InTheater Magazine  10-4-99

Klub Kids

Susan Egan and Michael Hall get down and dirty in Cabaret

Their strangely inky hair color is the only off-stage clue that Susan Egan and Michael Hall are currently reigning over the dark world of Cabaret.  Sitting together on the overstuffed sofa in Egan’s Studio 54 dressing room, the two young actors are fresh-faced, polite and well-spoken.  Critics agree that Egan and Hall have made the roles of Sally Bowles and the Emcee their own—a considerable achievement given the Tony-winning performances that preceded them in Sam Mendes’ visionary production.  To join Cabaret, Egan—whose Broadway credits include Beauty and the Beast and Triumph of Love—passed on  

reprising her role opposite Carol Burnett in Putting It Together.  Hall will take a leave from the Kit Kat Klub next month to appear in Mendes’ workshop of the new Sondheim musical Wise Guys opposite Nathan Lane and Victor Garber.

Let’s begin by talking about the importance of the audience in this production.

Egan: The audience is actually a character in the play, and every night the reaction is different.  My favorite reaction is when no one claps at the end of the show.  When they clap right away, that worries me.

Hall: One night, there was a fair-haired guy who was speaking in German, standing up and spilling drinks and saying lewd things to the Kit Kat Girls.  He topped off his performance by applauding at [a harrowing moment] at the end of the show.  That was frightening.  What’s interesting for me is that the audience is my scene partner; I don’t really act with anyone but them and the Kit Kat Girls.

Egan: I love listening to the top of Act Two every night as Michael pulls people up from the audience to dance.  Sometimes he really has to earn his paycheck.

Hall: Some nights, I pick people who are a little too drunk and can’t quite get up the steps.  I’ve managed to pick the one partially blind person in the audience; the one person with a wooden leg.

Do you wish that the audience wasn’t drinking during the show?

Egan: Oh, no, because that’s the atmosphere; recreating that Berlin cabaret venue in 1929-1930 makes people feel a part of the play, as opposed to observers of the play.  In fact, I worry when too many people are drinking club soda.

How much of a challenge was it to step into such a successful production, on the heels of such acclaimed performances?

Hall: It was a huge challenge, but I think it’s a testament to the strength of Sam’s conception of this material that people as good as Susan and Carole Shelley and Michael Hayden are the third or fourth replacements.  It’s that strong a piece.

Egan: People want to do it.

Hall: I was excited and honored at the opportunity to replace Alan [Cumming]—and I was terrified, but everybody in the company was so understanding.  Even at my first performance, when I felt like I’d been shot out of a cannon and was just trying not to run into anybody, the energy I got from the audience at the end [told me that] this production works; it really, really supports you.

Egan: I’m a fool—I wasn’t scared at all.  This show has been the portals of freedom for me.  I have sent such a long time as an ingenue, acting in a little box—as the straight man, the eyes of the audience, as the girl who’s good and strong and courageous and…not me!  I’ve felt constricted in everything I’ve done up to this point.  With this show, my arms are stretched out wide, and I’m so happy.  I think that that’s inherent in the role, but Sam’s conception is so amazing and so solid that every Sally has been extremely different.

I’d have thought you might need to tailor your performance to fit this very distinctive production.

Egan: That’s what I thought, too, and I didn’t audition for Cabaret for two years because of that.  I loved Natasha [Richardson] in the show, but she is a foot taller than me, six or seven years older, and much icier.  I couldn’t make her choices—they wouldn’t fit my body or my personality—and I just thought, “They’re not going to cast me.”  It wasn’t until my manager talked me into auditioning that I realized that no one was asking me to be Natasha.  Every Sally has made her own choices; it’s not the carbon copy thing that most of Broadway is.

Hall: I figured that if they’d wanted someone to simulate Alan’s performance, they wouldn’t have cast me because I’m so physically different from him.  At the same time, watching Alan’s performance was one of the most important directions I got while I was working on the role, because he had been with the show from its inception in London.  I’m amazed when people say, “You really made it your own,” because I stole from Alan right and left.  I feel like I’ve personalized it, but I certainly didn’t set out to say, “Oh, I’m going to do it differently.”  I immediately conceded to his brilliance.  Fortunately, I didn’t see the show until after I got the job.  They cast me at 7, and I was sitting in the audience at 8.  Alan walked out and I said, “Wow, this is going to be interesting!”  His image was burnt into the back of my eyelids for quite some time.

Do you find it intimidating to be so exposed physically to the audience?  They’re literally inches away from the stage.

Hall: I find it liberating, ultimately.

