Queer As Folk’s Randy Harrison takes on the role of the sexualized Emcee in Cabaret

By : Jeremy Williams
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In the uncertain social climate we are living in these days, theater can serve as a wonderful escape from those political bumps in the night, but it can also serve as a mirror to reflect the dangers that await us if we sit idly by and do nothing. One show that has a reflection that is all too relevant is Broadway classic Cabaret, playing the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa Jan. 24-29.

Cabaret takes place in 1931 Berlin at the Kit Kat Club, just as the Nazi Party is starting to gain power in Germany. We are escorted through the show by the Master of Ceremonies. The emcee is a role that has been played on stage by some of the community’s greatest actors, including Joel Grey, Alan Cumming and Neil Patrick Harris. In this production the role is played by Randy Harrison, best known as the doe-eyed boy Justin from Showtime’s landmark series Queer As Folk. Harrison took a few moments to speak with us by phone before we willkommen him to the Bay Area.

cabaret_3How’s the tour going for you so far?

It’s going wonderfully. I am just about a year in. We opened in January of 2016, and I’ve gotten to see the people all across the country. We have been doing a lot of shows in lots of different size cities in different political climates, and it’s been a really extraordinary experience.

How did you get involved with Cabaret and the role of the emcee?

I auditioned. I knew the production pretty well. It was a big hit in New York right about when I moved there from theater school in the early 90s. I saw it on Broadway with the original cast, with Alan Cumming and Natasha Richardson, and it really affected me. It’s an extraordinary production and I’m really lucky to be a part of it.

You are joining an illustrious and exclusive club playing the emcee. Did you have any reservations about taking on such an iconic role?

Not at all. I’m honored to be a part of the crew that has taken on this role. It’s just such an amazing group of actors, but the role itself lends to a huge amount of individuality to the performer who plays the role. I watched every rendition of the emcee I could find. I watched them on Kimmel, on Ellen, I watched all the clips I could find on YouTube of all the amazing actors who have done it on Broadway, just to get ideas and understand how free you can be with the role, how specific and how human. Then I kind of dropped it all and made it my own. I wasn’t intimidated so much as I was excited.

How difficult is it to play this role, because a fair amount of it is improvised isn’t it?

It completely depends on how I’m feeling that day. Usually it’s a huge joy and a huge relief to know that I have that freedom that I can improvise. I like that if the audience reacts a certain way, I can respond to it specifically. It’s often a joy going out into the audience knowing that I get to interact with them and respond to them completely organically, but there are times, if I’m exhausted, it is harder to do because it requires more energy and focus. Sometimes when you’re drained and it’s later on in the week you much prefer to do a track that’s always the same that you can just phone it in, but the emcee does not allow any of that lack of focus. It’s really a gift though, because it prevents you, and the performance, from becoming stale. The way that this role is structured is the exact reason that I have been able to continue doing it for as long as I have.

Given today’s political climate, how has it been to perform this show which takes place in the 1930s but still seem so relevant today?

The show addresses the rise of a demigod and sort of the consequences of political disengagement. There is so much relevance between that and what is happening right now in America. In the show there are lines about social democrats, and there was a social democrat party in Nazi Germany, but there have been some audiences that thought we rewrote those lines to reflect American politics, which isn’t the case. But there is a big response now to the violence that occurs toward the end of the show due to the oppression and the hate speech. People see that in the show and can definitely relate to that because they can feel it happening in our culture now.

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You’re best known for playing Justin in Queer As Folk. What was the experience of auditioning for that show like?

It was exciting. I knew of the British version of the series, and I read the script for the American version of Queer As Folk. I was a gay kid who grew up in the ‘90s so I knew how important representation was and I knew how significant the show would be socially. I was just really excited for the opportunity to be a part of something like that.

The show was a raw look at gay life. Was there any hesitation in taking on that role given the nature of the show and the climate of that time?

I didn’t have any hesitation at all. I had done some sexual content on stage … so the sexual content or the nudity didn’t faze me at all.

The show came out in 2000, but it is still very popular. What resonated with people in that show that has made it timeless?

I don’t really know honestly. The Brian/Justin romance is very typical; it’s very old fashion fairy tale in a way, even though it is taking place in the gay community and is extremely sexually graphic. We hadn’t had a series with a handful of openly gay characters all in one TV show with this varying of storylines and romantic arcs, and I don’t think we have really had anything like that since then. Queer As Folk occupies this position that it does because we haven’t had anything come along to take the crown.

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