"Life is a Cabaret, New Chum!" Alan Cumming and Michelle Williams Become Fast Friends in Broadway's Cabaret

By Michael Gioia
April 24, 2014

Tony winner Alan Cumming and Broadway newcomer Michelle Williams chum it up backstage at Studio 54, where the Broadway return of Cabaret opens April 24.

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"You're going to cook from here? Did you get it painted, too?" Michelle Williams asked Alan Cumming. It was the first time she visited her Cabaret co-star's dressing room since he renovated it for his run in the Broadway revival at Studio 54. It was also their first joint interview for print.

"I got it painted yellow, yeah. Yellow is my favorite color," Cumming replied as he toured Williams around his third-floor space, showing her a mini stovetop (where he says he'll make pre-show soup), a minibar (for post-show cocktails), and pictures from his 2012 photo exhibition, "Alan Cumming Snaps."

"That's a popular one," he said, pointing to a piece entitled "Lustrous Pinnacle," which captures a folded issue of the New York Times — Liz Taylor adorning the cover — on the floor of a bar. "It was the night after the day she died, and it was just lying there." He paused before moving on. "This is from Liza's birthday party." Referring to, who else, Liza Minnelli, who recently performed in concert with Cumming.

Williams gazes at his photo collection — a plate of soup, vegetables, and hummus in hand — as they break for dinner in between a rehearsal three days prior to their first performance. "Maybe you can give me some decorating ideas? I think it's too pink-y right now," she says, referring to her own dressing room. "What I really want to do with it is make it 'Sally's Dressing Room.' That's what I want to do."

Williams is making her Broadway debut as sultry nightclub singer Sally Bowles in Cabaret, which opened last month at the same venue in which it closed in 2004. Cumming also made his Broadway debut in the same Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall-helmed production 16 years ago.

"Last time, when I did it in New York, it was overwhelming," admitted Cumming, who won a Tony Award for his first turn as the Emcee, and explains that the timing "just felt right" to return to the Kit Kat Klub.

Michelle Williams
Photo by Joan Marcus

"I had just moved here," Cumming recalled, "and I had never worked here before, and this thing happened."

Williams interjected a bit surprised: "This was your first time working here?"

Following his Tony win in 1998, Cumming split time between screen and stage, most recently seen on television in "The Good Wife" (playing Eli Gold and receiving two Emmy nominations), and on Broadway in Macbeth (starring as the title role in his nearly one-man, high-octane, insane-asylum inspired adaptation). Now, he's back to the Berlin nightclub, introducing Williams — whom he met a few years back — as this year's "Toast of Mayfair."

"We met at a party," explained Williams.

"Yes, a party for your film — the one about the girl going across the country…"

"Oh, yeah! It was 'Meek's Cutoff,'" Williams remembered as she took a bite of celery.

"You looked scruffy, I remember," Cumming joked. "I probably was, too... Yeah, we just had a lovely chat."

Williams is far from scruffy in Cabaret, having just touched up her hair. ("It looks great, and did you get it cut a wee bit, too?" Cumming asked. "I like it.") The actress was ready — and anxious — to get her Sally Bowles in front of an audience.

"When it was brought up, I immediately responded in a way that is rare," Williams said about the role. "It excited me to the point where I was actually working on something else, but really, in my head, I couldn't put Sally down. It was in the shower with me, it was in the car with me... Something about it really had its hooks in me from the get-go, and thinking about it, and working on it, and thinking about the songs and playing with them gave me joy. That's what I followed. It wasn't a conscientious move about doing Broadway. I just followed the joy, and it landed me here... I never waivered from it. I wanted to do it immediately."

Michelle Williams
Photo by Joan Marcus

"Is that unusual for you? Are you a prevaricator, normally?" Cumming questioned.

"There's a little bit more of a balancing act... This? It decided for me."

Although Sally and the Emcee barely interact on stage ("I introduce you a couple times," Cumming told Williams, to which she replied, "Yeah! I throw you a dirty look, you grab my ass, and that's it."), the duo have become fast friends offstage.

"A couple times, I wanted to make sure, 'Are you okay?' because I know this is a newer thing for you," Cumming said to the Broadway newcomer. His advice: "There's that saying that if there's no asshole in the film or in the play, it must be you!" (Williams gasps.)

"But it's been very easy," he continued. "We've fallen into an easy friendship, and I'm looking forward to getting the show open... I can't wait to have an excursion to my place upstate."

"Oh, yes! On a Sunday?"

"Yes, we'll go up on a Sunday and stay until Tuesday afternoon. I've done it before with companies... I rent a bus, and we all go on a bus. Maybe when it's warmer. We'll go a few times, of course. There's a pond... I did it with the Macbeth lot — of course, there weren't so many actors in that — and we had such a glorious day."

"That sounds like heaven!" Williams paused, turned away from Cumming and whispered, "I think I'm going to like working with Alan."

(This feature appears in the May 2014 issue of Playbill. Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)