In Cabaret, Set and Costume Designer Tom Scutt Wanted to Celebrate Queer Individuality | Playbill

Tony Awards In Cabaret, Set and Costume Designer Tom Scutt Wanted to Celebrate Queer Individuality

The British designer is currently double nominated for his work in the Broadway revival, which allows audiences to sit in the Kit Kat Club.

Gayle Rankin, Eddie Redmayne, and company of Cabaret Marc Brenner

Tom Scutt is a stickler for details. For the designer, who headed the redesign of the August Wilson Theatre for Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club, the show isn’t only on the stage. It’s all around the theatre. As Scutt sits in the Green Bar, one of the many new audience lounges built for this revival, he shows off the space’s floral-patterned fabric.

“The Green Bar sort of became a bit of a manifestation of [Sally Bowles],” Scutt explains. “The seat covers in here are the same fabric as her suitcase in the show.” If, during Act One’s playful “Perfectly Marvelous,” one is seated on the correct side of the in-the-round stage, one might be able to peek inside Sally’s open, Mary Poppins-like suitcase decorated with butterflies, tassels, and hand drawings.

Explains Scutt: “I like the idea that the Kit Kat Club is real at a certain level. It's actually just a kaleidoscopic prism of the stuff that's happening in the show. [The Green Bar] is an extension of the dream idea. You're walking around the dream.”

Interior of The Kit Kat Club at The August Wilson Theatre Emily Andrews

Cabaret follows a young, queer American writer, Clifford “Cliff” Bradshaw (Ato Blankson-Wood) as he arrives in 1930s Berlin. On his first night, he finds himself in the seedy Kit Kat Club watching “the toast of Mayfair” Sally Bowles (Gayle Rankin) perform. Struck by her vivacity, impulsiveness, and green fingernails, Cliff finds himself beguiled and Sally moves into his apartment. But their Bohemian love bubble bursts as the Nazis rise to power. The revival, currently performing at the August Wilson Theatre, was nominated for 9 Tony Awards, including Best Musical Revival. 

Scutt has been doubly nominated for Best Costume Design of a Musical and Best Scenic Design of a Musical, no doubt because of how he completely transformed the August Wilson into the Kit Kat Club—from the time the guests enter the space through a special side entrance (going back in time to 1930s Germany), to when they sit down for the show (which is now performed in the round).

READ: See How Cabaret Renovated the August Wilson Theatre

“I think it's easy to write off a lot of what we've done in Cabaret as frivolous or style over substance, but that's wrong,” Scutt says definitively. “Maximalism and drag and dress up are so incredible at giving you political messages with humor and wit and vitality. It's sort of naughty and silly, and it just feels quite cathartic to get into one of these places that feels quite sterile often, and to just liven it up so that when people walk in here, they're just sort of tingling a bit.”

Scutt is the white, British son of an English and drama teacher, who was raised to be “well-versed” in the works of William Shakespeare and Richard Wagner. But, as he grew up, he discovered his queerness. As that identity grew stronger, Scutt “found there was more going on in me than the sorts of worlds that I've been brought up into could offer. I'm always looking for ways to subvert things within the confines of what we are given.”

As a designer working to untangle the knot that is created when working on a piece that is inherently political, but presented in a commercial landscape, Scutt tried to balance “ferocity of spirit” and queer joy—in a musical that’s also about the rise of fascism. The way to do that was through contrast.

Tom Scutt Michaelah Reynolds

“I wanted the beginning of the show to feel incredibly exuberant and unique and youthful and free,” Scutt says. “We wanted the end to feel the opposite of that.” That playfulness is captured, in part, by the 12-person Prologue company—performers who vogue and play music amongst audience members in the lobby spaces of the Kit Kat Club approximately 75 minutes before showtime.

Citing wit and “bawdiness” as values found in drag performers, and countercultural artists as inspiration, Scutt’s Kit Kat Club is a feast for the senses. There are neon lights, decadent gold accents, beads, baubles, and fringe curtains bedecking the thoroughly transformed Wilson. Those details gradually ease the audience into the performance. Then on the stage, Scutt’s costuming completes the picture. “Willkommen'' is truly a greeting for one and all as ensemble members leap, wink, and strike poses in bespoke outfits. For every ensemble performer, their Kit Kat Club costume is entirely their own, based on the actor’s strong identity. Some notable Kit Kat Club dancer costume details: a shooting star, a teeny tiny hat perched slightly askew, and balloon-like peasant sleeves worn like opera gloves.

Texas costume for Cabaret on Broadway Sketch by Tom Scutt/Photo by Marc Brenner

“What I've done is [created] a system whereby the swings of the Kit Kat club are all in their own character as well,” Scutt says. “They never step into someone else's costume. I often go back to the show in London, and I'm just seeing a combination of people and costumes that I've not seen before. And, for me, that feels alive and that feels living and it feels unpredictable.”

But Scutt is also aware of how brash moments of choreography, when coupled with lacy costuming, can feel oversimplified and oversexualized in its queerness. In this interactive iteration, at the forefront of Scutt's mind is the potential for boundary crossing, even violence, especially as the audience is not always representative of those who frequent queer nightlife spaces.

“[Director] Rebecca [Frecknall] and I were absolutely adamant that we could find a way to celebrate these Kit Kat Club performers and their bodies without it feeling very vulnerable,” Scutt says. “The angle that Rebecca and I took was about ferocity and confidence. The [performers] are not necessarily out to try and get you to be seduced by them. [They] are actually out there to express themselves and to share who they are in their character. That's the self possession that is needed.”

Rankin’s Sally Bowles draws the clearest line between clothing and agency as she finds herself. Describing Sally as “her least happy” in her first number, “Don’t Tell Mama,” dressed the part of a melancholy-yet-mischievous clown child in lacy pants, Scutt points out that Sally is swinging on the pendulum between demeaning performance and naked vulnerability. Not literally naked, he clarifies, but exposed, wig ripped off.

As a contrarian thirsting for meaning, fame, love, Sally paints her nails green. “Green is, like, historically difficult, and people say you shouldn't wear it,” Scutt says playfully. “Of course she's gonna wear it, you know? Of course she'll do whatever everyone else tells her not to.” This is also reflected in Sally’s fur coat, which in this new version is a pastel green. Pulling from ’90s grunge and It Girls (Courtney Love in particular) of that era, Scutt cites the continuation of green in Sally’s prized fur coat as something that is “probably offensive and not necessarily beautiful, but punchy.”

Sally Bowles costume for Cabaret on Broadway

For Scutt, Sally is experimenting through clothing, not unlike a child, working out who she is and who she might want to be. The first time the audience gets a glimpse of her natural hair is during “Maybe This Time,” a ballad bemoaning lack of luck in love sung with the heart of a true romantic. The wanting is a wave crash upon the stage of the cabaret, her body is barely concealed in the liminal space of a dressing gown. 

Then it’s Sally's descent, “or assent, depending on which way you look at it,” into a suit in the final number, “Cabaret,” that Scutt says is the most reflective of Sally’s inner turmoil. When asked by Cliff to “wake up,” leave the Kit Kat Club, and run to a boat bound for America, to safety, Sally turns the metaphorical mirror around to her lover, challenging him to look at himself.

“She takes Cliff’s suit off of him and wears it,” Scutt explains. “It’s almost a kind of martyring. She sort of just takes it and sacrifices herself so that [Cliff] can be free.” In the spirit of a true rock star, Sally’s personal breakdown in “Cabaret” is an artistic breakthrough. “The performer that she really is is maybe brasher and fiercer and more unhinged [than before], but it is pure creativity flowing out of her,” Scutt says, likening her to a phoenix. “When she's in her underwear and that suit, she is at her most free as an artist. I love that version. I prefer that version.”

Emcee costume for the musical number "Willkommen" in Cabaret on Broadway

For Scutt, much of Cabaret is poetic, abstract, open to interpretation. And no character is more fluid than Eddie Redmayne’s Emcee. First appearing in “Willkommen” in a child’s party hat, a mantle of mischief as delicate as paper, the Emcee conducts with black rubber fetish gloves, encouraging the antics of his misfit toys.

But, as the Nazis start to rise, “his mask starts to be stripped off,” Scutt says. “He literally takes his wig off in one scene, and then from that point on, he becomes a skeleton and a clown. He's kind of like a cautionary tale for me.” The skeleton, a goblin in semi-sheer black fabric, clinks his claws like coins in “Money,” part Babadook, part propaganda, all horror vernacular. However, in tackling the rise of white supremacy, Scutt says he and Frecknall sought to look at “the responsibility of the white man as master of ceremonies” in the oppression of Jewish people, people of color, queer, and trans people. As facism becomes the rule of law, beige blots out the colors, textures, and markers of individuality with which we’ve become familiar. Makeup-free faces, neat, slicked-back hair, and fawn-colored suits complete a new uniform, one of chilling sameness.

Emcee costume for the musical number "Money" from Cabaret on Broadway

For Scutt, that gives this Cabaret a chilling resonance to contemporary events, as there's been a rise again in inflammatory rhetoric and violence against queer people. At the same time, this production has been the most emotionally authentic piece he's ever done. In seeking to give company members ownership over their queerness, their artistry, their individuality, Scutt has affirmed his own queer identity. 

“Cabaret has been really, truly, the first show where I feel like it has demanded the truth from me,” Scutt says. “The piece just pulls it out of your heart. It is rooted into your heart and it demands that you show yourself, and stand up for yourself, and stand up for the people whose views you share. And I think that that has become a beacon for me of what to expect from my work and my collaborations…I've done many, many projects that are large-scale, but none of them have fed me in the same way because I'm able to pour out my heart in a way that we never normally get the opportunity to, as designers. There's authorship in that. There's collective authorship in what each and every one of the creatives on the show are doing. It's the most dear experience. It's incredible.”

Photos: Tom Scutt's Costume Sketches for Cabaret on Broadway

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