For Alan Cumming, Life Is (Once Again) A Cabaret

Nov 21, 2014

This is the third time Cumming has starred in the musical. He talks about the new production — everything from his costume (which he calls a "Wonder Bra" for men) to the darker themes of the show.

Originally aired April 28, 2014.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILLKOMMEN")

BIANCULLI: I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. Our guest, Alan Cumming, has been amazing as the star of Broadway's revival of the musical "Cabaret."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILLKOMMEN")

ALAN CUMMING: (As Emcee, singing in German, French and English) Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome. Fremde, etranger, stranger. Glueklich zu sehen, je suis enchante. Happy to see you - bleibe, reste, stay. Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome im Cabaret, au Cabaret, to Cabaret. Meine Damen und Herren, mesdames et messieurs, ladies and gentlemen! Guten Abend, bonsoir. Wie geht's? Comment ca va?

BIANCULLI: Alan Cumming plays the emcee in a Berlin nightclub of debauchery called the Kit Kat Klub in 1929 and 1930 as the Nazis are slowly emerging and no one yet knows how powerful they will become. Only some people sense the danger. The role of the emcee was originated by Joel Grey, who starred in the original 1966 Broadway production, as well as the 1972 movie.

Each of the productions with Cumming was directed by Sam Mendes. Rob Marshall choreographed both American productions and also co-directed the new one.

Cumming has a new memoir called "Not My Father's Son." Let's start by hearing how Cumming sounds in the new production by the Roundabout Theater Company, the same company that produced the 1998 Tony award-winning production.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILLKOMMEN")

CUMMING: (As Emcee, singing in German, French and English) Meine Damen und Herren, mesdames et messieurs, ladies and gentlemen! Guten Abend, bonsoir, good evening. Wie geht's? Comment ca va? Do you feel good? Yeah, I bet you do. Ich bin eurer Conferencier. Je suis votre compere. I am your host und sage willkommen, bienvenue, welcome im Cabaret, au Cabaret, to Cabaret.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Alan Cumming, welcome back to FRESH AIR. And congratulations, you're so wonderful in the show, it's so terrific.

CUMMING: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Thank you, thank you for coming. You've said, I think, that this revival was your birthday present to yourself. What does that mean? Did you initiate the idea of reviving it again?

CUMMING: No, no I didn't, but it was Sam Mendes who called me up a few years ago, and - I mean, there's been sort of various attempts to re-do it or to put it on since it ended. I mean, I finished - I did it for a year, from '98 to '99, and it actually finished, I think, in 2004 on Broadway.

But anyway, so a few years ago, Sam said, you know, I think it's a good time, kind of the rights are going to be up, and so therefore someone else will do it, and, you know, maybe - and the estate wants us to do our production again.

And I just sort of thought it would be - and the thing about the birthday is that I'm 49, and so I'll be 50 in January - January 27 next year - and so in my 50th year I am singing and dancing on - in a Broadway musical. And I'm dancing a kick line with, you know, girls who are 24. And so that was - that was kind of the birthday present to myself, that I would be hitting 50, doing things that I couldn't do when I was, you know, 25.

GROSS: Oh, that is nice. You couldn't kick like that, or they just didn't have the opportunity?

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: Oh, my God. I was so out of shape and unfit when I was 25. And I've kind of - and I think even when I did it 15 years ago, I wasn't as fit as I am now.

GROSS: So why do you love doing the role?

CUMMING: Well, I mean, just on a day-to-day, going to work and doing that, it's such fun. It's, you know, so kind of energetic, and it just takes up every single element of being an actor. It's - your body is used to its capacity both, you know, physically, vocally and emotionally, as well. But also in a kind of larger way, I think it's a really important show in that the reason it's done again - the reason we're doing it again is that it has something to say.

You know, it's about the rise of Nazism and the fact that if you're not incredibly vigilant, oppression of some kind can slowly creep up and take over.

And I think that the way that the show is, like, fun, and oh, it's sexy, and hilarious, and - and then you slowly - it slowly goes dark. You as an audience member have kind of become complicit in that, and that sort of mirrors the way that you see Nazism creeping in and people think, oh, it'll be fine, don't worry, nothing's - you know, it'll go away. And then slowly it doesn't, and it's too late.

GROSS: I would like you to describe your character physically - what you're wearing, what your hair looks like.

CUMMING: Ha. Well, initially - I have jet black hair right now, which is not natural, Terry, I'll confess.

