A&E

Alan Cumming prepares to be vulnerable in Palo Alto

Scottish-American performer brings cabaret show to the JCC

Whether from his work in the theater or on the large or small screens, you know Alan Cumming, but do you really know him? This April 14, the Scottish-born star is bringing his critically-acclaimed one-person cabaret show, "Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs," to the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto.

"Sappy Songs" first premiered in 2015 in New York City, and Cumming has since toured it across the U.S., Canada, Australia and the U.K., as well as recorded a live album. The show has been in hibernation while he works on his new show, "Legal Immigrant," which premiered in 2018, but he's waking it up for a special performance in Palo Alto just as winter gives way to spring.

As "an honorary Jew after playing Eli Gold for seven seasons on 'The Good Wife,'" he said he's excited to head to the JCC "with a Jewish blessing!"

The Weekly spoke with him as he rode a train from New York City to Boston to learn more about the intimate show, from its creation to what audience members can expect to experience.

KP: Why is this show called "Sappy Songs?"

AC: I wanted to signal to the audience that I was going to be emotional and go for it. The show is authentic and vulnerable but the title is tongue-in-cheek. It is a funny show.

KP: Did you have any songs that were too sappy to make the cut?

AC: (Chuckles) Some songs got axed but I wouldn't have chosen them if they were too sappy. The songs I sing are songs that I feel I can bring something to. People may have heard them already, but they may have been overproduced or didn't hear what the song is actually about. The songs I like to sing are songs that have something to say.

KP: I'm sure that many people might expect you to focus on musical theater, but with the exception of some Sondheim, musical theater makes up the minority of your set list. How did you go about choosing songs?

AC: I actually sing more songs from musicals than I expected to. I have done a lot of theater but I've only been in two musicals: "Cabaret" and "Threepenny Opera." I have a niche: It's dark and German. When I'm choosing songs, certain songs reach out to me. Songs are funny things. The first time you hear a song, you may think, "Oh, I don't like that song," but then it keeps coming back to you, you hear it on the radio, it follows you.

KP: Unlike a musical with a clear storyline, this is a cabaret-style show. As you were writing the show, was there a story you wanted to tell?

AC: The throughline is authenticity. Everything I say on stage is true. Some of those things are really intense and some of those things are really funny. I ask the audience, "What is real and what is not?" At one point, I pull the rug out from under the audience with a really vulnerable but totally made up story. Even though you can be duped by the truth, everything I say on stage is true -- even the things that weren't true. What I mean by that is, it's important to represent who you are as a person. In my new show, I talk about aging, because that's something that's true and present for me right now.

KP: Do you feel that there is a huge difference between a show where you are yourself versus a show in which you play a part onstage?

AC: I've done a lot of shows like this over the years and I've learned that the more authentic and vulnerable you're able to be, you can really connect with an audience when you're being yourself. It's the same when you're an actor: The more of yourself that comes through the role you're playing, there's less and less of a veil between you and the audience. That doesn't mean you have to "play yourself." But good acting is being prepared to be vulnerable.

KP: How does the show change when you move from an intimate venue like the (New York's) Cafe Carlyle to another venue for a one-night performance? How do you engage the audience in unfamiliar spaces where you're not "the home team?"

AC: (Chuckles) The number of people and the size of the venue don't equate with intimacy. You could be in a stadium and still be intimate and authentic. Mostly on tour, I play big concert halls. In New York, I mostly play Joe's Pub or Cafe Carlyle, although I have done bigger venues. I'm in a frame of mind right now where I want to reach more people. I have a message and something I want to say, and I want to reach as many people as I can. You can make people feel as intimate and connected and like you're looking into their eyes in a concert hall as you can in a small room. It's just about how much ... you are willing to show yourself.

KP: Even though this cabaret is very funny, it also asks us to confront some weightier themes. How do you balance those themes with the humor?

AC: You just have to think about how you tell stories in real life. If you're someone who talks a lot and tells stories, you know how to slip in something real and vulnerable. Humor makes it more powerful. It's a lot of trial and error, and when you tell a story many times, you hone it and get better at telling the story. I'm Scottish, and I have a very dark sense of humor. It's important to understand that, even for the most awful things in life, there's still some humor to be found. You know -- laughing at funerals. ... There's lots of laughs in "Hamlet" if you know where to find them. That's how you survive. There's a saying in Scotland: "You have to laugh or you greet (cry)."

KP: You've worked in pretty much every performing medium there is. How do you prepare yourself to switch back and forth? Do you have a medium you prefer to perform in?

AC: I like to mix and match, and the fact that I'm so eclectic ... means that when I go back on tour, I come to the concerts more excited, more energized and looking forward to doing them. Because you've had a change, something different. And then you go and do some filming. You come back more fresh-faced each time you change genre. I find that when I do a lot of things at once, I actually become more focused. It's something I've mastered, staying completely in the moment.

KP: I know that you're very involved in charitable work in your "free" time. A there any charities that are particularly close to your heart or top of mind right now?

AC: It's been freezing in New York City. When it gets really cold, all of the homeless shelters are jam-packed. The Ali Forney Center for LGBTQ youth has been helping homeless youth whose parents have abandoned them because they told them they were gay or trans. It struck me the other day -- how on earth do you survive?

KP: And because I have many Whovians in my life who would kill me if I didn't ask: Can you talk a little bit about your recent turn as King James I on "Doctor Who?"

AC: It was actually kind of awful! It was wet and cold, and we were stranded in Cardiff in the middle of a snowstorm. But I did it because, as a little boy growing up in Scotland, I would watch "Doctor Who." It just seemed like a fun thing to do, although I knew it was going to be awful when every scene in the script started with "EXT. Night" or "EXT. Day" in February in Wales. I really like the idea that they've made Doctor Who a woman, and I got to parody Scottish politicians I dislike with my accent.

Freelance writer Kaila Prins can be emailed at kailaprins@gmail.com.

What: "Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs."

Where: Schultz Cultural Arts Hall, Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto.

When: Sunday, April 14, 7:30 p.m.

Cost: $150.

Info: Go to PA JCC.

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