From the Summer 2018 Issue of Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts

It’s quite difficult to define Alan Cumming. He fiercely resists labeling. His career has demonstrated a staggeringly diverse range in both genre and medium. He’s performed Dionysus on the live stage and voiced a Smurf on the big screen (twice, his biography proudly proclaims). He worked with Stanley Kubrick in back-to-back film projects and the Spice Girls in yet another. He’s a New York Times best selling author of a searingly raw and touching memoir and the face of an iconic X-men teleporting mutant (X2 Xmen United). His career has touched virtually every range of every audience from stage to screen to literature, and yet saying he is eclectic is like saying the sun is bright and hot. It tells us little about who he is and where he fits in.

Perhaps that’s the real problem with Alan Cumming. He can’t be pigeonholed. Or perhaps the problem is our own: that we need to pigeonhole him in the first place. He zigs when we expect he should zag, escaping every label we try so vigorously to affix to him. We classify and label because of our incessant need to make order out of chaos, but perhaps Cumming is comfortable with a little chaos every now and again. He’s certainly had his fair share of it growing up in Aberfeldy, Perthshire, Scotland.

​Cumming describes his turbulent childhood in his best selling autobiography, Not My Father’s Son: A Memoir. He grew up the son of a brutally abusive father and advocate of an older brother and mother who found it difficult to leave what Cumming describes as a “feudal” environment. It’s that chaos that led to what Cumming described in the book as a need to “suppress my own emotions and feelings” whenever his father was around as a child.

If Cumming’s childhood was emblematic of emotional suppression, his adulthood has been nothing if not illustrative of free expression, a freedom that has fueled an extraordinary Tony and Olivier Award-winning theater career, multiple Golden Globe, Emmy and SAG Award nominations for television roles and a burgeoning writing output that has snagged New York Times Best Seller status. 

​Oh, and did I mention Cumming is a prolific and acclaimed cabaret singer? Yes, he zigged yet again. Perhaps Cumming zigs when we expect him to zag because he revels in the kind of disorder disparate choices provide a thriving career. Or, perhaps, it’s simply because from early on in his life and career, the actor, producer, singer and author has always tried to maintain an openness to new experiences and exploration of new voices in his work, something which has lent a rich level of authenticity to everything he’s done since his early years at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland).

It was back at the Academy, with classmate Forbes Masson, that Cumming first began to develop his voice with a cabaret performance project that manifested in a cheeky live-stage comedy routine chock full of song, innuendo and alter-egos Victor and Barry.

Part camp, part cabaret and all brilliance, Victor and Barry lived on well beyond that first Academy project. After an impromptu engagement at a local pub, the duo went on to enjoy massive success in very short order with tours (including stops at the Fringe Theatre in London and a month-long engagement at the Sidney Opera House), recording projects (Hear Victor and Barry and Faint, and Are We Too Loud?) and television appearances throughout the UK.

​Cumming insists he never anticipated the duo's swift rise to fame. For him it was just a couple of guys, “mucking about” onstage. There was a fair bit of singing, a lot of jokes, and even a dash of improv thrown in. So much so, Cumming says there are times he began the show without even really knowing how exactly it would end. But therein lies the real appeal of Victor and Barry those early years. With some of the writing, as Cumming confesses, fueled by a hefty appreciation for alcohol on both players’ parts, a talent for improvisation would have to have been a must. But, as he points out, that improvisory style turned out to be the secret sauce to the act's  success. He explains, “Actually, you know, we had to embrace (improvisation) as part of the act. People loved that. It was a very, very Scottish thing. It was honest.”

That honest, accessible approach to the stage propelled the often self-deprecating Victor and Barry to a success well beyond anything Cumming and Mason ever imagined back in school.

It was at the height of that success that Cumming realized Victor and Barry was beginning to outsize his vision for the act and its place in his career.

“When we left college, in a way, I kind of became a full time Victor and Barry person. It kind of got out of hand,” Cumming explains. “We were on TV shows in Scotland, you know. The time for me when I thought, ‘This is too much, it’s not right,’ was when our album came out. Our album release party was on the news, on the TV news, and I thought, ‘That’s just not right. I don’t think we should be on the news.’ So I kind of ran away from it.”

​As freeing as it must have been for the young actor to perform on the live stage to such large audiences, the constraints of an alter-ego just might have proven too limiting for an artist with so much to say. So Cumming put the breaks on Victor and Barry and threw himself into his acting career.

