Alan Cumming brings cabaret back to Edinburgh International Festival

Alan Cumming in a studio shoot in New York. Picture: Francis Hills

Alan Cumming in a studio shoot in New York. Picture: Francis Hills

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Inspired by the raucous dressing room parties he hosted while starring in Cabaret on Broadway, Alan Cumming developed a live show of favourite songs and stories. Now it’s a hot ticket at the Edinburgh International Festival. It’s going to be a blast the actor, author and activist tells Janet Christie.

Alan Cumming strides through The Bowery district in New York on the way to meet his dresser for his Edinburgh International Festival show, Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs. Late night cabaret, it’s billed as an evening of seductive songs and salacious celebrity stories at the Festival HQ in the heart of the capital. As he walks and talks to me on his mobile, I hear him being greeted by people who recognise him as he passes.

Alan Cumming as Dionysus
 in 
The Bacchae at the Edinburgh International Festival 2007. Picture: Neil Hanna

Alan Cumming as Dionysus in The Bacchae at the Edinburgh International Festival 2007. Picture: Neil Hanna

“Oh, someone’s waving,” he says, cheerily. The conversation pauses while he waves back, then continues chatting, taking the recognition in his stride. “People saying hello is ingrained in my daily life so I’m used to it, even though I am massively self-conscious. I’ve been an actor for 30 years and had various experiences of fame, so I don’t mind it.”

Famous for his numerous roles in film, on TV and on stage, the 51-year-old actor, writer and activist, is a Tony and Olivier Award-winner, multiple Golden Globe and Emmy nominee, and is known for TV roles like CBS’s hugely popular The Good Wife, films such as Eyes Wide Shut and theatre including Macbeth, Cabaret and the National Theatre of Scotland’s spectacular The Bacchae in 2007, in which he owned the stage as Dionysus in a gold kilt. He’s also written three books: Tommy’s Tale: A Novel of Sex, Confusion and Happy Endings, a bestselling memoir, the hard-hitting Not My Father’s Son, and now the forthcoming You Gotta Get Bigger Dreams. Subtitled My Life in Stories and Pictures, it’s a cabaret of photographs and anecdotes in which he takes us on a whirlwind tour of his adventures and misadventures. Cumming has also been on a postage stamp, hung out on Sesame Street and has an OBE. So which of these many successes is he most recognised for?

“I don’t know,” he says. “Although sometimes you can guess from the people. In the US it’s Spy Kids, X Men, The Good Wife, Cabaret, and in the UK... it’s The High Life.”

For those too young to remember the glory days before reality TV made shows about the eccentricities of real life passengers and airline crew, Cumming and his comedy partner Forbes Masson captured it in all its budget glory in this Scottish sitcom about an airline operating out of Prestwick Airport.

Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs at Carnegie hall. Picture: Tr�

Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs at Carnegie hall. Picture: Tr�

“And just last week, in the US, there was a woman who knew me from the Victor and Barry shows in the 1980s. It’s surprising. You leave a trail behind you and it’s nice to see what people remember,” he says. “With Cabaret, there’s an image of me with my arms over my head and people often do that when I go past.”

I picture him topless, arms draped over his head, grinning his famous Emcee leer as he pads the New York pavements. You wouldn’t be surprised if he did. Cumming has chutzpah and the cheek to carry it off. But this time he’s stepping out from behind his characters, singing as himself and laying himself bare (probably not literally, although you never know) and giving a personal take on songs that he loves, joined by Emmy-winning musical director Lance Horne and Eleanor Norton on cello. The genesis of the show was his raucous dressing room parties when he was starring in his Tony-award winning role in Cabaret on Broadway, and the playlist includes everything from songs from showbiz and the charts to torch and pop, with reinterpretations of works by Kurt Weill, Noel Coward, Stephen Sondheim, Rufus Wainwright, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus.

“These are songs I always wanted to sing. A lot I discovered when I was doing Cabaret and would DJ at my post-show parties. I used to play these songs and when people asked who it was, I wouldn’t tell them because I wanted them not to judge or be cynical, but just to let go and enjoy. A lot were songs I thought I would hate, but I listened to them over and over again, grew to love them and wanted to sing them in my own way.

