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Amanda Palmer Comes to the Cabaret

The indie rock singer discusses taking on the role of the Emcee in A.R.T's gender-bending production of Cabaret

Amanda Palmer in Cabaret
(© A.R.T.)
For the better part of the last decade, Amanda Palmer has been one of the defining theatrical voices in indie rock world, first with her punk cabaret duo, The Dresden Dolls, and later as a solo act and as part of Evelyn Evelyn. Currently, however, Palmer is stepping in a new direction, starring as the Emcee in Stephen Bogart's new production of John Kander and Fred Ebb's classic musical Cabaret at the American Repertory Theater in Boston. TheaterMania spoke to her about working on this unusual project.

THEATERMANIA: You've described your music as Brechtian punk cabaret, so was it only a matter of time before you wound up doing this show?
AMANDA PALMER: It's possible that it was a self-fulfilling prophesy, but I have to say I was not all that familiar with Cabaret until I saw my drama teacher, Stephen Bogart, do it at Lexington High School back in 2001 -- and that production blew my mind.

TM: What was your relationship like with him in high school?
AP: He was an incredibly inspiring force for me and a lot of other people. The theater that we made in high school was very, very risky for teenagers. He had us digging very deep into the stuff that we were doing, and he also encouraged us to write and direct and create and follow our own impulses. The content of the material we would create was held without judgment, which was why he was so inspiring. We would come up with really crazy, dark, absurd stuff, and he would celebrate us and egg us on. So, it was a really fertile environment.

TM: How did your involvement in this production come about?
AP: When he told me he was doing a production of Cabaret back in 2001, I offered to help with the dialect coaching and the makeup. When I actually saw the production go up, I looked at him and said, "We have to do this someday. This production is too good just to go up on a high school stage." And I kept my word. I've been spending the last 10 years trying to finagle us a situation in which we could do it with a legit theater. When the American Repertory Theater asked if I wanted to do a project this season, I said, "I want to do Cabaret with Stephen Bogart!"

Amanda Palmer and company in Cabaret
(© A.R.T.)
TM: Why did you choose to play the Emcee instead of Sally Bowles?
AP: I could give you all sorts of highfalutin answers, but the real answer is that I think it's the more interesting role for 43 nights to perform. But it was a really tough call, because Sally Bowles would have been really fun to play around with. I love the fact that the Emcee is much more improvisational. I get to really inhabit the club every night, and mess around with everybody in the audience. You can change things up from night to night, which I definitely plan on doing.

TM: The show's website warns of nudity, simulated sex, and drug use. Is it fair to say that this will be a racier production of the show than the theater world is used to?
AP: This production is going to be really graphic in some sense of the word, but none of it is gratuitous. The debauchery, sex, and humor are really there to provide a doorway for the descent that the show takes into fascism. It's certainly not sexy for shocking sake; it's to serve the arc of the show.

TM: How is it for you performing someone else's songs for a change?
AP: It's a very refreshing feeling, because you can step into your role as performer and interpreter without having to worry about the judgment cast on you as a songwriter -- which is just one more heavy layer to consider when you're performing a song. That isn't to say I don't love performing my own songs, but there's a gravity to it that disappears when I'm covering somebody else's work.