizes in its wake, the classic 1966 Kander and Ebb musical Cabaret is back. And it’s bringing Rob Marshall back to Broadway, too—at least for now. Interrupting his postproduction work on the movie version of Into the Woods (with Meryl Streep in the role originated by Bernadette Peters), he’s again choreographing and co-directing (with Sam Mendes) the Roundabout Theatre’s smash 1998 production of this canonical show at Studio 54. He says it feels as though he hasn’t been away.


Above: Alan Cumming reprises his Emcee role. Photo courtesy

“I’ve done a lot of choreography for film, and the musicals I’ve done have really been a hybrid of theater and film,” he notes. “You rehearse them like a Broadway show—which you never do on most movies. So in a way I feel like even though I haven’t done stage, I’ve done stage.”

And even before he made his first movie—the astonishing, Oscar-winning Chicago—Marshall was making movies. With every new Broadway show, he says, “I always thought about what it would be on film first. I imagined the movie—and then I would adapt it to the stage. It helped free me to see the possibilities.”

Of course, when Cabaret came along, he didn’t have to imagine the movie—Bob Fosse had already made it, capturing 1973 Oscars for himself, Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli. Now there’s another film to contend with: the Roundabout’s archive recording of Alan Cumming and Natasha Richardson in their Tony-winning portrayals.

“I’m not gonna watch it,” Marshall says. He’s a day away from the start of rehearsals, with Cumming set to repeat his leering, sinister turn as the emcee of a tacky, Weimar-era boîte and Michelle Williams preparing to make her Broadway debut as its star attraction, Sally Bowles. And he wants Cabaret “to look brand-spanking new.”

He realizes, of course, that it won’t. “The production is the production,” he says, with its environmental set coaxing the theater audience into new roles as patrons of the Kit Kat Klub. But, he adds, “I don’t want to be a slave to what it was. I haven’t touched it in 15 years. We’ll be seeing with fresh eyes.”

Having spent more than a decade moonlighting at the movies, he knows that what he’s learned about film will inform his approach to Cabaret. But he can’t say exactly how. “I’ll discover that as we go,” he says. “You always bring your experience to whatever you do. I’m a different person than I was.”

Another difference is his Sally. “The main thrust of the production will remain the same, but I will tailor the dance numbers to suit Michelle,” he says. “I’ll find what her strengths are and create things specifically for her. It’s something that I would do anyway, because it’s important for people not to skate in other people’s tracks—to really find their own.”

As for Cumming, he says, “We’ll work from what there was and see what still feels good. What doesn’t, we’ll reimagine. We won’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, but we certainly will make some changes.”

Whatever those changes entail, Marshall won’t be smoothing out the choreography. “One of my favorite things about creating this work,” he explains, “is that we’re inside a second-rate club, where you really feel the rawness of the place. And that is part of the choreography conceptually—everything has a roughness to it. It’s not a slick production in any way, shape or form. Everybody’s doing things slightly differently. I really wanted to make you feel the truth of what it would be like, and eliminate the artifice of the Broadway experience.”

The impetus for bringing it back came from the Roundabout, but both Mendes and Marshall were eager to return to Cabaret, he says. “It’s such an important piece. It’s a good time for people to see it again, to bring it to another generation.



From Backstage

6 women, 4 men; swings: 2 men, 2 women

Dance captain Jeff Siebert and ensemble members Kristin Olness, Jessica Pariseau and Stacey Sipowicz all appeared in the first Roundabout Theatre revival of Cabaret, which ran for nearly six years.

Associate choreographer:
Cynthia Onrubia, Marshall’s longtime associate, who was his dance captain in the 1994 revival of Damn Yankees. “She knows me backwards and forwards,” he says.