Just like the mercurial emcee character he famously played in the West End and Broadway production of the musical Cabaret in the 1990s, Alan Cumming is hard to pin down. The Scottish thespian, writer, singer, and activist swings between wildly different personas on stage and screen -- from the vicious anti-hero Mac the Knife in Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera to a drag queen party promoter in The L Word television series. Beyond performance, he's done everything from campaigned for Scottish independence to create his own line of perfumes.
With his touring cabaret act, however, Cumming is intent on drawing out his sentimental side. Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs comes to San Francisco's Castro Theatre for one night on Thursday, Jul. 30. It's the artist's third such foray into cabaret. (His previous two song-infused, solo shows -- I Bought A Blue Car Today and Uncut -- both toured the country and made pit-stops in San Francisco).
Featuring intensely personal songs like "The Climb" by Miley Cyrus and Annie Lennox's "Why," Sappy Songs got storming reviews when it played at New York's ritzy Cafe Carlyle last year. The New York Times called it an "emotional firestorm," while The Guardian said of the artist, "everything he did seemed to be designed to make the cafe’s patrons clutch their pearls."
KQED caught up with Cumming while he was in production for After Louie, an upcoming feature film about contemporary gay life in the wake of the AIDS epidemic.
This show is a real weeper, I hear. What's the impetus behind exploring your rawest feelings and emotions?
Well it's a weeper in some parts, but also hilarious in others. What I wanted was to do a show that was really honest and personal and emotional. Therefore I had no choice but to be raw and open. I think you have to be prepared to be vulnerable in order to connect properly with an audience.
How do you go about selecting songs for the show?
The songs are either ones I have always loved and wanted to sing or ones that I listened to at Club Cumming -- my dressing room parties after performances of Cabaret at Studio 54 on Broadway -- and that I fell in love with. Some of them are by artistes that I never felt I would love, or songs I never thought I would sing. I think that when you listen to a song without prejudice, sometimes you can hear it in a different way. Also, all the songs are ones that I feel I can bring something to, and maybe make the audience rediscover. There is no point in me singing a song if I can't reinvent or reinterpret it. I don't have a nice enough voice to just to sing a song well.
Most people know you from your movies and from performing in big, splashy musicals and plays. What draws you to doing a solo show?
I have grown to love the connection I get with an audience performing in this way. There is no veil of a character between us and it really is just me, out there, being myself. But I don't think of it as a solo show really. I have my wee band, and I truly love them and all the fun we have traipsing round the country making music and mischief.
You're a prominent gay rights activist. How does your activism inform your art and visa-versa?
I feel very connected to what I feel is important as a human being and what I choose to do in my work. As I get older and also as I make more of my own work, I see that my activism is infused and very central to my performing. This is especially true in a show like this, which is really just me standing up there and being me. It is filled with my beliefs and opinions. My activism and politics are totally present and part of everything in it.
You've performed in the Bay Area before. What are the biggest draws of coming to San Francisco for you?
Well my husband is from the Bay Area so it means I get to see his family and friends and have a bit of a vacation. And I always like finding out more about San Francisco. It's one of those cities that I have been to a lot, but only for short trips. So each time I go it's like a new adventure.