Queer Cabaret Folk

Wensday, August 10, 2016

by: Joel Martens
Source: ragemonthly.com
Edited by: Marcy

“Honing your craft,” is a phrase often bandied about in the theatre community. It’s a way to collect and expand on the tools necessary for building a successful career. Something Randy Harrison has been doing, ever since he first saw Sandy Duncan step on the stage in her famed role as Peter Pan.

“I was probably four or five years old. I don’t necessarily remember the music, per se, but I do remember her flying and the proscenium of the stage. I remember thinking it was almost like a portal to another world…And that I wanting to be on the other side.”

It’s been an ongoing lesson ever since, even during his early days growing up in Nashua, New Hampshire, “There was a company there called the Nashua Actorsingers and they did one big musical a year and one children’s per year and I started doing it. I think I did like four between the ages of six and ten. It certainly wasn’t professional, but it was really joyous and such a great experience. I loved every minute of it.”

Musical studies in high school and then college, propelled him further into musical theatre, teaching him a valuable lesson about what was important. “I love music, but by the time I graduated from theatre school at Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, I knew I wouldn’t be satisfied doing just music.” The beginnings of defining that successful career.

Now, on to the rest of Randy Harrison’s story… Do you think of yourself as more of a musician who can act, or an actor who sings?

I’m an actor first. I do not think of myself as a musician. I love music and I like to sing, but my connection to music has always been through the lyric and through dramatic intention or poetic intention. It’s been a challenge for me, even though I studied piano and theory a bit, I have never been able to completely cross over to the place where music becomes completely natural. I’m shockingly unmusical for someone who is in a musical, if that makes any sense. (Laughs) I consistently try, but there is this learning curve that I just can’t seem to push myself beyond.

It’s been about 16 years since Queer as Folk and your role as Justin. A great deal has changed since then. Did you have a sense about how important it was at the time?

I knew that the sexuality and sexual content was and would be socially important. I was only 22 and really had just grown up myself. I remember so clearly being desperately starved for any kind of representation coming out of high school and junior high and find things like E.M. Forster’s Maurice, or things like Jeffrey…Everything was such a huge deal. Angels in America, Tales of the City, anything that even had a gay character in it, you knew about it. Much less, “Oh my god,” a gay kiss. In that way, I knew it would be socially important to gay people to some extent. But, I didn’t know what the overall reaction would be, or that it would last as long as it did.

It did so much to break down stereotypes for the gay community and in many ways holds up surprisingly well.

In a way it’s like a time capsule or a period piece now and on that level, it’s still relevant. The show was pre PrEP, pre apps, even the club scene has changed since then. At least in New York, there are no more big clubs. Everything is pretty much gone now because everyone is on their apps. It’s interesting to see what those characters were discussing at the time and how so many have happened now.

Queer as Folk really opened up the doors for so many of the shows that came after. Things like The L Word, Glee, Looking and all of the other shows that came after. Do you get a sense of the show’s importance in the scheme of those things?

I do and I don’t. I don’t think that it gets acknowledged very much and that’s unfortunate. The most I see is when I meet people at stage doors and in public and hear the stories of how it helped people come out. That’s the legacy of the show that I’m the most aware of. We were part of a zeitgeist, a change in gay representation and how we discussed gay rights—fighting for marriage equality and all of that—we were a part of that.

Was it difficult for you to leave that role behind?

Not at all.

How about in other people’s eyes?

Justin was such an archetypical kind of gay ingénue and wasn’t necessarily what I was doing initially in my career. I think if I had wanted to stay on television, I might not have been able to anything different if I did anything at all. I had to age and do very different work. I was desperate to get back to the theatre after having been in front of the camera for five years. I was able to do things that were very different from what I had been doing, in very different media and that was great.

You’ve really worked hard at expanding your experience as an actor with roles in Wicked, Equus, Amadeus, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, a personal favorite is your work in Glass Menagerie at the Guthrie in Minneapolis, a place that’s special to my heart. Do you have a favorite role that you’ve done so far?

My favorite so far is Lucky in Waiting For Godot. I love Beckett, I just love the language, humor and the world view. It resonates with me and is such fun to do as an actor. The Emcee role in Cabaret is another, too. It’s the most exhausting, exciting and challenging thing that I’ve done before and the broadest use of my talents. It’s also the longest run I’ve ever done, it will be six months next week.

How did you come to the role as Emcee?

I auditioned for it. I grew up with Joel Grey in the part, but I knew the production and the revival and saw it three times between ’98 and ‘02 and twice with Alan Cumming in it. At the time, I didn’t consider myself an Emcee, so I didn’t think too much about the show. I wasn’t a boy soprano and couldn’t sing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” high enough, so I wasn’t too interested in Cliff either. (Laughs) As I got older and did more comedy, improv work and character-based stuff, that changed. I’d aged into being considered for this kind of part.

The role came up for the Cabaret touring company and I auditioned hard for it. I really wanted it badly! I worked with the associate choreographer Cynthia Onrubia, who taught me most of the choreography for “Willkommen” so that I could feel what it was like in my body, which was incredible. As an actor it’s rare to audition for something that you’re excited about, whether you have the job or not. After the initial audition, even before I knew if I was called back, I couldn’t stop working on “Willkommen” because I was so excited imagining myself playing the role. It’s such an incredible part.

How relevant do you think that the play is now in comparison to when it was originally created?

I think it’s shockingly relevant right now…Scarily so. The scapegoating and hateful rhetoric going on in our political realm, the massive amount of militarization and weaponization of our citizenry, along with the rising level of violence in society, is really frightening. Cabaret was written in ’66 as a response to the Civil Rights Movement. Sort of an attempt, I think, to rally awareness in Northeastern Americans. Planting the seeds of “You can’t pretend that this doesn’t affect you” and “If you’re not a part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” Speaking out against oppression and the consequences of political disengagement and inaction.

We were in Des Moines shortly after the primary and in North Carolina very shortly after HB2 was passed, so it’s been a really incredible experience. Like many other Americans, I think I’ve felt helpless. When Orlando happened, I was in the middle of a layoff and was so excited to come back to work because I honestly felt, it was one of the best uses I have as a human being. I’m so lucky to be a part of a story that actually engages in what’s happening now, on some level.

 Cabaret has a huge moral shift at the end, the rug really gets pulled out from under the audience, which in truth, is actually very gratifying as a performer. (Laughs) The more you engage the audience in the fun of the show, the sexy, raucousness of it, the more horrified they are at the ending. It’s so gratifying to hear the comments after the show and understand how gut-punched they feel. You almost feel guilty, but then you realize how great it is to hear them respond…And how that means you must be doing your job well.

Do you have a favorite audience moment so far?

I particularly liked moments, after three or four of the shows, when at the end the audience was so shocked that they didn’t applaud for a long time. There is a long pause at the end when I go off stage, and usually right at the end there’s the big drum crash and then people start applauding, but sometimes it’s just dead silence until the lights come back up. It feels really, really powerful and makes me very happy.

“Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome, I’m Cabaret, au Cabaret, to Cabaret…”