Alan Cumming brings his sappy smarts to Florida

By : Scottie Campbell
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When he performs his cabaret, Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs, in Orlando and Sarasota this March, there will no doubt be a good number of The Good Wife fans who will be surprised that Eli Gold can carry a tune. But for a good many more, Cumming thrust his pelvis into our collective consciousness during the ‘90s with a revival of Cabaret on Broadway, reinventing the Emcee role and redefining sexy for many.

Cumming played that role 808-and-a-half times; a fact you can find on his website under “FAQ,” along with some other questions he recommends an interviewer not ask him again. His sexuality, an infamous essay on foreskin and acting on stage versus screen are also on the list. In fact, you might get the idea that Alan doesn’t like to talk, but I found that definitely not to be the case —at all—when I chatted with him by phone from his home in the East Village. He and husband, illustrator Grant Shaffer, have just moved into a newly renovated home one block from their last home.

The show seems to be a collection of songs you connect with.

I knew I was going to talk about things that were a little more personal and intimate. I really thought if I’m going to do another cabaret show, I want it to be real and sort of authentic and I want it to be really intense songs that I can act. I’m not really interested in singing nice songs; I don’t have that nice a voice and I don’t think anyone wants to hear me sing Sound of Music. So all the songs have some sort of personal connection and I kind of made the show up talking about certain things in my life that the songs reflect or are connected to in some way.

So when you’ve done cabarets before, how does how does that vary. How did you select the songs used in those?

The one was called I Bought a Blue Car Today, then that slowly segued for a while I called it Alan Cumming Uncut. It was songs that I always liked, always wanted to sing, and some that I had actually sung already. It wasn’t like this where I decided to sing songs that were all really pretty intense and personal and passionate. They were all kind of act-y songs. I guess it was a slightly edited version of this show in terms of the intensity of them because I was just finding my feet in terms of performing as myself and not as an actor.

When you perform the cabaret is it set banter or do you just sort of go with what is happening with the audience?

I sometimes ramble a little about stuff that’s happening to me that day or even something that’s going on in the theatre even, but mostly there’s a set list and set stories. There’s a real structure to it because I’m trying to make a point about authenticity. I’m also playing with the audience as well, as you’ll see, about the idea of what is authentic and what is showbiz. It’s still show business even though I’m genuinely moved and upset sometimes.

Let’s talk about your activism. When celebrities make statements a lot of people feel they put their career on the line. Do you ever get scared?

No, not at all. I mean, I understand that point you’re making and I know certain people who don’t speak up because of that. I’ve never been a person like that, ever, even when I didn’t have a career. I mean even when I wasn’t well known. I’ve just always been…I’m Scottish and I think we just can’t shut up about things. I always say the saying when I hear it reminds me most of my childhood is “that’s not fair” — that’s a kind of mantra in Scotland. People grew up being much more attuned to justness and fairness and decency. I mean not every Scottish person is like that, but I think that’s partly why I am. And also, I think my work has been infused by my activism and vice versa.

What do you say to people? I myself express my opinions quite freely and tell people about the things I try to do. I don’t know why, even faced with what seems to be an impossible situation, I’ll still have hope and I’ll write a letter or whatever I need to do. But then you’ll have people who’ll say it won’t do any good.

Well, that’s just rubbish. Look what’s happened in the last month with the Trump administration. Even Trump—irrational, illegal, unconcerned with people who don’t think like he thinks—even he has had to back away or his administration has had to back away from a couple of things because of the sheer power of activism. People standing up and calling and marching and demonstrating: it works, you know! Activism works. The science thing in the early days of his administration was another thing he backed away from there a bit. Even the [immigration] ban, I’m sure a lot of the reason this ban has been so disagreed with by the court is because of the power of the country, so many people in the country, so many people in the country not standing for it. You have to stand up especially when you have fascism around you. You can’t normalize it. You can’t pretend that’s okay.

What other things should we talk about and do we need to make sure people know that you’re working on, other than Sappy Songs?

I’m about to shoot a pilot for a new TV show and if it gets picked up it will return me to the screens of CBS. It’s not come out yet, but it’s based on a James Patterson novel. I like the fact that I’m a CIA operative and I’m also gay and trying to adopt a child. I like it and I’m really heartened by the way they’re handling him. I don’t think you see many contemporary same-sex existences on television that aren’t done in a femme way or cliched way. And also I love that I’m going to be kicking ass.

I wanted to ask about your dog, Lala. Is there just Lala?

Lala and Jerry. Jerry’s sitting beside me right now, shivering. He’s a chihuahua/rat terrier mix. Lala is more prominent on my Instagram because she tends to travel with me, but Jerry stays at home with Grant and they cuddle up. Oh, that’s another thing I’m doing! We’ve written a book coming out in fall called The Adventures of Honey & Leon; they’re our old dogs. It’s a kid’s book. Grant’s an illustrator and he’s illustrated it and I’ve written it. It’s a story about these two dogs, Honey and Leon. They have two dads, they live in the East Village of New York…so there are some similarities. The dads travel all the time for work and the dogs aren’t there to protect them so they decide to follow them in disguise. So it’s about the dogs following us and they save us from all these things happening and then they have to rush home before we get back.

I love that!

It’s so cute. I’ve just written another one, The Further Adventures of Honey & Leon. I just finished writing that and Grant’s going to be drawing it. In the first one we go to Cannes and this one we go to Scotland. Honey and Leon are the names of our two dogs we had when we first met and they recently died, last couple years died, so it’s a lovely thing to kind of like…mutual thing to kind of…

Honor them.

And also just keep them alive in a way. Though I’m kind of thinking when we go to all these kind of readings for kids and the kids are going “Where are Honey and Leon?” and I’ll be, “Oh, they’re dead. They died.”

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