Interview: Benjamin Eakeley discusses relevance, meaning and importance of Cabaret in today's world

Posted at 2:17 PM, Feb 23, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-23 15:14:27-05

Cabaret is a play that draws the audience in with its provocative dancing and songs, and immerses them into the world of pre-World War II Berlin, at the Kit Kat Klub. A moving, profound, fun and devilishly enticing play.

I was able to sit down with Benjamin Eakeley, who plays Clifford Bradshaw. An American writer who finds himself at the Kit Kat Klub, finds love and so much more.

Read our one-on-one interview and learn about what it is like to be a part of the Tony Award-winning production of Cabaret, and how the show – celebrating its 50th anniversary – is still, if not more, relevant in today’s world.

Jon Szerlag - Your character, Clifford Bradshaw, can you describe who he is?

Benjamin Eakeley - I play an American writer who travels to Berlin at the dawn of New Year's in 1939 looking for a story. But really looking for his voice. This is a guy who has been struggling not only for something to write about, but for his place in the world. He tried London and Paris, and he is trying to find material to give voice to his story. And his story literally slaps him in the face when he gets to Berlin, so it is the right choice for him.

But he gets taken and he meets this crazy cast of wonderful, fascinating, delicious, seedy open hearted characters that take him on a rollercoaster ride.

JS - How does ‘Cabaret’ rank with your past performances?

BE - This is the best ever. Quite honestly this production, this show is one of the best scripts in the history of the theater. Also, the music is second to none. Third, our creative all became super famous creating this show. Sam Mendez, who is now one of our biggest movie directors in the world. Rob Marshall, our co-director and choreographer is one of the biggest movie directors in the world. Alan Cumming, his celebrity skyrocketed because of this. This was really his launch pad. I ended up doing the entire run in New York on Broadway with him last year and it is just, a reason why this happened for all of them. This is a great compliment of great minds getting together and working together on a great piece.

Compared to other shows, Cabaret is satisfying unlike any other. In part, because it such a great piece of political art. It is a show that allows us to be political professionally. Not moralistic, but it allows us to challenge our audience to question their world, their choices, their places in the world. That is just a beautiful gift.

The other really great gift about this, it allows us and the audience to deal with sex and sexuality on a totally un-judged level. There is a freedom on stage in this production which existed in the Weimar Republic, which was a very liberal time before these Nazi forces came in and made society super conservative. And actually, there is a freedom in that society that is unlike anything that we have experienced in our lifetimes here.

Getting the chance to explore that is a real pleasure.

JS - This is the 50th anniversary of the production, but it still seems relevant in today’s times.

BE -This show is written in 1966, and it is about society in transition, a particular society in transition. When I first did this show, I did the non-union (production) of this in 2001, right after September 11th.  Another hugely significant time in world events. And we started rehearsing a week after.

When we toured that I thought there would never be a better time to tour a show like this. It is provocative and it makes people think about our choices an the consequences of those choices. Or how we react and deal with these situations that come up around us that are dicey.

Then I did the show again in 2014/15 with Alan Cumming, and to be around him and his coterie of celebrity friends and just … I never thought there was going to be a better time than this.

Then this year, I started touring with this in the middle of the election cycle, and I thought, Oh my god, people are really responding to these messages. Now that the election is over, I am realizing this is the most important time ever. It is good writing, and good writing will always be relevant. This is a good example of that.

JS - This touches on a lot of controversial issues, but has the audience think about these in provocative, fun and entertaining way. What do you hope the audience walks away feeling, or thinking after seeing Cabaret.

BE - There is a great production of a Marty McDunham play on Broadway maybe a decade ago, called the Pillowman. It is about a man who commits these atrocities, and I walked away and was scarred for the next two weeks. I was walking down the street thinking ‘Oh God, am I capable of that? Do I have that kind of horribleness in me?” I hope I don’t, but who knows. I’m human. And that is a great, well written play.

The fact I thought about it as long as I did is evidence to me that was great writing and production. Similarly, I hope the audience walks away from our show, not traumatized necessarily, not traumatized at all, but provoked. And stimulated, and inspired to have conversations with family members, friends, law enforcement, with anybody about what we see around us.

This show is really about the importance of raising your voice and standing up for injustice and intolerance when we see it around us. It is not stated explicitly in the production, it is suggested. But that is also why it is great writing. People can walk away thinking something different. It is going to be different for everyone.

JS - How did you get into acting?

BE - I was a competitive classical pianist when I was a kid, and I knew I was interested in music but when it got towards the end of high school, I knew I wanted to be a singer, but I didn’t have any experience doing that. So my parents said to find a good liberal arts school with a good music program. They were very scared of me going into the arts. And I fortunately got into Yale and studied music and American Studies there. But we didn’t have much access to acting training there.