Egan: It was very intimidating at first.  When I got the job, I watched the show and I was thinking, “Are these girls waxed?”  I’m a dancer, and tights do a lot for a woman’s legs!  Then I recalled my dinners with friends during Beauty and the Beast.  I’d be eating my cheeseburgers and fries and Marin Mazzie would be having a salad.  She was in Passion at the time, and she said, “You haven’t really lived until you’ve been naked on Broadway.”  I feel like I’m getting close.  What’s so marvelous about this show is that the girls have beautiful bodies that are all very different and real.

How about you, Michael?  You seem much more mild-mannered than this version of the Emcee!

Hall: The character I’ve created is perhaps further from who I am sitting on a couch than Alan’s characterization was, but that’s been fun for me.  I’ve sort of had to go farther down different roads…

Egan: …and this cast will take you there!  My joke is that people ought to see this show from backstage.  You have to trust these people implicitly because you are all over each other physically and emotionally in this play.  There’s a camaraderie and a familiarity.

Hall: But it’s professional.

No backstage orgies?

Hall: No, it’s more like we’re allowing one another to fantasize about the orgies, to look at one another with those eyes.  If we actually had the orgies, it would be a disappointment.

Have you ever carried a big show like this, Michael?

Hall: No.  But I don’t feel like I carry this show, I feel like the show carries me.

Egan: I disagree wholeheartedly.  You are the window into the world, and the audience reaction to him in this show…!

Hall: My background through college was singing in choirs and doing musicals, but when I got to graduate school at NYU, I was trained as an actor rather than in musical theater.  But I’ve continued to sing and do workshops, and I always knew that I would come back to it.

Tell us about your role in Wise Guys.

Hall: It’s a historical musical about the Mizner brothers; the more entrepreneurial architect brother was responsible for developing the Palm Beach area, and I play this rich young man who bankrolls the real estate boom there.  The material has probably changed since the first reading, but I had a trio and a duet.

Egan: With Nathan Lane—hello!  Michael is marvelous in it.  I went to their last reading, and I saw this straitlaced, preppy guy with reddish brown hair.  They said, “He’s playing the Emcee.”  I said, “The guy in the suit?  Excellent!”

Hall: You probably thought, “What are they doing?”

Will you come back to Cabaret after the Wise Guys workshop?

Hall: I definitely hope to; I’m just not sure how long I’ll come back.  At this point, I don’t feel ready to leave this show.  I don’t know that I ever will.

Susan, was it a difficult decision to do Cabaret rather than Putting It Together?

Egan: The universe made the decision for me.  I was in the middle of difficult negotiations [for Putting It Together] when this offer came, and the difference was that the people at the Roundabout [producers of Cabaret] made it apparent that they wanted me; I didn’t get that feeling with the Putting It Together people.  It turns out that they did want me, but for whatever reason, it didn’t work out.  Is my heart going to ache a little bit when Putting It Together opens?  Yeah, because Carol Burnett is one of my idols and Stephen Sondheim is a god.  I went to college on Carol’s scholarship at UCLA!  And I won the scholarship doing a scene from She Loves Me.  Then I got to work with Carol in LA, and I got to meet Joe Masteroff when I came into Cabaret—it all comes full circle.  Ruthie Henshall will be amazing in Putting It Together, and I’m getting to act a wonderful, three-dimensional character in a book musical.  I’m happier in this show than I have ever been.

I love watching you with Michael Hayden as Cliff.

Egan: I love Michael Hayden!  We did a production of State Fair together in North Caroline before it went to Broadway, and before I did Beauty and the Beast and before he did Carousel.  We played brother and sister, and I still feel that way about him.  He keeps me honest.  I don’t muddy things up in our scenes, and we pass the ball back and forth.  It’s like a basketball game.

What are your professional goals?

Egan: I long to do a straight play—Shaw or Moliere or something fun.  That’s all I did in college, but if you can sing, they sort of make you sing.  Musicals make money, so that’s what’s produced.  I have an independent film coming out that I’m excited about [Man of the Century].

Hall: I haven’t had enough experience in film or television to say that I prefer them to theater, but I want to do a little bit of everything.  In this day and age, I don’t think you can have a lasting career without doing that.

Egan: The most flexible actors do it all: Glenn Close, Matthew Broderick, Kevin Kline.  If you dabble in everything, then you don’t get burned out.

So, do you have any groupies yet?

Egan: The other night in the middle of the show, Michael was in the audience and this woman stood up and kissed him—with her tongue!  How come those things never happen to me?

Hall: I think it was a woman.  She didn’t have stubble!  The show has groupies and I’m just thankful that they’ve accepted me with the huge shoes I had to fill.

 Kathy Henderson