Dallas — In the tour of Cabaret that’s currently at the AT&T Performing Arts Center in the Broadway Series, Randy Harrison plays the Emcee, who guides the characters and audience, and comments on the action and larger themes in Kander and Ebb’s masterpiece musical, set in the early 1930s Berlin as the Nazism is rising.
Harrison is best known for the Showtime series Queer as Folk, playing Justin in the five seasons from 2000 to 2005. He was the pretty young thing who the “older” (in their mid-to-late 20s) characters dismissed as merely a beautiful twink, but who had a lot more intelligence and passion for politics and art than anyone initially gave him credit for. Justin had the most significant character arc in the show.
He’s had other TV and film roles, but theater has always been his passion. He grew up in New Hampshire and then Georgia and was doing community theater since the age of six, playing roles like Winthrop in The Music Man and the title character in Oliver! He continued through high school and received his Bachelor’s in musical theater from the University of Cincinnati’s Conservatory of Music. He started filming Queer as Folk when he was 22, but between seasons and since then, he’s performed at the Guthrie Theatre, Yale Repertory Theatre, the Public Theater and, most frequently, Berkshire Theatre Festival. He’s done musicals, but also main roles in heavy-hitter dramas like Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (Lucky) and Endgame (Nagg), Peter Shaffer’s Equus (Alan), Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie (Tom) and Ibsen’s Ghosts (Oswald), to name a few.
He chatted with TheaterJones about his career and playing the Emcee in Cabaret, a show he has always loved and that feeds his political and artistic passions.
TheaterJones: You were in college when you landed the role on Queer as Folk. Quite different from what you were studying.
Randy Harrison: I was in school for musical theater, but I realized I didn’t want to make my career 100 percent doing musical theater; I was burned out. I thought it would be a good career choice for me. I was doing summer stock when I was called back the second time, and then booked it.
How did you tell your parents about the role and that you’d be in some revealing sex scenes?
It was easy. I had been out since I was 16, I had done [Michael John LaChiusa’s musical of Schnitzler’s La Ronde] Hello, Again and [Mark Ravenhill’s play] Shopping and Fucking in college. [My parents and I later] watched the entirety of Angels in America.
You studied musical theater, and you’re best known for TV, but your theater résumé is filled with great dramatic roles in works by Williams, Ibsen, Beckett, Shaw...
Beckett is my favorite playwright ever, and it’s not that often that those roles come up, so I jumped at them. When I was doing Queer as Folk, during the hiatuses between filming the seasons, I cobbled together what amounted to graduate acting training. So many of the teachers I wanted to study with taught in the summer, so I took their classes and worked maybe two or three times during those summers on the stage to get more proficient at classical theater.
Did that training have an effect on your film work?
No because I had already established my character as Justin; but I think it would affect my TV work now. I’m a very different actor than I was, just because of experience.
Did you see this Sam Mendes revival of Cabaret when it was first done in the late 1990s?
Yes. I love this production. I saw this production three times in its initial carnation, with Natasha Richardson, Molly Ringwald and Jennifer Jason Leigh. I was younger and was being cast in ingénue roles. When it was re-revived last year, I thought, my god, I’ve aged into a character actor—which is something I’ve become more comfortable with it. I auditioned and it was a very long waiting process. I thought I didn’t get it for a very long time.
There’s so much you can do with it, it’s a dream role, it’s a production that on top of being massively entertaining, it’s always important. This show has profound value; it’s really sustaining me as an artist. Even though I’ve done musical theater a lot, I’m not quite part of the Broadway community. This lets me stretch. Maybe I’ll become part of that community.
You saw Alan Cumming do the role of the Emcee, and Joel Grey in the movie. Any danger with becoming familiar with how others have played the part?
I’m not one of those actors, I’m not a mimic. I don’t have a danger of imitating other people who have played the role. I loved watching everyone’s different portrayals. You can watch a lot of performers do it on YouTube, including Norbert Leo Butz, Neil Patrick Harris, Joel and Alan. I found it liberating, there’s so many ways to interpret the material and there’s so many ways to make it work.
The way this production is created, this vessel is really solid. It needs to be filled by you, the more I apply my own aesthetic I can bring my own wit, my own dirtiness. It’s hard to imitate someone when doing the role because there’s so much you can do with it.
The themes in this musical have probably always been timely over the past 50 years, but they really seem relevant to what’s happening in the current presidential election cycle. Do you and the cast talk about that?
It’s impossible to ignore, the parallels are insane. It’s fascinating how different regions of the country have different responses to the show. We played Des Moines shortly after the primary. We played Pittsburgh and there’s a line about social Democrats and it would stop the show in big union towns.
We played North Carolina right after HB2, and there’s a moment where I can improvise a bunch and I make jokes in the audience interaction. I would say tell everyone to get a drink and go tinkle, and I would make a joke about which bathroom. We’re in a show about not ignoring discrimination and hate when it happens in your community. It stopped the show. It was an elephant in the room.
You’ve done some risqué work, in the shows you’ve mentioned and in Queer as Folk. Do you feel like the Emcee allows you even more sexual freedom?
I do feel like there’s more freedom. In Queer as Folk, in some ways I was playing an archetype. Often when you’re acting, you’re trying to fit yourself into a box. With this role I can be as weird as I am, I can be sexy and scary. I can be funny and play with gender, I don’t have to be gay in a certain way. This character is this creature that allows an actor to be many things.
What are your dream roles?
My dream role since I was 15 is Uncle Vanya. I really want to do new work, new plays. I want to do Hedwig, I’ve never done Sondheim, and I’d love to do that. I wanna do Krapp’s Last Tape.