After graduation, he began working a great deal in Scottish theater and television. He earned his first Olivier Award nomination for Most Promising Newcomer of 1998 in a Royal Court (London) production of German playwright Manfred Karge’s Conquest of the South Pole. He then went on to win an Olivier Award for a starring role in the Royal National Theatre’s 1990 production of Accidental Death of an Anarchist. He made the jump to the big screen with a starring role in Ian Sellar’s Prague (1992). The film premiered at Cannes and won him Best Actor at the Atlantic Film Festival, along with a Scottish BAFTA Best Actor nomination. Other film roles came soon after, and theater work was plentiful. Every now and again he would return to television.

American audiences received their first introduction to Cumming when he played computer programmer Boris Grishenko in the 1995 James Bond film, Goldeneye, starring Pierce Brosnan. He received his first high profile Hollywood experience starring with Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino in the 1997 comedy, Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion. Since then, he’s vacillated from blockbusters like X2:X Men United and Spy Kids to quirky indy projects like Titus, which he co-produced, starring opposite Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange. The film earned Cumming an Independent Spirit Award.

But then, of course, came Cabaret. In 1998, John Kandar’s now iconic musical opened on Broadway with Cumming in the role he first brought to life on London’s West Side in 1993, the saucy and seductive Master of Ceremonies in Sam Mendes’ revival of the 1966 musical.

​On Broadway, Cumming starred with then-newcomers Natasha Richardson and Ron Rifkin, and his performance would cement him in the annals of Broadway musical legend. He snagged Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics’ Circle, NY Press, Theater World, FANY and New York Public Advocate’s Awards for his portrayal. His legendary role would be revived again on Broadway in 2014, where his fame only added to its unique luster. Starring with Michelle Williams and Sienna Miller this time, The Guardian would write of his performance, “As was the case the first time round, the show (Cabaret) is Alan Cumming's and his MC has to be one of the great stage performances of all time.”

While Cumming certainly prizes his time as the great Master of Ceremonies, there is a bit of irony baked into the pie. Always devoted to honesty in his work, musical theater as a medium has never been a real favorite of Cumming’s since his early days back at the Royal Scottish Academy. “My problem with it, sometimes, is I worry that serious topics are diminished if they are treated in a musical form,” he told me. “I think it...sometimes diminishes the message and the circumstances by telling the story in a way that involves, you know, basically pop songs. That’s my worry. And, of course, you know there are absolutely exceptions to that rule, and I look at Cabaret as one of them. I think Cabaret is a very wonderful, hugely important, very dark story. I don’t think it diminishes it in any way. I think it actually exults it. So yes, it can be done, but I just think for the most part it tends to become a little pretentious, and I worry that at the end of the day, it comes off as detrimental and patronizing.”

​Of course, Cumming insists he has come to see more and more exceptions to that rule over the years, but in general he views the medium and singing style often associated with it as an inauthentic way of treating the weighty subjects musical theater often tackles.

Cumming went on to leverage his ever-expanding range with television roles that would help cement his place in American pop culture. He made regular appearances on acclaimed television shows like Sex In The City, Frasier and The L Word, and we became intimately aware of his penchant for intensity when he starred as Eli Gold of the hit CBS series, The Good Wife (a role said to be based on our own mayor). A character American audiences would come to love and hate, Eli Gold would snag multiple Golden Globe, Emmy, Screen Actors Guild (SAG), Critic’s Circle and Satellite Award nominations for Cumming over seven seasons. Today, he stars in the new,  hit television crime drama, Instinct, which premiered this past spring on CBS to critical acclaim.

Whether on stage or screen, Cumming gives us the kind of non-derivative, honest approach that endears him with audiences who see something very genuine in his work. It’s a concept the actor has come to appreciate in his most successful opportunities.

​“I’ve noticed that projects that I’ve been most successful in are the ones where I connect with an audience in a very personal way,” Cumming revealed. “Sometimes that’s when I’m playing a role, sometimes its when I am live on stage…I’ve often wondered what makes people want to come and see someone like me on stage in a role, in a performance. You might say, ‘Well, I’m a good actor.’ But it’s about more than being a good actor. It’s about authenticity. It’s because what you see is what you get, and I feel that that is something people want in a very primal way.”