“The show doesn’t try to be fashionable, but authentic... and fabulous. Though there’s humour and irony in the title, Sappy Songs, I’m not being completely ironic. I think they’re beautiful, and am completely connected to them. I sing them completely faithfully,” he says.

Debuting at the Carlyle Cafe in New York last year, Cumming has been touring Sappy Songs across the US, Canada and Australia, selling out Carnegie Hall en route, and releasing the songs in a live album, Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs. It comes with a stonking cover in which he poses naked, his modesty covered by a bottle of champagne, flanked by two naked dancers with gravity-defying buttocks.

The show and album also demonstrate Cumming’s mercurial ability to be raucous and ribald, yet touching and intimate at the same time, with stories and songs that are personal as well as public. There’s Goodnight Saigon, sung in tribute to the veteran grandfather he never knew yet writes so movingly about in his memoir, Broadway tunes and baby boomer anthems. He wears his patriot heart on his sleeve with a tender rendition of Mother Glasgow and then brings it up to date with a mash-up of Adele’s Someone Like You and Lady Gaga’s The Edge of Glory, a knickerbocker glory of sound topped off with the sparkler of Katy Perry’s Firework.

Dividing most of his time between homes in New York and Edinburgh, Cumming lives an international lifestyle that he shares with his husband, illustrator Grant Shaffer and their dogs, Jerry and Lala. It’s a life of TV and film sets, A-lister parties and glamour, yet Cumming also has a place in the Catskills, upstate New York, where the hills and woods are a reminder of his childhood growing up near Carnoustie. You can take the boy out of Angus but you can’t take the Monikie church jamboree tombola out of the boy, for it was there aged around ten that he bought the ticket that won him a Kodak camera and sparked a lifelong interest in photography that has led to his latest book, and his appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival at the end of the month.

You Gotta Get Bigger Dreams serves up just what you’d expect from Cumming: generous lashings of celeb gossip, glamour, humour and charm, with dollops of cheek and sass, as well as the championing of causes, from a brilliant story teller. It’s a completely different dish from his last book, the more emotionally raw and hard-hitting, Not My Father’s Son, which details family secrets and the fallout from his father’s erroneous belief for many years that Cumming was not his son. It’s as if this book couldn’t be written until the previous one was out of the way.

“This is almost the book I meant to write last time, and then circumstances prevailed and I wrote the book I did. I made that experience into a book and embraced it and let it flow through me. When you do something like that, and tell people, that processes it,” he says.

“This book is more what people were expecting, although both are about my life. It’s fun and not nearly as intense and probing. It’s a book of stories inspired by photos I have taken and things that have happened to me over the years.”

The pictures come first for Cumming, who has loved photography ever since he won that camera. However, there was something of a hiatus in his development after his early pictures enraged his bullying father with their off-centred framing and expense of processing that meant his camera was put away in the attic until the adult Alan was able to escape and take up photography again. He starts the book with his early efforts.

“I remember winning the camera and taking those pictures of my granny, my mum and dad and some sheep. I thought I was centring them, but it was all to the left of the frame. The one of my mum and dad, I cut him half out. Yes, that was telling. When we got the photos back from the chemist they were all like that. The photo of some sheep, with a huge expanse of dry stane dyke, that was the final straw and he wouldn’t let me take any more.”

But now he’s back, with You Gotta Get Bigger Dreams.

“I like the fact that a lot of the things we do as adults are the things we weren’t allowed to do as children,” he says. “I was always taking pictures and they came first, but I like writing about my life too, because I think it’s fascinating. Weird things keep happening to me, like in my last book. Also, I didn’t want to do it like ‘I was born here and did this, then that’, because I try to do things in a way that’s different and not so predictable, and I thought photos were a good way to do that.

“So I started with three of the photos I took with the camera I won, then it’s more about my life as it is now, and there’s a whole section that’s just photos where I’m out having fun. And there’s a big chapter with Gore Vidal that includes a really intense chat about love and sex. I was finishing my novel at the time and he said to me, ‘you’re not a novelist, you should write about what you know’. I was going to call it ‘I’m Writing This Because Gore Vidal Told Me To’ then I wrote the story about Oprah who said ‘you gotta get bigger dreams’, and I grew to love that and it became the title.