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: And so I have jet black hair. So I have, you know, late 1920s kind of floppy on top, short at the back and the sides. And the first costume I wear is - I wear a leather coat, but I shortly take that off. And I've got this - I've kind of like a black dinner suit - trousers, but they're cut at the knees, a pair of big combat boots and this kind of strappy thing, kind of like suspenders, you know, almost like I'm topless, but I've got a suspender thing with a little bowtie at my chest, at my - what do you call that bit in the middle? The sternum.

And then it's almost like a cantilever system to hike up my manhood, if you will.

GROSS: Yes, your manhood is kind of like italicized in the...

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: It's in bold.

GROSS: It's in bold letters, yes.

CUMMING: It's sort of like a wonder bra for the male junk.

GROSS: What is your take on the host, the emcee that you play, and the club, the Kit Kat Klub that you're in? Do you have a back-story for him in your mind?

CUMMING: I'll tell you my sort of very slim back-story, is he was a rent boy, a boy from the streets of Berlin, who then kind of, you know, started working this club and was kind of funny. And so he got kind of - as he got a bit older, he got a job, and the Kit Kat Klub is basically, you know, a den of iniquity. It's got a little show, but there's kind of, you know, sex going on. There's drugs going on. It's a very low-life kind of place. So that's basically all my story for this man.

He used to be - you know, he has a background as a sex worker who then becomes - he can sing a bit. And I don't know his name. I don't know where - you know, I actually don't think that's important. I don't worry about that because there is a larger, broader, more overreaching thing about this character. He's kind of like this - he guides the audience. He's like a puppeteer almost or a - sort of a pied piper, if you like, who takes the audience on this journey, kind of tells them what to think at certain times, guides them into certain things and then ultimately, because he's got their trust, can betray that trust or also make them worry for him and for what's going on in the show.

So it's almost like sort of a Brechtian character of standing outside the story and commenting on it as it's happening.

GROSS: You've portrayed this character in three separate versions of this Sam Mendes production - first when you were 28 years old in 1993, then when you were 33 years old in 1998, and now when you're 49 years old in 2014. And...

CUMMING: And next time.

GROSS: And I've seen the new production, and I've seen excerpts of both of the other productions, and there's things that are very similar. One of the differences is that, you know, you've gotten older. And I think that changes the character. You know, the rent-boy-turned-emcee in this kind of seedy club at age 28 is different from that same character at age 49 because that character hasn't made it out of that club.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: He's still there at age 49. So in that sense he becomes kind of even darker.

CUMMING: I think that's absolutely true. I think partly because I'm older and because this sort of sex element of the show, the sensationalist - the thing that in 1998 when we came to America was so shocking and took up so much of people's perception of the whole show was this, you know, depiction of sexual freedom and hedonism and gay sex and bisexuality and all sorts of things.

That I think, in a way, took over a little too much. And now I think, you know, partly because of that production but partly because the world has changed, that is still an element. It's still fun. It's still very much part of what the story's about, but it doesn't overshadow everything. And also it has allowed the kind of darkness to come out a little bit more.

GROSS: You know, in speaking about the sexuality of this production, it's sexualized in a different way than, say, the movie "Cabaret," which I think a lot of people are familiar with. In the movie version of "Cabaret," Joel Grey starred in the role of the emcee - of the host. And I think he played it kind of - he's great in it, and I think he played it kind of like a ringmaster in a circus of sexual deviance. And I think deviants is what they would have been called at the time.

I'm trying to use a word from the period. And you play it like you are sexually seducing us into your kind of debauched world.

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: And I feel like - I mean, I do feel that. I feel like I'm saying, you know, the gesture I do at the very beginning of the show is my finger and going come here, come here, come here. And that's, I think, a sort of overriding metaphor for what I think that character does. And he's going come on, come on, you know you want to, and it's going to be fun. And then of course - and the audience does want to, and they do come.

And then, of course, that's when they become complicit in the whole horror.

BIANCULLI: Alan Cumming speaking to Terry Gross in April. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview from April with actor Alan Cumming. He plays the emcee in the current Broadway revival of the musical "Cabaret," which has just been extended into 2015. And he's just written a memoir called "Not My Father's Son."

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Alan Cumming, who is now starring in the revival of the revival of "Cabaret."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GROSS: So the character that you play in "Cabaret" is very sexual ambiguous, I mean, in terms of sexual orientation - gay, bisexual - who knows?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Into everything as I think - whatever, he wants it.

CUMMING: Yeah.

GROSS: You came out as bisexual, I think, the same year that "Cabaret" was revived in the United States in 1998, with you starring in it. And you've been married for how long to - you have a husband.