I thought I was going to be a management consultant until I didn’t get any job interviews (laughs). And then forced with that prospect, I thought I should pursue what I really wanted to do, which was singing and theater.

So, what I had to do was actually create the undergraduate education that I never had access to after graduation. Which put me at a little bit of a disadvantage compared to my peers who went to conservatories. But it put me on a lifelong pursuit of education which has served me well at the end of the day.

So, that is a long way of saying, by totally delaying my training, it has allowed me to kind of express myself pretty broadly. So, I have done film, television, theater; I have been very fortunate to have worked pretty broadly in all of those mediums.

When a great piece of theater like this comes up. It is a no brainer to commit a year to something like this. It is just a joy.

JS - Watching the show, it makes you feel like you are watching a Cabaret, like you are there. What does it feel like on the stage, to be a part of that?

BE - It feels exactly the same way. My first entrance is into the Kit Kat Klub, the girls are singing ‘Don’t Tell Mama,’ and I walk into the middle of it, and I see these girls in their lingerie singing this silly song with weird lyrics and being amazingly sexual. I get to stand on the stage and think oh my God, what have I gotten myself into, and do I have to go back. (laughs)

It’s nice you were feeling that in a way in the audience. The whole point is to create a sense of immersive theater. On Broadway, we did it on a thrust stage, so we had all these members of the orchestra on three sides of the stage. So, literally, these girls would turn around and their butts would be in the audience’s faces. And the Kit Kat Boys would be putting the moves on the people in the audience as well.

This is harder to accomplish because we are in a proscenium on this tour because we can’t actually build the stage out into the audience for every show. The numbers are flashy enough that they pull the audience in.

You see all these husbands and wives sitting there, and you see the wives in the seventh heaven, and you see these husbands really wanting to express their enthusiasm but feeling like they can’t because they are next to their wives. And eventually you see people get permission from their wives and everybody milks into it.

This show demands participation from the audience, and the Emcee sets it up at the beginning of the show. He’ll come in and he will actually speak to the audience. It conditions the audience from the very beginning to participate in the story that is being told. That is why it is even more moving and shocking when things take such a turn. Everyone is having such a great time, humor is used so effectively in this show that you think you are along for this fun, saucy ride and then there is a turn of events and you are like Oh God, I am in for more than I bargained for. You get sucked in.

It is literally genius writing and it uses humor so effectively as a tool. Not to distract the audience, but to evoke all the complexities of life. I’m sure there was joy, I’m sure, even as the 1930s, as things were really going down the drain in Berlin and in Germany and the Weimar Republic. As desperation was mounting, it is human to look for hope and to look for positivism even when the world around us is crumbling. And I think that is what this show expresses really well.

JS - Does that feeling of immersion on stage help with your performance?

BE - All I need to do is just open my ears and eyes and just react to what is ever thrown at me. Because I am an actor, it is the same script eight times a week, but it is not the same show eight times a week.

I have brilliant actors around me on stage who are constantly feeding me wonderful deliciously different things to respond to.

Sally Bowles is one of them, and she is just a gift in every way. She weasels her way into my heart in a different way every single day. Allison Ewing, who plays Fräulein Kost, this mesmerizing prostitute, who is disgustingly ravishingly every single night, and you can’t take your eyes off her.

There is just always something great to look at in this show (laughs). So my job is not that hard.

JS – Do you have a favorite scene?

BE - It changes every night, which is really great. Right now, I have a fight with Sally, it is not a huge fight but it is the beginning of when things start changing for us. And when we first start realizing that this relationship which was so blissful, may not be going in the same direction for the both of us. It is a simple but efficient and beautifully written scene. And to be able to look at Leigh Ann (Larkin) and see her behaving like an impetuous child, which triggers a similar reaction in me, it is just a joy to watch this relationship develop.

It seems weird that a fight would be my favorite part, but every day I feel that we are in a constant struggle to move towards truth, to discover truth that is in the text. It is one of the intellectual challenges of being an actor. But to be given the freedom to change our behavior on a show to show basis in a way that allows the show to breath in a human way is a big gift. It’s the small moments like that.

Also, there is one scene where I get to make out with everyone on stage (laughs) that one is my favorite part (laughs)

JS - What would you say about this show to bring people out who have seen the show?

BE - As somebody who has done this show several times, actually this production, one of the great things that has surprised me is that the show has grown with me as I have grown older and it has only hit me in a more impactful way the older I got.

So, no matter if people have seen this show on Broadway or I’m 1998 or in 2015, it is only going to be more relevant and impactful now than it was the first, the second or the third time they have seen it.

Everybody who comes to the show ends up thanking us and we feel so lucky to be telling this story. It is even more wonderful to get that response from the audience. That satisfaction of knowing that people are responding to what we are doing.

Cabaret is playing at the Wharton Center. For tickets and more information, click here.