Cumming soon

Posted on 17 Jun 2016 at 6:30am

Alan Cumming: Actor, activist, singer … and lover of sappy songs (as Dallas audiences can soon hear for themselves)

Alan

 

Alan-Cumming-reviewAlan Cumming is the embodiment of a slash-talent — you know: Actor slash memoirist slash cabaret star slash recording artist slash vegan slash gay rights activist.  Though Cumming himself thinks in broader terms.

“I sort of think of myself as a provocateur,” he says following a yoga class. “All the things I do, I’m just telling stories — whether my cabaret show or [acting on TV or stage], it’s just trying to connect with people, or change them or make them laugh.”

He does all those things on his recent album Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs: Live at the Carlyle, his chatting, confessional, moving, funny chronicle of his intimate cabaret. But if you missed the CD, you can catch the actual performance live in Dallas; Cumming will perform two shows June 24 at City Performance Hall. But don’t be daunted that the album was recorded before a hundred folks and CPH is seven times that size — for Cumming, it’s all the same: About that connection.

“I [recorded the album] at the Carlyle because I got started there last summer, so I went back there to do it. I also shot [the cover photo, of him naked in front of the Carlyle] and I wanted to be able to use that. So it is the first album that was dictated by a naked picture. And I wanted to do a show that was intimate and about me, with a café vibe. But I’ve done it in much bigger theaters since then. I truly believe that if you really commit to a song, you could be in a stadium and feel like you’re in someone’s living room. I feel like I know how to engage with people properly. That’s something very Scottish — I don’t worry about the size.”

But Alan Cumming remains bigger-than-life, as he revealed in this spirited interview in which he tackles Trump supports, the artistry of Miley Cyrus and how people are still surprised that he has a Scottish accent.

— Arnold Wayne Jones

AlanCumming5Dallas Voice: You’ve said if you had a gun to your head you’d choose theater as your “go-to” enterprise. So what is the appeal of a cabaret show?  Alan Cumming: I don’t have to commit to doing six months on Broadway — I can do little spurts of tours. And there’s a much more of an intense connection for me, just because I’m talking to the audience as myself. In theater, it’s like there’s a veil of the character between you and the audience — when people like you and you’re well-known, they come not just because of the characters you’re playing, but because of you, and that comes through. When I’m being just Alan and not Macbeth or someone else, it takes a while to get used to.

What led to you choosing so-called “sappy” songs for this show and CD?  It’s about taking [musical interpretation] to the next level. [In between performing the songs], I talk to the audience about things that are very intense. If you’re gonna do that, the songs cannot be ‘nothing’ songs. I really need to connect with them in a particular way. Hopefully, by my singing them you connect in a different way than you have before. I wanted to challenge people, like [including] the Miley Cyrus song. [I want them to think], ‘Oh my god, he’s singing that song… and he’s not being ironic at all!’

Which one resonates with you most? I think it would be “Dinner at Eight.” I find that really quite difficult to get through some nights because I think about my dad. I do normally shed a tear during that song. Yeah, it’s really difficult, and you have to go with it and understand that it’s emotional because it’s an emotional song and you’re connected to it and the audience is really with you. I’m not incapable of getting through the song and I am really crying, but I think that’s all right. It makes sense. It’s a song that’s gonna be hard to sing. As long as there’s no falling to the floor into a heap of tears, I think it’s actually all right to show your emotion. In a way, the whole show is about me showing my emotions.

The album’s coda is “The Ladies Who Lunch,” made famous by the late Elaine Stritch in Company on Broadway. Elaine was a beloved presence at the Carlyle up until she performed her last show there in 2013. Is your performance of the song in that space a tribute to her? Years ago I did a workshop with John Tiffany who directed me in Macbeth. We did this workshop of Company, and a lot of the couples’ genders were changed, so I was playing the Elaine Stritch role. I sang that song in the workshop. I thought it worked really well, but ultimately it didn’t go any further. Then when I was doing this show I thought, “I can’t not sing that song at the home of Elaine Stritch.”

When I was doing Cabaret, in my dressing room I would always turn on Elaine singing “Ladies Who Lunch” as the last song. Whenever it came on, it was time to go. Everyone would be quiet and listen to the song and then at the end everyone would go crazy and that was the end of the night. So, she has a very special place in my life in a lot of ways. By doing it in that venue, this is very much a tribute to her.

