I would venture to guess that New York City subway riders have some of the most well-developed mental alternate realities. If you don’t get a seat, or can’t read your book with one hand while you stand, or that @#(%#(* level of Angry Birds CANNOT BE BEATEN, or you just plum forgot to bring something to entertain yourself, you will have to draw on your own mental resources to fend away the boredom for that often lengthy commute. I sometimes wonder what everyone on a subway car is thinking about under those blank middle-distance stare (wouldn’t it be cool if you could ask everyone and they would answer totally honestly? I smell a cool art project of some kind! Or being beaten up when you creepily ask people what they’re thinking on the subway!).
Anyhoo, if anyone asked me what I was thinking when I zoned out between 79th street and 42nd street, the answer would most likely be theater (duh). But lately, I have been pondering a specific idea.
Apparently, in what is called the “Sports World” (like theater, but with fewer spangles and often tighter pants), there exists the concept of ‘retiring the jersey’, in which a great player is honored by having his jersey number retired. I think this is a great idea; what greater honor is there than to say to someone that their contribution to their sport is such that nobody can ever entirely replace them? This got me thinking about whether there was a correlate with theater – what are the performances I have seen that are so stellar, so definitive, that the role will be forever claimed by that person in my mind?
Now keep in mind, this is not the same as asking which performances were really great. I have seen many great performances in my time (I am very lucky), and I have many more to look forward to (I hope). But there is a difference between seeing someone act and thinking ‘wow, that was really great’ and seeing someone act and knowing somewhere deep in your soul that no matter who you see do that part again in the future, you have already seen the magical alchemy of a person blending so completely with a role that the role itself will look like that person forever in your imagination, and all others will be compared to them. So, with that in mind, I present my first retired jersey to the man and performance who started this whole thing in my brain to begin with:
Alan Cumming as The Emcee, Cabaret, 1998
Put simply, I do not expect to feel in a theater the way I felt when I saw Alan Cumming play the Emcee. And that’s not meant to be dirty – I simply mean that what Alan Cumming created in this part was a blend of things so strange and vivid, so touching and offensive and bizarre, was so specific I don’t think it can ever exist except between him and the audience of that show. Traipsing onto the stage in a vaguely S and M halter, with red glitter on his nipples and trackmarks on his arms, he was charming and disgusting, threatening and welcoming, all at once, and I remember being attracted to him and repulsed by him, and repulsed that I was attracted to him, all at the same time. He was the perfect representation of the atmosphere that made the show so great, and having him as your pervy Virgil to this dark and dirty underworld made you want to spend more time there even as you watched the wings hoping he would come back. He was so raw that it was hard to believe he was acting at all, and he was entirely unique. And though I know many others have played the Emcee to acclaim (and there are many who would consider Joel Grey’s Emcee worthy of their retired jersey list), but in my mind, there is only one. Alan Cumming, your jersey is retired. This part is yours.
P.S. I will note, though, that though Alan Cumming will forever be synonymous with the role of the Emcee in my mind, his replacement in this revival was Michael C. Hall, at that time totally unknown (I remember distinctly reading the news, smarting from the hurt that I wouldn’t get to see Alan Cumming play that role again, and thinking ‘who is Michael C. Hall?!?!), but now star of the most excellent Showtime series ‘Dexter’. I didn’t see him, which I deeply regret, because I bet his Emcee would have been spectacular – different, perhaps a deeper danger than Alan Cumming’s hedonistic Satyr, but I would imagine that the same quiet, under-the-surface darkness that makes him such a great secret serial killer would have made him a really interesting Emcee.
P.P.S. Also notable is that the Emcee on the tour of Cabaret was Norbert Leo Butz, who was probably also amazing, given that he too has his own unique blend of danger/warmth/vague perviness.
The idea of casting these guys when they were young and new in these roles makes me want to go back to casting again, despite my misadventures. But mostly, it makes me want to write a sitcom for the three of them called Emcee! In which they all share a condo in Florida and try to deal with things like the trials of co-habitation and sunshine, and Joel Grey stops by their wacky older neighbor Emcee. Potential episode titles are ‘Six Ladies’, ‘Who Used Up All the Red Nipple Glitter?’, and ‘Ja, I Fucked Your Sandwich’.