“It came from the time I went to an event where the Elie Wiesel Foundation was honouring Oprah and I took my friend Eddie with me because he’s her biggest fan. He really wanted a photo with her even though I didn’t want to take one. So there was a moment when she was coming towards us, going to the loo, and he was saying ‘may I have a picture with you? It would be my dream’ and she said, ‘you gotta get bigger dreams’ but paused, and I took the picture. It’s terrible – Oprah is beautifully in focus and Eddie is a happy blur – but I like that. And I really like Oprah’s quote, self-deprecating but sharp.”

The book is a generous slice of Cumming’s life in words and pictures and presents the multiple facets of the man. There’s the celebrity beaming out from pages studded with the likenesses of Sylvester Stallone, Kylie, Joan Collins, Liza Minnelli, Paul McCartney, Diddy, Iman, Oprah, Liz Taylor and Carrie Fisher, to name a few. There’s the party animal out on the tiles having fun, then there’s the political activist, taking a selfie with Alex Salmond after making a speech at the launch of the Yes campaign in 2012 and beaming with Nicola Sturgeon among Glasgow crowds on the eve of the 2014 independence referendum. The family man is there too, with pictures of his mother smiling fondly at her son, possibly checking out the back of his latest hairstyle in a black and white picture in New York in 1999. His husband Grant of the “rocking bod” is there and the various dogs that have filled his life, from Honey who goes from pound to pampered posing pooch to gleeful feral prairie dog when she discovers the Badlands on their 2004 road trip from New York to Vancouver, Leon the chihuahua in a mini sombrero, and latest canine companions, Jerry another chihuahua and Lala, also a rescue dog currently awaiting the results of her DNA test (readers of Cumming’s memoir will get the irony) though he reckons there’s collie in the mix. Lala was about to holiday with her owners in the Outer Hebrides prior to the Edinburgh shows, and no doubt this homecoming to the land of sheep for the Puerto Rican/Manhattan rescue dog will be recorded for posterity.

Cumming spoils us with his celebrity tales, there’s Diana Ross shoving him out of the way to get to the dance floor at an Oscars party (to dance to her own song), Gore Vidal unbuttoning his flies, Helen Mirren being turned on to Crocs and a Bob Hoskins tapeworm story that despite (mercifully) lacking an accompanying photo, still manages to leave an image in your mind as impossible to shake as the worm.

After the show and book tour, Cumming is looking forward to starring in the upcoming feature-length narrative film, After Louie, being made by activist and artist Vincent Gagliostro. Being crowdfunded through Kickstarter, it takes a look at gay life and history through the eyes of Sam, played by Cumming and is the kind of opportunity that his other more commercial ventures like The Good Wife allow him to be able to afford to explore.

“After Louie wouldn’t be getting made if I wasn’t doing it. Because I’m a bit famous, doing other things means you can get things made that would never have been made,” he says.

Not that Cumming hasn’t enjoyed playing hard-bitten politico Eli Gold in The Good Wife.

“He’s a laugh and good to play, but I was ready to leave at the end of the season before last. I felt it was getting a bit repetitive. I said to my agent, what I do is just walk into rooms and say ‘what the hell is going on?’ and the next season’s script was the same, so they said they would do something. They gave me more to do and I’m really glad I stayed to be at the end of a cycle. It was a great experience and allowed me to be in New York and have structure and stability and turn into a grown-up. I played a man in a grey suit. Not the weirdo. Although Eli has weird bits in there too,” he says.

After Edinburgh, it’s back on the road with Sappy Songs and Cumming is keen to progress with another book, another memoir, when he gets a break in his schedule.

“It’s about coming to America. It uses the device of a pair of specs I have had for 20 years, and keep breaking and fixing and losing and finding. Mostly it’s about coming to America and being an outsider here,” he says.

“I’m always going to write books, I’ve always written. I like the structure of the book. I like firing off the ideas, and the solitude. And I like the fact that it’s not going to be performed publicly.”

Something to be savoured in private, an intimate exchange for an audience of one, without the razzamatazz of a public performance. And there we have the paradox that is Alan Cumming. Public, private, intimate, exhibitionist, party animal, animal whisperer, husband, son, writer, photographer, actor, singer, he is all of those things. And more. And right now he’s heading our way, with a sappy song in his heart.

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