Your résumé is expansive. When a gay guy stops you on the street, which career endeavor of yours are they most likely to compliment you on? It’s very difficult to tell nowadays — it really is. You know, some mention the Romy and Michele thing. But now it’s really hard to tell. It may be my book [Not My Father’s Son: A Memoir]; it’s a variety of things. With lesbians, I know it’s always gonna be The L Word.

You engage in some pretty frank banter on the CD…  I play quite outrageous characters, but I’m not an outrageous person. I’m not shy, but sometimes the characters I play kind of confuses people that I am going to be a bit more of a loudmouth. I speak my mind, which is the difference, but it’s not my favorite thing to jump on the table at a party and [starts lecturing people].

Well, maybe you don’t jump on tables, but you do frankly address pretty controversial topics — not just LGBT rights, but also “foreskin” rights. And you incorporate your activism into your act….  Completely. As an artist, you want to change people’s mind but there’s an essence of who [I am in them]. I play people I don’t like, but I would never do something that had a message I don’t believe in. My beliefs and what I stand for is completely what my work is like. Authentic people really register because they get you. For an actor, that’s a really great quality. People see that even though you’re playing other people. I think I am authentic, and that registers with people. Unfortunately, so is Donald Trump.

Speaking of Trump, you’re unabashedly opinionated about politics.  The whole Donald Trump thing [puzzles me]. He’s allowed people to feel that it’s OK to be violent, bigoted, racist … and I think that’s just terrifying.

I have a driver who said to be, “I just want my country back, Alan.” I said. “Where has it been? When was it last great? I guess since a black man got in the White House. It’s a racist anger. Since Obama came in, it’s so much better than when George Bush [was in office]. The economy is in a really good place now. We’re actually doing all right. But unless you have money you are not guaranteed a good education or healthcare or even justice.

I’ve lived in this country for 18 years now. It’s a xenophobic culture — I don’t mean that in a pejorative way, it’s just that many people here don’t get to know about much of what goes on in the rest of the world, because it’s such a big country. Imagine you grow upon a culture that tells you that you are the only free country in the world. I think that’s a dangerous thing. People in America are used to the culture being the same. Americans are surprised at people being different from them. Like, even people who’ve seen me on talk shows say they can’t believe I have an accent. People are absolutely amazed, because when you’re on television, they all think that’s you, and they are gobsmacked that [I’m not Eli Gold].

As a bisexual person yourself, you’re known for being outspoken on bisexuality and gender fluidity. How do you explain bisexuality to people who still don’t get it? I’m not here to change people’s minds about whether they believe in bisexuality. All I’m saying is that I think my sexuality and most people’s sexuality is gray. And yeah, I like cock. I love cock. But I also feel that I have an attraction to women. I’ve never lost it, actually. I’ve always been attracted to both sexes, and whether I act on it or not is not anyone’s business, really. I’m not going to close myself off to the possibility of experience just because society says we must stick within these rigid boundaries. I find it really self-hating that the gay community, which has been so bullied, are especially the ones who might be chiding people about their bisexuality. I think, let everyone be who they are.

The point I’m making is that it seems more ironic for a gay person to chide someone about their sexuality — they’re chiding all of us at heart. It seems particularly galling that that would be coming from a fellow LGBT person. I really do believe people today, especially young people, have a much more fluid idea about sexuality and gender, and I should think we’re in a really great place with the youth of today. It’s people who are a bit older who are still struggling with it.

Reflecting on your early days as an activist: Why was it so important for you to start speaking out on LGBT issues? I have a voice. I have a platform. I have a great life. I have a really great life, and I live the way I want to live. I am the person I want to be, and I feel like it’s my duty to take care of people who don’t have those opportunities. I have a personal connection to people who have been prejudiced against who are gay or bisexual or transgender. I’m Scottish and I grew up with fairness and justice. Where I come from, it’s very important that we adhere to making sure that everyone is looking after each other. So, it’s partly my genetic makeup [laughs], but also in the privileged position that I am in, I feel it’s my duty to give back and help other people along. Being an artist is understanding other people and wanting to reach and connect with other people, so helping other people is absolutely a part of that. When there’s injustice and persecution, I can’t really live in a society with that going on and not do something about it.

— Additional reporting by Chris Azzopardi

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 17, 2016.

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