CUMMING: I have a husband. I've been married to him for - hang on, since 2007, so seven years.

GROSS: So did you time coming out with the production of "Cabaret?"

CUMMING: It was all a huge press campaign.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CUMMING: It was all a massive Machiavellian plot.

GROSS: (Laughter) Clever.

CUMMING: No, I am...

GROSS: That's the point of sexuality, actually.

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: Power - it kind of is. What I think you're getting at, I'll give you a little press here that I hope will answer your question. I've always felt I was bisexual. I used to be married to a woman. Before that, I'd had a relationship with a man. I then had another relationship with a woman. And then since then I've had, you know, relationships with men.

So I still would define myself as bisexual, partly because that's how I feel, but also because I think it's important to - I think that sexuality in this country especially is very - seen as a very black and white thing. And I think we should encourage the gray.

You know, I mean, I don't kind of go around in my life thinking, oh, my God, I'm going to have to have sex with a woman soon because I said I was bisexual.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CUMMING: I just - I just - that's what I feel inside. It's like saying you're straight, or you're gay, or you're bi - it's just what you are. And whatever you're doing in your life is almost - it runs obviously parallel, but it's kind of secondary to how you are inside. And so that's how I've always felt, and I still do, even though, you know, I am very happily married to a really amazing man, and I wish to be so for the rest of my life.

The other thing is that the coming out thing, in 1998, when I came to America, there was such a huge explosion of interest in the show and in me, and I had never - I hadn't really - you know, I was kind of well-known in Britain, but I hadn't really ever discussed my sexuality in a public way like that. And because of playing this character, and I know all the kind of - it's like, you know, Puritanical shockwaves it was sending around America, a lot of people were just constantly, constantly, constantly asking me about it.

And so I decided to take matters into my own hand, and I did an interview and a cover story for Out magazine. And I thought that was a good forum for it to be discussed calmly and adultly. And so I did that. So it was kind of as a result of all the speculation and - but it was really funny. I remember people saying so - first question in an interview for some, like, weighty tome, would be so, are you gay?

GROSS: (Laughter).

CUMMING: And I would go why, do you fancy me? And then go oh no, just someone in my office was asking. And I'd say oh, really, well. You know, I thought really, is that the most important thing? And sometimes it is the most important thing because people can't - if people don't have a black and white answer, they can't get beyond that. And so you have to kind of - I think you've just to get it out the way, and that's what I did.

And it wasn't like I - it's one of those things. When you become famous, and people are more interested in your personal life often than your work, it's a weird thing because you think, oh, I seem to be sleeping with more boys now. Should I do a press release?

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: You know, it's a really difficult one to know when to announce.

GROSS: Were you afraid that if you didn't say something yourself that you'd be outed in a really nasty way by somebody trying to hurt you and not realizing - it's not really even like it's a bad thing, but people reveal secrets in nasty ways.

CUMMING: Yeah, I thought that I was actually - one of the other reasons, I was having a relationship with a man for the first time, I mean, well, aside from, like, someone at college. I was living with a man for the first time, and I was just really worried that he was going to - he and his family and my family were going to be harassed by the British press, actually.

So I had - because I had been harassed in the previous relationship I'd had with a woman. You know, I saw some really nasty things happening, and so I just wanted to avoid that again.

GROSS: So since you were out in 1998, when you first revived "Cabaret" in America, did it change your performance at all? Did it release something within you to be kind of publicly out as gay or bisexual because the character seems to be gay or bisexual and is very - it's a very sexual dance that you do in the show.

CUMMING: I mean, I felt very - I mean, I think when I came to New York, I felt more comfortable as a person. I definitely felt more comfortable with where I was in my life and the sexuality thing being a part of that and just - actually when I did it in 1993, I was crazy. So that was quite good for the character, as well. But there wasn't - it was more sensual when it came to New York, definitely, and I think that's partly to do with Rob Marshall's input into the choreography.

So I definitely felt, as a person and as a man and as an actor, as a sort of performer in general, much more open, and I think that really worked.

GROSS: You said that in the 1993 British production of "Cabaret" at the time that you were crazy. What did you mean by that?

CUMMING: I was crazy. I was - I actually had a nervous breakdown shortly after that.

GROSS: Oh.

CUMMING: Yeah, so I was pretty nuts. I had just played "Hamlet." I was exhausted. I was in the process of breaking up with my wife. I was - just a lot of things, it was like the perfect storm of horror. And yeah, it was a really bad time for me. And I - and it was actually the start of a huge series of events in my family and things about stuff that had happened in my childhood so that it was just, you know...