As authentically as Cumming has always approached his work on stage and screen, perhaps his greatest, most authentic work yet has come in the form of his autobiography, Not My Father’s Son: A Memoir. The novel, which would top the New York Times Best Seller list, detailed the harrowing experience of learning of his father’s belief that Cumming was not his son, but the product of an affair he had suspected Cumming’s mother of having early on in their marriage. More so, the book was a reflection on the years of terror Cumming experienced under the violent hand of a man clearly pained with fears and insecurities that prevented him from showing his family love. The accusation of infidelity proved false, and paternity was confirmed with a DNA test Cumming and his older brother took in the months following the revelation. He has said that the shock the whole ordeal held for him was only assuaged by the knowledge that he and his brother were in fact full siblings. The memoir offered a look into Cumming’s life in a way that is as raw and visceral as it gets.

In a New York Times interview following the memoir’s release, Cumming admitted, “One of the ways I survived was just being able to switch away from something, and I think that’s how acting should be. You should be really in the moment.”

​The novel revealed perhaps one of the biggest reasons for Cumming’s incalculable range. As he told the New York Times, “I choose to be in the light, but I have access to the darkness.”

That range would get tested significantly in 2009 when he was asked to participate in the American Songbook Series at New York’s Lincoln Center. Cumming admits that as brave as he has been onstage, he has always avoided the prospect of singing “without the veil of a character.”

“I would always see people singing live onstage in solo concerts and I would always think, ‘Wow, I wish I could do that. I wish I could be that brave and that honest.’ And I would occasionally do a show at a gala or something, and I’d be so nervous,” he told me. “I would never really feel that confident to do that. So what happened was the Lincoln Center American Songbook Series people, they asked me to do a concert. So my manager at the time said, ‘Everything is included. They’ll pay for the arrangements, and you’ll basically have a show that you could do again.'" So Cumming took the opportunity and planned a new solo concert with music director Lance Horne. The result was an eclectic set of songs the artist culled from his wide-ranging musical tastes and called I Bought a New Car Today. (The title comes from an immigration exam Cumming had recently taken to gain US citizenship.)

As it turns out, Horne was also involved with the upcoming Madi Gras festival in Australia at the time. When the planners of the festival learned of Cumming’s first solo show, they invited him to perform it there as well, and all of a sudden, things started getting very real. “So, my first two shows as a solo cabaret artist were at Lincoln Center in New York City and Sidney Opera House in Australia,” Cumming told me. “And it’s like I just felt, ‘What the f—k?’” On a dime he was presented with the prospect of having two huge forums to “try out” a medium he wasn't that confident about.

​But Cumming would earn his sea legs with I Bought A New Car Today in a big way. In addition to the Madi Gras festival in Australia, he’d perform the show in London’s West End, New York and Los Angeles, and make a studio recording under the same name.

For Cumming, it was a “terrifying,” if freeing experience. For the first time in his expansive career, Alan Cumming was onstage as Alan Cumming singing from the heart, no veil, no Victor (or Barry), authentically Alan Cumming.

Having grown more comfortable with the cabaret form, Cumming was ready to go back on the road with a new show, one that flexed his musical muscles a bit more and showcased that trademark honesty for which he was so well known with newfound confidence. “I thought, if I’m going to do this again, I’ve really got to be more vulnerable, more authentic,” he explained. With the release of Not My Father’s Son, Cumming felt he should embrace the truth of his experiences in this new show. The song mix was diverse and included some surprising tunes Alan didn’t originally take to. But his arrangements offered stripped down versions of songs—like Miley Cyrus’ "The Climb"—that gave audiences a new appreciation for the music behind the hype. He also included a heartbreaking presentation of Annie Lennox’s "Why" from her album Diva. In part, it was an unveiling of Alan Cumming at his core, emotions and ideas that came from his heart. But it was also an effort to get people to see some of the songs that touched him most in a new and revealing light. “If you want to change people’s minds about songs, then you’ve got to make them really personal in some way to you. So that’s why I called it Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs to sort of warn people that I was really going to go for this.” And he did.

Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs premiered in 2015 at New York’s renowned Café Carlyle. It garnered critical acclaim in the US, Canada and Australia, as well as the UK. In February of 2016 Cumming brought the show back to New York with a sold out solo debut at Carnegie Hall. The show, called an “emotional firestorm” by the New York Times, held nothing back, quite like his memoir. Billboard wrote of the concert: "This is precisely why (Cumming is) an icon to behold—he is unapologetically himself, and with a talent like that, he has no need to apologize.”

​Being able to make people laugh and then making them cry in very quick succession, says Cumming, was a very big sign of the connection he was making on stage, an indication he was stretching the sea legs I Bought a New Car Today gave him.

And if Sappy Songs gave Cumming a chance to stretch those sea legs, he simply revels in the freedom his newest cabaret affords. Legal Immigrant is a response to Cumming’s experience as a newly minted American citizen. Living in New York with his husband, Grant Shafer, Cumming has felt a welcome part of this country since the day he first took that oath of citizenship in November of 2008. But he admits the tone of political rhetoric in the country with respect to immigration in recent years has come to tinge the perception of what it means to be an immigrant in the United States, something Cumming finds disturbing, and something about which he has a thing or two to say.

Cumming calls the show a “Scottish cabaret.” Perhaps that’s because it’s the show in which he has been most honest and vocal about his time as a US citizen, what being an immigrant means to him and why he feels the needs to say something about it in the first place. After all, Scots are not known for holding their tongues.

​Cumming explained, “With this new show, again, the songs are quite emotional, but the over reaching topic is, you know, sort of being in this country ten years and becoming a citizen and some of the things that have happened to me during that time.”

​Citing the recent elimination of the line describing America as, “a nation of immigrants” from the U.S. Department of Citizenship and Immigration Services’ website and mission statement, Cumming points out that immigrants  have always been an important component of this country’s makeup. But that today, the divisive political rhetoric surrounding the issue of immigration has created a stigma around what it means to be an immigrant, “whether or not your prefix was legal or illegal.”

“It’s kind of revisionist history,” he told me. “I mean, you can’t change the makeup of a whole nation.

“So, in the show, I wanted to say that I’m an immigrant, I’m a recent immigrant to this country and I’m hurt that we are seen as negative people.”  Cumming uses his platform to address the notion of just what an immigrant represents by spotlighting wonderful songs; many by composers who were themselves immigrants. Legal Immigrant celebrates the ethnic origins of those composers, highlighting the fact that we are indeed a nation of immigrants—no matter what anybody tells you.

​He sings a lovely rendition of “Falling in Love Again” by German composer Friedrich Hollaender (originally sung by the great Marlene Dietrich) and Polish film composer Bronislau Kaper’s “Hi-Lilli, Hi Lo” (made popular in the 1952 film, Lili), spotlighting the contributions of composers from other countries and the pride they held for their own home lands.

But don’t get the idea that Legal Immigrant is all politics—or that it’s all anything but Alan Cumming, for that matter. The show is as disparate as they come. Cumming sings a stripped down rendition of Tracy Chapman’s “Just Give Me One Reason,” during one set and a fun Disney princess medley that includes “Cold Never Bothered Me Anyway,” from Frozen, along with the enchanting “Part of Your World,” from The Little Mermaid, and still a poignant interpretation of Adele’s “When We Were Young,” giving a nod to the journey of aging we all take and what we begin to notice about that journey the further along we get on it.

And as with Sappy Songs, Legal Immigrant takes an introspective approach to every piece on the bill. Cumming connects with his audiences best when he connects the song he sings with something genuine and honest he feels. It’s an approach that originally limited his appreciation for the heavily commercialized songs we hear on pop radio today. As Cumming told me, for some time, he had begun to recognize that there was indeed something to the songs he had earlier eschewed for their overblown “poppy” approach. “I actually realized, for some reason, there was something there that I connected with, which often we can’t hear what it is, often you can’t hear the lyrics. But when you strip it down, you hear the message of the song.” It’s in the stripping down of the song to its bare elements, melody and lyrics, that Cumming began to discover something very beautiful to convey in some of those “poppy” songs, something he connected to and could communicate in a very genuine way. And in doing so, he began to see himself as a portal to their reinvention.

From a childhood that has seen his voice concealed and censored, Cumming has emerged with an art for expression that knows few boundaries. And whether it’s a small, intimate venue or a sprawling arena, Cumming explained this journey of discovery has taught him it’s all about the relationship you cultivate with your listeners. “It’s not the number of people or the size of the venue,” he explained. “It’s about the intimacy and the connection you have with your audience. You could be in a stadium and create the same connection. You just have to make people feel that you’re just talking to them. It’s about being vulnerable and being authentic and being honest.”

This summer, Chicagoland audiences will get a heavy dose of Cumming’s Scottish authenticity when he brings Legal Immigrant to Ravinia (July 13) in Highland Park, and for a venue as intimate and personal as it is grand, the show promises to be one of the most memorable on the summer calendar.

Chicago audiences are in for a heavy dose of honesty this summer when the acclaimed actor, singer and author takes the stage at Ravinia with Legal Immigrant, his new self-described "Scottish Cabaret."


By David Henley

Iconic actor, singer and writer Alan Cumming will bring his new cabaret, Legal Immigrant to Ravinia Festival this summer (photo by Christopher Boudewyns)

AUTHENTICALLY ALAN CUMMING

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