Eddie Redmayne First Played the Cabaret's Emcee in School, Now He's Doing It on Broadway | Playbill

Special Features Eddie Redmayne First Played the Cabaret's Emcee in School, Now He's Doing It on Broadway

The actor is newly Tony nominated for his nihilistic take on the iconic character.

Eddie Redmayne Heather Gershonowitz

Eddie Redmayne is gathering tips. As the Tony and Oscar-winning actor was opening a Broadway musical this season, he was also trying to figure out the best ways to navigate New York City for the six months that he’ll be in the show. His wife and two young children have joined him from London. They’re currently looking for ways to spend summer in the city. And speaking of summer, Redmayne is concerned about keeping his voice in good working order in a city with more air conditioning than he’s accustomed to having.

“I’m accumulating a little handbook of ‘The Survivor’s Guide to Broadway,” Redmayne laughs. “I’m a passionate lover of New York, so any excuse to come here…I’m thrilled.”

The excuse—and it’s a pretty good one—is Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club, which opened April 21 at the August Wilson Theatre. Redmayne reprises his role as The Emcee in the revival of the classic John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Joe Masteroff musical. Rebecca Fracknell directs the production, a West End transfer that won seven 2022 Olivier Awards, including one for Redmayne’s performance. The production has been a hit in the London, where it is currently still running.

Redmayne is the only member of the West End cast, though, to transfer to Broadway with the production. He’s joined at the August Wilson by Gayle Rankin as Sally Bowles, Ato Blankson-Wood as Clifford Bradshaw, Bebe Neuwirth as Fraulein Schneider, and Steven Skybell as Herr Schultz. And both Rankin and Redmayne have been Tony nominated for their performances; the show picked up nine nominations total, including Best Revival of a Musical.

“It’s been such a unique experience because it’s been starting anew and fresh whilst at the same time, having this character sitting in my stomach and ruminating for three years now. And my journey, of the relationship with the character, has been one that stems from, oh gosh, almost 30 years now from when I first played it when I was a schoolboy,” says Redmayne. “There is great joy that comes from that—from each time getting to re-mine the character and re-look at it in a different context and with a different inspiration.”

When Playbill spoke with Redmayne, the company was still in rehearsals for the Broadway mounting. As part of his continuing exploration of the Emcee, the actor had just revisited one of his favorite New York museums, the Neue Galerie of German and Austrian art on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. 

“I was looking at some of the Schiele paintings there and reminding myself of how, when I first started looking into the idea of The Emcee, just having portfolios of Schiele prints everywhere. That was one of the ways in. It was a lovely moment to reconnect and reinspire in the museum.” It is easy to spot the influence of the Austrian Expressionist painter Egon Schiele in the angles of Redmayne’s body as he looks over a shoulder, crooks an arm, or snarls a bit, daring an audience to come a little closer.

The original source material for Cabaret is the 1939 Christopher Isherwood novel Goodbye to Berlin. It was inspired by his own life during the Weimar Republic when the freedom of the Jazz Age was clashing with the rise of Nazism and fascism. The Emcee, though, is not a character in the novel, nor in the play adaption I Am a Camera. He was created solely for Cabaret and does not exist in any of the scenes outside of the Kit Kat Club. The lack of story for The Emcee has allowed Redmayne to create a character almost entirely from scratch.

“He exists almost in abstraction for me. The character is almost like a Greek chorus. He’s sort of the Shakespearean fool. The court jester who then becomes the king,” says Redmayne. “He can assimilate and accumulate people from every walk of life and community, and can seemingly either celebrate or exploit that. As the world is becoming more homogenized and fascism is kicking in, he can shape-shift his way out of it, and he’s going to be just fine. He has the privilege of that. There’s a nihilism, ultimately, to my take on The Emcee that felt important. He’s not the victim. He's the perpetrator.”

Eddie Redmayne Heather Gershonowitz

Cabaret first premiered on Broadway in 1966 and this production is the musical’s fourth revival. Except for the 1970s (when it was adapted for film starring Liza Minnelli), it has been on Broadway at some point in every decade since that first run. “There’s always been this relevance culturally, and that’s terrifying, because it basically sings as a warning to our incapacity to learn from our mistakes,” says Redmayne. “It’s about what happens when humanity is consumed by hate. And the idea of the creation of the other and the exploitation of the other to instill fear.”

Arguably, the musical’s draw has always also been as much about how it presents that message as the relevance of the message itself. The Kit Kat Club is seedy and seductive. It feels naughty…like you’re getting away with something you shouldn’t. And this new production pushes that element far beyond the footlights of a stage. Club, scenic, and costume designer Tom Scutt has reformed the August Wilson Theatre, creating spaces in the house and in the bar for a Prologue company to perform. Audiences are encouraged to arrive early to take in the music and dance cabaret acts prior to Cabaret.

Redmayne is reminded again of his museum visit: “When I was at the Neue Galerie, there was an exhibition on [Gustav] Klimt. This idea that this group of artists in Austria at the time, and then in Germany, were trying to create this world which was all-consuming. It wasn’t just the painting, it was also the specific space in the gallery…you were not just looking at the painting but the entire experience around it. I feel like that is, perhaps, the dream of what we’re trying to do. Once you leave the sidewalk and cross the threshold [into the theatre], you’re being taken on a journey that’s all encompassing.”

Boris Aronson’s original set design for the 1966 production of Cabaret featured a large mirror above the stage, tilted toward the audience so that they could see themselves reflected at both the beginning and end of the musical. Scutt has created a fully in-the-round stage at the Wilson. 

So while the audience is watching the action on stage, they will also be seeing other audience members’ reaction to the story. “There’s complicity in that,” says Redmayne. “We’re all there laughing and engaging in an evening of entertainment, but also seeing ourselves in some of the elements—the joyful qualities of humanity and the scarier qualities, too.”

Photos: Eddie Redmayne Poses For a Portrait At The Kit Kat Club

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