GROSS: Did you say bad stuff that happened in your childhood?

CUMMING: Yeah, yeah, about my father and things like that, which I'm detailing in my forthcoming memoir. But it was just, you know, it was a really - I mean, it kind of was interesting because the role was very complex, and, you know, certainly "Hamlet" is very complex and dark and deep.

And then, of course, coming to do the emcee after that was really - but I was - I was, you know, I was not in a healthy place. I was in a weird place. And I think that was, in a way, kind of going and doing that show every night was really good for me. It kind of took me out of my depression a bit.

But, you know, I wasn't - I had a sort of eating disorder. It was terrible. And then shortly after that, as I say, I kind of just really had to go away, and, you know, let things have their course and kind of have a bit of a breakdown.

GROSS: So let me just ask you one other question about sexual orientation. You described yourself as bisexual. Does that make some people angry, like, no, you have to decide. You're really gay, aren't you? Or do you know what I mean? People want (laughter)...

CUMMING: Yes, I think it does. I mean, I think there's that - I mean, I think it's slightly - I mean, and sometimes I just say I'm gay, sometimes I - you know, if I'm having a conversation with an adult like you, an intelligent person like you, I try and talk about it in this way, and I explain why I sort of define myself in that way.

But I - if I'm called gay or queer or something all the time, I'm perfectly happy with that. But when I have my druthers, that's how I would describe it. I mean, I think the idea that people say oh, you're just really gay, you're afraid to say it, that doesn't apply in my case. Hi, I'm Alan Cumming, I'm gay. There you go.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CUMMING: That - really for me, I think, I want to push the idea that, you know, bisexuality is not something that is just a transitionary state to becoming homosexual or, you know, that you help out when they're busy sort of thing.

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: I'm glad you got that. Not many Americans get that, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Alan Cumming speaking to Terry Gross in April. We'll continue their conversation in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TWO LADIES")

CUMMING: (As emcee) So you see, everybody in Berlin has a perfectly marvelous roommate. Some people have two people.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (Singing) Beedle dee, deedle dee, dee!

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (Singing) Beedle dee, deedle dee, dee!

CUMMING: (As emcee, singing) Beedle dee, deedle dee, beedle dee, deedle dee, dee!

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES: (Singing together) Beedle dee, dee dee dee.

CUMMING: (As emcee, singing) Two ladies.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES: (Singing together) Beedle dee, dee dee dee.

CUMMING: (As emcee, singing) Two ladies.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES: (Singing together) Beedle dee, dee dee dee.

CUMMING: (As emcee, singing) And I'm the only man, ja.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES: (Singing together) Beedle dee, dee dee dee.

CUMMING: (As emcee, singing) I like it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES: (Singing together) Beedle dee, dee dee dee.

CUMMING: (As emcee, singing) They like it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES: (Singing together) Beedle dee, dee dee dee.

CUMMING: (As emcee, singing) This two for one. Beedle dee, dee dee dee.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES: (Singing together) Two ladies.

CUMMING: (As emcee, singing) Beedle dee, dee dee dee.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES: (Singing together) Two ladies.

CUMMING: (As emcee, singing) Beedle dee, dee dee dee.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES: (Singing together) Und he's the only man.

CUMMING: (As emcee, singing) Ja.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES: (Singing together) Beedle dee, dee dee dee.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (Singing) He likes it.

CUMMING: (As emcee, singing) Beedle dee, dee dee dee. We like it. Beedle dee, dee dee dee. This two for one. I do the cooking.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (Singing) Und I make the bed.

CUMMING: (As emcee, singing) I go out daily to earn our daily bread, But we've one thing in common.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (Singing) He...

CUMMING: (As emcee, singing) She...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (Singing) Und me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (Singing) The key.

CUMMING: (As emcee, singing) Beedle dee, dee. The key.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (Singing) The key.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (Singing together) Beedle dee, deedle dee, deedle dee, dee. Ooh, aah. Ooh, aah.

CUMMING: (As emcee, singing) We switch partners daily to play as we please.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES: (Singing, together) Twosies beats onesies.

CUMMING: (As emcee, singing) But nothing beats threes. I sleep in the middle.

