Cabaret’s Emcee, Randy Harrison, Discusses the Consequences of Political Disengagement

Randy Harrison has been singing “Willkommen” in Cabaret since it went on the road in January of 2016. As the Emcee of the infamous Kit Kat Club, he invites the audience to “leave your troubles at the door” every night and have some fun. However, the harrowing truth of Cabaret is always lurking in the background as the musical is set in Germany during the rise of the Third Reich. Though theater-goers can expect incredible music, dance numbers, and thought-provoking dialogue, the central purpose of the show is to actually jolt the audience out of its lascivious slumber and take a hard look at reality. Harrison’s role goes far beyond simply leading the laughs of the night. He takes everyone on an exciting, and at times dark, journey to a country on the brink of genocide—a country not all that different from our own. In a recent interview, he shared his thoughts on this timeless musical that has been inspiring people since it went on stage in 1966. Harrison will be performing at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts from January 10-22, one of his last runs before he moves on to other projects in 2017.

You were in Cabaret when it came to Miami last year correct?

Yes, I’ve been touring Cabaret since we opened in January of 2016. It’s almost a year now.

How does it feel to be on a tour for a long period of time? Is it exhausting or still really exciting for you?

We are just finishing two months off for the holidays. We stopped before November, so we are all going to be super refreshed when we start performing again in Fort Lauderdale. But it’s actually been an amazing experience to live with a role this long…and to perform it in very different areas of the country with different venues and audiences. It’s been an amazingly deep way to get to know a show and a character. Its such a thrilling part, and the audience is really my scene partner so it hasn’t gotten old since I’ve been doing it because I never know what I’m going to get that night.

How did you get the role of Emcee in Cabaret?

I auditioned. I knew the production pretty well. I had seen the show three times in the course of this version. I saw Natasha and Allen do it the first year it was playing. So I knew the show and I loved it. When it first came out I was too young and I wasn’t quite right for the part, so I didn’t even think about it. But then when this revival happened and I heard they were touring it I really wanted to go in for the role. I realized I had become appropriate for the part in some ways and it’s a dream role—it’s almost like a perfect musical. So I auditioned for it aggressively.

You call Cabaret ‘the perfect musical’ why do you say that?

The songs are extraordinary—they are classic American show tunes. Everybody knows ‘Maybe This Time”, ‘Willkommen’ and ‘Cabaret’—they are amazing songs. But also the book is such a pertinent story. It’s both very funny and also really relevant and harrowing. People love the songs, but then they see them in context and the songs take on even a deeper meaning. It was actually written in response to the Civil Rights Movement, but they used the rise of the Third Reich in Germany to parallel American discrimination and the consequences of political disengagement. And it’s a story that remains extremely relevant—especially now both politically and socially. And it’s brilliantly structured. Every character in it is a great role—from every Kit Kat girl to all the supporting leads and lead roles. They are so wonderfully written parts that they are fun to play with and sink your teeth into as an actor.

Why do you feel the show is relevant right now?

I think any time that a demigod is gaining power or has power; any time the political establishment is using hate and fear-mongering and scapegoating of religious and ethnic minorities to promote lies to the public; any time the speech that is accepted is horrifically hateful and discriminatory, this show is all about the consequences of a society that allows that to happen and how quickly it can escalate from joking, nonsense, and things that seem dismissible to genocide and I think that’s something that is extremely relevant in America right now. It’s something that we have to be vigilant about and mindful of and fight aggressively or things will escalate to a potentially horrifically destructive level—if they haven’t already.

How have you seen this show impact people?

Every city is different and every audience is different, but something that I find extremely powerful about the show and that I talk to audience members about afterwards is that a lot of shows that happen in a different time period–like the rise of the Third Reich–you tend to see at a distance. So you sort of watch it and it can be a bit didactic, and there can be a separation between the audience and the story and you can say, “oh that’s something that happened a long time ago.” But what’s amazing about Cabaret, and especially this production, is that it really implicates the audience and it really takes away the fourth wall and makes the audience experience how something like Hitler coming to power happens and how you feel a part of it. It’s not something that happened a long time ago, but something that happens to people who are exactly like you who were living in a society so similar to yours that were dealing with issues that were completely relevant and current that we are dealing with-–struggling for money, unemployment, fear, drugs, sexuality. These are all things that are challenging us, so I think audiences see it and they are aware how it feels very personal and current. I feel like it’s a story that people think they know, but then the way this production tells the story it makes it extraordinarily personal for people and they understand it in a deeper way.

How do people usually react to the ending?

The show has a very dramatic coup de theatre. For a lot of the audience, the show ends and there’s times when there is no applause. People are just stunned after the show and you feel how deep it’s hitting the audience, how much its sinking in-–the story of what happened in Germany.

I will say the ending left me totally shocked. It really hits you and it’s so different than many other musicals.

I love that about it. In a way it would be really irresponsible to tell the story of that time period with ignoring what we all know happened. So it doesn’t let the audience off the hook, and I have a deep respect for the creators of the show for doing that. To tell a heartwarming story about the Holocaust is a bit insincere.

A line that stood out to me from the show is ‘leave your troubles at the door’. Would you say that it’s kind of the opposite of what people should expect? That they need to brace themselves for something really intense?

I don’t want them to brace themselves. So much of my job is to trick the audience. We are trying to implicate the audience so the more fun people are having initially, and the more that they forget the story of what happened in Europe in the 30s and 40s, the more harrowing the ending of the show is. So you really want them to be like the Kit Kat club members who were ignoring what was going on politically who were just partying and having sex and hanging out—and being like ‘Eh, it will pass over. In another four years they’ll be out of power. It’s not important.’ Because that implicates them further when the story ends. So in a way the more you can let go and have a good time, the more you experience the entire story of the show the way it’s supposed to be told. My job is to make everyone have a good time and feel dirty and sexy and laugh and have fun initially and then pull the rug out from under them.

The choreographer told me the number “If You Could See Her” is like a mini version of the entire arc of the show. It’s funny, funny, funny and light, and then that one last line “she wouldn’t look Jewish at all” makes you realize what this is about and then you feel dirty for having laughed at the beginning of the number. And I think that’s what the arc of the whole play should be—if we do our jobs right.

But then there are these incredible songs that are light and fun and people hum along to. So it offers everything, but ultimately, yes, it’s a story about the rise of the Third Reich and the consequences of political disengagement. It packs a gut punch at the end without a doubt.

Would you say there is a trend with musicals being more gritty, dark, and shocking?

I think with everything that’s happening politically and socially, artists feel more of an obligation to speak directly and to speak as aggressively and relevantly as they can, to be as challenging and thought provoking as they can. It’s not a time be spoon-feeding people. It’s not a time to be accommodating. It’s a time to be making art that is personal, relevant and aggressive and thought provoking and challenging. I think it’s felt across the board in lots of different media.

For a person who is thinking about coming to see Cabaret, what would you say to them? Why should they come?

I would say, leave your troubles at the door! Come and know you are going to have a ton of fun. Know you are going to be challenged and hear the best songs written for the American theater–songs that you know and love but hear in a context you didn’t expect. Your going to hear some amazing singing, amazing dancing and hear a story that is going to be smart and funny and challenging and deeply relevant.