From playing a naive twink on ‘Queer as Folk’ to the lurid Master of Ceremonies in a national tour, Randy Harrison’s life has been one long ‘Cabaret’
When Randy Harrison first shot to fame, it was as the under-aged twink Justin on the cultural-touchstone cable drama series Queer As Folk. One of the few openly gay actors on the show, we watched Justin and Randy as they developed and matured over five seasons.
But that was — brace yourself — well more than a decade ago. Harrison has continued to mature (brace yourself again: Next year he’ll turn 40). For one thing, he’s worked extensively on the stage, even taking over the role of Boq in the Broadway production of Wicked. But it’s another iconic musical role that brings Harrison to North Texas this week: The lurid Master of
Ceremonies in the national touring production of Cabaret.
“This is the first time I’ve toured,” he says during a telephone interview from the road. “It’s great, but it was exhausting at first. It took me a while to figure out of how to maintain [my exercise and diet] and sleep well. It’s in my bones a bit now. It’s a thrill — I see how it’s addictive. You get to experience America, especially for a show like this.”
What about Cabaret, exactly, makes the experience unique?
“It’s so relevant,” Harrison says. “It’s challenging in ways that different regions of the country react to differently.”
While Cabaret is now 50 years old, and set even 35 years before that, its message of a society in decay — one in which good people do nothing while demagogues gain political power and ruin lives — resonates loudly in an election year.
“I like material that’s challenging for an audience,” Harrison says. “I like things that talk about big issues in intelligent ways, that deal with sexuality and gender — these are important parts of my life and things I think about [daily]. I like doing shows that discuss those issues instead of things that just are entertainment.”
A lot of that position probably relates to Harrison’s own coming-out process, which occurred during a highly politicized era.
“I came out the same year that Angels in America won the Pulitzer, I did a master class withTony Kushner at that time,” Harrison recalls. “He told me, ‘Every artistic act you make is a political act, and if you try to make it non-political that itself is a political decision.’” (Interestingly, that’s largely the central theme to Cabaret.) Harrison says he has kept that idea close to his heart, and tries to incorporate it into his stage work.
He can get away with it as the Master of Ceremonies — a lascivious ringmaster with a slightly demonic edge, who oversees the seedy nightclub where Germans fiddle as Berlin burns.
Harrison gets to interact most directly with the audience, frequently breaking the fourth wall.
“My scene partner is the audience,” he says. “It’s a show where you want audience involvement, especially at the start — the audience is a huge part of the show.” That offers Harrison the opportunity to improvise and feel out the room in a way no one else in the cast really gets to.
“There are a handful of different options I have discovered that get the most laughs, but it will depend on whether I am in San Francisco or South Carolina. But the entr’acte, when I dance with an audience member, I never know what I am going to do.”
He took it to a proudly political degree recently while the production was in North Carolina. “North Carolinians that I know are hugely humiliated by what’s going on there,” he says. “So I actually improvised a line in the entr’acte: I always come out and ask, ‘Did everybody have a drink and go tinkle?’ But then I added, ‘I tried to go, but they wouldn’t let me in.’ Every time, it stopped the show in Durham. Everybody wanted to discuss the elephant in the room.”
While the show in this incarnation has been around 20 years, Harrison acknowledges that some people are still surprised by the overt bawdiness of the material.
“If people are completely surprised it’s because they didn’t do even a little big of research, though,” he winks. “Some people leave [during performances], which is fine. If it’s not their thing, they shouldn’t be there. I think most often people are in need of it, in a way. It’s a very smart show, a very adult show. I don’t think everyone necessarily goes to the musical theater season of their presenting house expecting to be challenged in this way, or titillated in this way.”
On rare occasion, even his fans are alarmed by how sweet little Justin has grown up. For his part, Harrison says he can only do what he has to as an actor.
“Uncle Vanya is one of my dream roles,” he says, though he knows he’s probably too young for it right now. “I wanna play Hedwig [in Hedwig and the Angry Inch], and Beckett is my favorite. I want to play both the roles in Godot and definitely Hamm in Endgame. So I find that people who still see me as [Justin] refuse to see me as anything else — I could be in
Trainspotting with a needle I my arm, and come out the stage door and they will treat me like I am 18.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 20, 2016.