The self-styled Scottish elf trapped in a middle-aged man’s body describes the horror of living in Trump’s America.

I love the word “sappy”. Why did you choose it for the title of your cabaret show Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs

I chose the word “sappy” because “sappy” to me means sentimental and emotional in a good way, and in Scotland we use it in a sort of an affectionate way. You call someone a big sap if they’re, you know, getting a little weepy-eyed. But also, it’s got a humour in it. I think it signals to the audience that the show is going to be both emotionally charged but also have some fun and laughs. 

I believe the show was inspired by Club Cumming. Can you tell us about that?

Club Cumming happened when I went back to Cabaret on Broadway in 2014 for a year, and basically I was so horrified by the idea of shooting The Good Wife and doing Cabaret at the same time and having no life, and no fun, that I kind of made my dressing room at Studio 54 into a club and we called it Club Cumming. We had a big neon sign saying Club Cumming and I had a bar, and I actually had a booze sponsor, which was fantastic cos we drank a lot! And it became this thing, sort of the must-get-into venue in New York bizarrely. People would go to the box office at Studio 54 and buy tickets for Cabaret and also ask for tickets to Club Cumming. And the box office people were saying, you know it’s just his dressing room, it’s not a club you can get into.

But it was really fun. I actually really do enjoy throwing parties and making people feel relaxed and watching people let go. I love to DJ and I love just having fun, so Club Cumming has grown. We have pop-up ones. Sometimes after I do my concert we have Club Cumming parties with the band. In Edinburgh this past summer, we had really amazing ones at the International Festival. They renamed the venue Club Cumming and hundreds of people came, and we had guests, and I would do body surfing. It was really great. My favourite bar in New York is called Eastern Bloc. It’s round the corner from where I live and me and my friend Daniel have bought into it. We’ve become partners in it with the current owners and it’s going to re-open in September and it will be renamed Club Cumming – so it lives!

When you set out to write Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs, what kind of show did you want it to be?

My main aim was that if I was going to do another cabaret show, I wanted to take it up a notch, and I wanted to do something that was really intense and authentic and emotional and vulnerable, because quite a lot had happened to me over the past few years since my last show like this. 

I’d written my book, Not My Father’s Son, all about what had happened and my relationship with my [violent] father. So, I felt like if I was going to go out into the public eye and talk about myself, I really needed to embrace all that stuff. And I felt it was a really great incentive for me to kind of delve a bit deeper and to find songs that I connect with emotionally. I think it’s a very Scottish thing, that we love sentiment, we love telling a story and singing a song that makes us cry, but we also love to laugh, so this form of concert and cabaret is the perfect thing for me because it covers all my bases.

Alan CummingAlan Cumming

You tell some pretty personal stories, including your father’s abusive behaviour and your grandfather’s post-traumatic stress disorder. How do you feel about baring yourself on stage like that?

Being as vulnerable as I am in the show, it’s not easy. But once you’ve done the show quite a few times, there’s almost a sort of a sense of catharsis in telling those stories again and again. It doesn’t make them any less emotional to tell, or to experience when you’re telling them, but it’s actually been a really great thing for me to do this show in so many ways. I talk about this in the actual show – that to be this open and authentic, there’s a high level of vulnerability required, and it’s something that I wasn’t ready to do even a few years ago. [But now] that I’ve written about some of the things I’ve experienced, it has made it kind of the perfect storm. Now, when I come back to do a cabaret show like this, I’m willing for the material to go deeper. And I have the experience and wisdom to go deeper, and also the experience and wisdom to understand that you’ve got to lighten up and have a few laughs.

Did you consciously want to feature such an eclectic range of music – from Sondheim and Noel Coward to Rufus Wainwright?

Yes, I consciously intend for the show to be eclectic because my tastes are eclectic, my range of work is eclectic, and I think it’s really important [to be eclectic] if you’re doing a cabaret. The very definition of a cabaret is an eclectic thing – it’s a lot of different parts that add up to an overall experience. But all the different bits can be from different genres, different forms. I love singing a Miley Cyrus song. I also love singing a Kurt Weill song and everything in between. 

I’m not singing contemporary pop songs just to be sort of clever. I actually genuinely love those songs and I think pop music sometimes overproduces them to a point where you can’t actually hear, not just the words but the whole spirit of what the song had in mind. So, I feel paring it down into the kind of arrangements we do, makes people listen completely afresh to the songs. So that was also part of my reasoning.

As for Cabaret, the musical, what did you draw on when creating your acclaimed portrayal of the Emcee?

I first did Cabaret a long, long, long time ago. And actually, I played Cliff in a production in Scotland in 1987 when I was just out of drama school, so I have a strong, strong connection with this show. I first started performing the Emcee in 1993 at the Donmar Warehouse in London directed by Sam Mendes, and we did it for a few months. And then in 1998 it came to Broadway and I did it for a year there, and then in 2014 – 16 years later – I did it on Broadway again. I will never do it, ever, ever again.

First of all, I turned it down because I just didn’t think I was a musical kind of person [laughs]. The arrogance of youth! But when I came to play the Emcee, at the time I was offered it I was playing Hamlet at the Donmar Warehouse. Then it closed and four days later Cabaret opened. So, I kind of went back-to-back with those two crazy roles. But when I first met Sam Mendes to talk about doing it, and had agreed to do it, my biggest concern was to make sure it was as gritty and real and authentic as those clubs actually would have been, and not to do a sanitised musical theatre version of that story because I thought that would be demeaning to those people and to that time.

Alan CummingAlan Cumming

I see you are pretty active on Twitter and Instagram. Do you enjoy social media?

I actually really enjoy social media. I kind of came a little bit late to it. I was very anti-Twitter for a couple of years when everyone started doing it, cos I just thought there’s this obsession with knowing every single thing about famous people. But actually, I really love being able to use my voice as a platform for social and political things that I believe in. That’s a really great part of it for me. And also just to connect with people who like me and want to follow me. And the best thing about it, in a way, is that it gives people an insight into your life – but I control it. 

How is it to live in the US under Trump?

Living in the US under Trump is absolutely horrifying. I mean, I think it’s equal parts shudderingly embarrassing that he is our leader and that America has been so stupid as to vote for him and for what he stands for – equal parts that – and equal parts just terrifying that he’s gonna drag us into war, or some awful disaster. I think at the bottom of it all is that this is what happens when you don’t value education enough in your society.

For decades now, American society has not valued education. You have to have money to guarantee a decent education, healthcare and even justice in America. So, there’s a whole subsection of society [for whom] through no fault of their own, education is not an option. When that happens for a generation, then you have a generation of people who make decisions that are not educated, and are based on knee jerk, jingoistic propaganda messages that they aren’t able to analyse and deconstruct. And I feel that it’s so sad that so many of the people that voted for Trump are the people who are going to benefit the least from him…

I was marching on the Climate Change March in Washington the other day, and I remember just having a moment thinking “fuck me, here I am, on a march, in the capital of America, trying to persuade the leader of America that climate change is an actual real thing”. That is horrifying, especially when you think of other countries who are [taking] such great, huge steps to combat climate change. The idea that America doesn’t even believe that it’s true is just a sign of how much Trump has dragged us into the Dark Ages.


Alan Cumming performs in Sydney on June 10, at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival on June 11, in Perth on June 13, Brisbane on June 15 and in Melbourne on June 16

Tickets

Subscribe to Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine