When it comes to technique, actors know what you might call one another’s family secrets. They know what goes into creating a sustained stage illusion, and how to make a scene partner give and then give some more. They know why a script works and when it doesn’t. Even so, the best actors understand that it’s the accidents, the sudden improvisations and flights of fancy, that can make a performance real, or transcendent—a happening that cannot be fully explained. As the storied Geraldine Page said, in Lillian and Helen Ross’s essential 1962 book, “The Player,” “When the character uses you, that’s when you’re really cooking. You know you’re in complete control, yet you get the feeling that you didn’t do it. . . . You don’t completely understand it, and you don’t have to.” Michelle Williams and Neil Patrick Harris, who are starring in “Cabaret” (a Roundabout Theatre Company production, at Studio 54) and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (at the Belasco), respectively, draw on everything they’ve got to portray characters who are performers themselves—outsider artists who are less interested in developing the technique that would ground their passionate display than in climbing the highs of their ever-escalating fantasies and “inspirations.”
What holds Sally Bowles, Christopher Isherwood’s most famous creation, together? Her rouge pot, her ratty fur coat, and her hope in the face of unconquerable odds, which include her lack of singing and dancing talent. In Isherwood’s novel “Goodbye to Berlin” (1939), a London girl takes up residence in the German metropolis at an eerie moment in history: it’s the early thirties, the city is in the midst of economic collapse, and the political tides are turning away from the Weimar Republic’s artistic and sexual experimentalism, and toward fascism, a craving for xenophobic order. Sally, deadly honest in her way, fits right in with the town’s gadflies, emotionally displaced Jews, halfhearted gigolos, and kindly landladies. She has come almost too late to the party, but she doesn’t hear all that Volksgemeinschaft talk; she’s too busy grabbing at life’s balloons, her nails varnished a sickly green. Sally is apolitical, because politics requires analysis and curiosity about other people, and mostly all she can think about—or believe in—is the event of herself. “She sang badly, without any expression, her hands hanging down at her sides,” Isherwood’s narrator observes. “Yet her performance was, in its own way, effective because of her startling appearance and her air of not caring a curse what people thought of her.”
Julie Harris won her first Best Actress Tony for her portrayal of Sally in “I Am a Camera,” John Van Druten’s 1951 stage adaptation of the Isherwood book. The 1955 movie version of the play, which also starred Harris, is a valuable record of what made her unique in the role: her impassioned innocence. Harris’s Sally may sleep with the wrong guy, and he may even throw her over, but it’s nobody’s fault, really—and why cry over spilled Bier when there’s so much pleasure to be had out there? In 1966, John Kander and Fred Ebb adapted the play into the musical “Cabaret,” which Bob Fosse, in 1972, turned into a diamond-hard film, starring Liza Minnelli. Some complained that Minnelli sang and danced too well to be Sally: her Sally is more desperate and less free than Harris’s, precisely because she has talent, oodles of it, but is trapped in a world that values trend over individuality or vision.
Michelle Williams’s Sally, in Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall’s revival of “Cabaret,” wears her loneliness like a cloak over her fur coat. She’s an emotionally broken person with excellent posture who performs in order to momentarily dispel her fear that the world isn’t always paying attention. When she wants to feign indifference or innocence, she bats her eyes slowly, like a nineteen-twenties boudoir doll, and she speaks in a metallic voice, like the clatter of a typewriter; the voice is a defense, a remnant of the Jazz Age, out of synch with this corroding world. The weight of actual talent would be too much to add to this Sally’s burdens; her singing and dancing are just a way of marking time until she can be herself again, “madly” alive. Williams gives a perspicacious, authentic performance in a synthetic medium, the American musical. She is not a creature of Broadway, so she doesn’t play anything bigger than it needs to be played; it would go against her m.o. Instead, she digs and digs for those moments, in herself and in the script, that will lift the production to a level that can’t be explained. Her performance may baffle those who know only the Minnelli version and don’t realize that Williams is playing Sally as Isherwood envisioned her: talentless, more verbal about sex than sexual (she longs to be considered “shocking”), adrift—and intent on being fascinating.
As the pale-skinned, greasy-haired Emcee, the fierce Alan Cumming—who played the part in two previous revivals—has a flashier attack than Williams, but that’s as it should be: the Emcee wants to draw us into his world and then trap us there. We first see him at the Kit Kat Klub, where he and Sally work; he’s dressed in black trousers, suspenders, and a bow tie—that’s it. Stealing a glance at the balcony, the Emcee, a snob, waves and says, “Hello, you poor people up there!” He keeps up the patter as he sings “Willkommen,” a paean to his form of paganism, which includes eying and probably bedding the hunky solo musicians, as well as the female dancers, who are his corps de perversité. Cumming’s Emcee is a bisexual sheikh, up for the drama of being taken: sexual depravity is the force that drives his polluted world view.
It takes Clifford Bradshaw (Bill Heck), an American writer who has travelled to Berlin to finish a novel, a while to understand that the Emcee’s louche, seen-it-all attitude is a Berlin social style. Cliff finds digs at the boarding house of Fräulein Schneider (the outstanding Linda Emond), who has known better days but no greater love than that of her Jewish lodger, Herr Schultz (Danny Burstein)—yet how can it work? They both hold back at first. (Burstein is a new Karl Malden, subtle and down to earth.) One way to get to know the city, then as now, is to go to its clubs. Cliff does just that—and meets and falls in love with Sally. Sally has lots of lovers, but the only man who gets under her skin is Max (Benjamin Eakeley), who runs the Kit Kat Klub, and whose approval she seeks because it’s hardest to attain. In scenes illuminated by Williams’s reach as an artist, Sally moves in with the sympathetic Cliff, then, in what feels like very little time, goes back to Max: his demeaning power over her is easier to take than Cliff’s sensitivity.
When Williams sings the title song, at the end of the show—a song about Sally’s late pal Elsie, with whom she shared “four sordid rooms in Chelsea” (“The day she died the neighbors came to snicker / ‘Well, that’s what comes of too much pills and liquor’ ”)—it’s Sally’s corpse that we, and Sally, imagine. Williams plays the song as the last vestige of the privilege that is Sally’s ignorance—an ignorance that will lead to her death. Sally is not alone. The Emcee’s hedonism, Fräulein Schneider’s anti-Semitism, and Herr Schultz’s willingness to turn a blind eye to it are all nails in the coffin of European civilization. Looking out at the audience, as a bright light blasts like hate from upstage, the Emcee shows us what will become of him: he removes his leather overcoat—the skin of his German decadence—to reveal a pink triangle and a Star of David. Sally stands on the gallery above him, her face impassive, as if she’d been swallowed whole by the horror of the world.
Neil Patrick Harris’s Hedwig wouldn’t look out of place in this lineup: he and Sally are both benighted, painted figures, spoiled and deprived—performers whom Andy Warhol might classify as “the leftovers of show business.” When we first meet Hedwig, a down-on-his-luck transgender rock musician, he’s playing on a set whose décor consists of old auto parts and a wrecked car. The concert is the story of his culturally confused but ultimately triumphant life, punctuated by eleven vivid songs. (The music and lyrics are by Stephen Trask, the one-of-a-kind book by John Cameron Mitchell, who starred indelibly in the original show and in the 2001 movie.) A native of Communist East Berlin, the young Hedwig became the love object of an American soldier. In order to go back to the U.S. as the soldier’s wife, he agreed to a sex-change operation, which was botched—hence his “angry inch.” The marriage collapsed, leaving Hedwig stranded; love is now a stranger to his hungry heart, despite the affection that Yitzhak (the wonderful Lena Hall), his partner and backup singer, demonstrates on their endless tour through life.
“Hedwig” ’s director, Michael Mayer, is pushing for the show to be a hit—with a big, almost “Jesus Christ Superstar”-like sound and lots of light cues—but, in trying to turn it into a feel-good production, he takes the focus away from Hedwig’s deeply strange and touching tale. Mayer treats Hedwig and Yitzhak not like adults struggling with meaning and purpose but like the adolescents in the tiresome 2006 musical “Spring Awakening” (which won him a Best Direction Tony): they are “kooks,” petulant teens who’ll feel better when they finally grow up. It’s an old story—equating difference with arrested development. Under Mayer’s direction, Harris doesn’t quite capture Hedwig’s profound androgyny of the soul. His Hedwig is a physically disciplined gay man in a wig, who’s afraid of tripping in his Elton John “Pinball Wizard” space boots. (Harris grows more “male,” and thus more audience-friendly, in the course of the musical.) The project likely has deep resonance for Harris, who is one of the few openly gay actors to play straight and cross over to the mainstream. But his imagination has been constrained by Mayer’s condescension. I have no doubt that Harris will mature in the role and, eventually, outgrow, as all stars must, his need for the director’s approval.