(SOUNDBITE OF COWBELL)

BIANCULLI: Coming up - what Alan Cumming learned about Berlin nightlife by talking with poet Stephen Spender and with Christopher Isherwood, the author of the stories on which "Cabaret" is based. Cumming also will tell us about meeting Liza Minnelli for the first time in his dressing room. And we listen back to excerpts of our interviews with director Mike Nichols, who died Wednesday at the age of 83.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TWO LADIES")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross back with more of Terry's April interview with actor Alan Cumming. Cumming has just written a memoir and currently stars in a Broadway revival of "Cabaret" - the third time he starred in that show as the emcee. Here he is from the 1998 cast recording performing the song "Money."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONEY")

CUMMING: (As emcee, singing) Money makes the world go 'round, the world go 'round, the world go 'round. Money makes the world go 'round. It makes the world go 'round. A mark, a yen, a buck or a pound, a buck or a pound, a buck or a pound, is all that makes the world go 'round. That clinking-clanking sound can make the world go 'round.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Singing) Money money money money money money. Money money money money money money. Money money money money money money. Money money.

CUMMING: (As emcee, singing) If you happen to be rich, and you feel like a night's entertainment. You can pay for a gay escapade. If you happen to be rich, and alone, and you need a companion, you can ring-ting-a-ling for the maid. If you happen to be rich and you find you are left by your lover, though you moan and you groan quite a lot.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Singing) Money money. Money money. Money money. Money money...

CUMMING: (Singing) You can take it on the chin, call a cab, and begin to recover on your 14-carat yacht. Money makes the world go 'round, the world go 'round, the world go 'round. Money makes the world go 'round, of that we can be sure - on being poor.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Singing) Money money money, money money money. Money money money, money money money. Money money money money money money. Money money money money money money. Money money money money money money.

CUMMING: (As emcee, singing) Money money money, money money money. Money money money, money money money. Money money money money money money. Money money money money money money. Money money money money money money.

GROSS: That's Alan Cumming singing "Money" from the 1998 cast recording of "Cabaret." And he's starring now in a new revival of it. I really do love the way you sing.

CUMMING: Thank you.

GROSS: And I want to hear how you prepared to sing for this role. But before we talk about that, I want to play you something that John Kander had to say. I interviewed John Kander, who wrote the music. Fred Ebb wrote the lyrics for "Cabaret." And I asked him what he did before composing the music for "Cabaret" and what he listened to. And here's what he told me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN KANDER: For "Cabaret," I listened to a lot of German jazz and vaudeville music, also the late '20s and very early '30s, and then promptly forgot about it. It sounds like a very kind of crude way of doing research, but it works for me. You listen and you listen and you listen and then put it away and don't think about it anymore. And I have this absolute belief that the styles of the music that you've been listening to seep into your unconscious and come out in your own language.

GROSS: And that was John Kander on FRESH AIR in 2003. And my guest is Alan Cumming who's starring in the new revival of "Cabaret." So John Kander said that, you know, he listened to all this music and then just let it seep in, as opposed to actually thinking about it when he was composing.

CUMMING: Yeah.

GROSS: What did you listen to? And did you have that attitude too, that it would just naturally seep in?

CUMMING: I'm a big believer in seepage.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CUMMING: The first time around I, and this time again, you know, I read a lot of stuff about the Weimar, cabarets and just generally the history of that time. What was great when we did it in London the first time was that Stephen Spender, who was one of the chums of Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden and those boys who where, you know, in Berlin at that time, he was still alive then. He came into rehearsal to ask and to sort of, you know, talk to us and we got to ask him questions. So that was amazing, that someone who was actually there.

And I said - it was so funny because they said, you know, just be very respectful don't, you know, stay off the whole sex thing, blah, blah, blah. So we were asking questions and I could tell we were getting along. And I said, so Stephen, you boys from Oxbridge, you didn't really go across there to kind of chronicle the surge of fascism and the change of the sort. You really went in there to get shagged, didn't you? You just went to get boys.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CUMMING: And he was like, yes, of course, we did. Yes, of course. And I just, I love the idea that this kind of amazing period of history has been chronicled so amazingly by Christopher Isherwood and many other people, but in this case, by him, was actually, you know, a happy accident because they really just went there. They were from England, you know, puritanical, shameful England. And they went to Berlin where you could have sex with people all the time and go to dirty bars and no one would know. So that was a key for me into getting into this role and to understanding what it was like in that time.

GROSS: So here's a very intellectual question I wanted to ask you.

CUMMING: OK.

GROSS: You'll appreciate the depth of this.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: In a lot of your choreography in "Cabaret" your arms are raised over your head. You did not shave under your arms. I don't know what the protocol is for men now. Like men defoliate their chests like, you know, for movies.

CUMMING: Oh, yes.

GROSS: So I don't know what the story is supposed to be for under your arms.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I worked really hard on that question.

CUMMING: Terry Gross. Terry Gross, I'm appalled.

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: Well, you notice the girls don't shave under their arms either. You notice that?

GROSS: No, I didn't notice that. Oh, no, I didn't notice that.

CUMMING: Yeah. The girls have got to have hairy armpits. That was part of the, you know, the down and dirty thing of the club. I have extensive hair under my arms. I'm aware of that. I have - it's actually annoying because I always wanted to...

GROSS: I've seen more. It's really not that - yeah. Go ahead.

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: Yeah. But it's not - I mean I'm not a hairy person. I've longed to have a hairy chest, I mean, I have. I have a little kind of tuft in my sternum. Gosh, I said sternum twice in the sense that I don't think I've said sternum for years before this. But I have a little tuft there and then I've got odd ones across my chest. But I seem to have all my hair in my armpits and actually it seems to cause great consternation to people.

But I actually, really - just as a sort of a side point, if you're going to, you know, ask a silly question, I'm going to say another thing about it. I think this obsession we have in our culture with shaving - taking away body hair, like, on men and women - I think it's really dangerous, and sort of like wanting to infantilize yourself and wanting to kind of, you know, make something sexy that is not adult. It's more sort of prepubescent, and I think that's really weird and dangerous, don't you?

GROSS: I do, actually.

CUMMING: Thank you.

GROSS: Thank you for saying that. (Laughter).

CUMMING: You're welcome.

GROSS: So you've met and performed with Liza Minnelli.

CUMMING: Yes, Liza.

GROSS: What did she mean to you before you met her?

CUMMING: I mean, it's hard to - it's almost like she was like a movie star from a long, long time ago, like the kind of like a silent movie star or something. She had that kind of, there's a mist swirling around her. And I'd seen the movie of "Cabaret" and I just - it's hard to describe it. It was more like I was aware of the effect, the effect she had on the world and on people, rather than knowing that much about her. You see what I mean?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

CUMMING: It wasn't - till I was 30 I didn't really, I've never been to America. I, you know, was aware of American culture and things in Britain, but I didn't ever sort of engage in it fully because I don't know why, I just didn't. And then, of course, when I met Liza, she came into my dressing room with Fred Ebb. And I was in this tiny dressing room, it was like kind of size of a shoebox and she came in and gave me a hug and said, Alan, I want to be your friend forever, which is such a darling thing to say. And then I saw Fred, I went oh, Fred. And when I finish talking to Fred, I realized that Liza had pushed herself against the wall and had her face in my wet towel, which was hanging on a hook on the wall in order for me 'cause the room was so small, in order for me to talk to Fred.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CUMMING: And I went oh, Liza, you're squashed into my towel. And she's like, Alan, I'd be squashed into your towel forever for you. She's just...

GROSS: (Laughter).

CUMMING: She's just a most lovely, hilarious person. And so I've been doing these concerts with her and stuff and just I - now I just think lovely Liza and we have a real laugh. And I think we just go on - I don't know why - we just have a really great understanding of each other. And...

GROSS: Did she give you any advice about "Cabaret?"

CUMMING: Well, I can't really say it (laughter) on the radio.

GROSS: (Laughter) That sounds good.

CUMMING: It's more just a kind of - like when she came to see "Macbeth" - the "Macbeth" I did last summer - or last two summers - she said this thing, which is, I really great - I actually really love it. I love this saying. I'll just do, I'll paraphrase it. But she says, well, she, you know, just before I was about to go on, I was really terrified. She went - darling, take no prisoners and F - bleep - the wounded.

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: And I think that's great. I mean obviously, not literally. But as a go get 'em and just, you know, don't let anything hold you back.

GROSS: Right.

CUMMING: It's a great sort of way of thinking about performing and I'm always a big - I'm a big believer in that you just have to dive off the cliff, and so is Liza.

GROSS: Alan Cumming, this was so much fun.

CUMMING: Thank you.

GROSS: And congratulations on your performance. It is so good.

CUMMING: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Thank you so much.

CUMMING: Thank you. I'm a big fan and it was lovely to talk to you.

BIANCULLI: Alan Cumming speaking to Terry Gross in April. He stars as the emcee in the current Broadway revival of "Cabaret" and has just written a memoir called "Not My Father's Son." Coming up, an appreciation of producer-director Mike Nichols, who died earlier this week. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.