Cabaret, comedy and a celebration of immigration. A new show hits Sarasota this weekend

Alan Cumming, a man of many talents, will appear this Saturday night at Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.
Alan Cumming, a man of many talents, will appear this Saturday night at Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. Courtesy of Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall

Tony-winning actor, producer, writer, activist and oh so much more, Alan Cumming is a pretty interesting guy.

When he’s not on stage, working on a book or filming episodes of the CBS police drama “Instinct,” he likes to get out on the road and get in front of a crowd.

His current show, titled “Legal Immigrant,” celebrates the Scottish-American’s 10-year anniversary of becoming a U.S. citizen.

The cabaret-style performance will feature songs, stories and a little bit of provocation.

Cumming won a Tony for his portrayal of the Master of Ceremonies in the 1998 Broadway revival of “Cabaret.”

You may also recognize him from roles like “Spy Kids” villain Mr. Fegan Floop, teleporting mutant Nightcrawler in “X2: X-Men United” cunning campaign strategist Eli Gold in the long-running CBS drama “The Good Wife” and as the host of PBS series “MASTERPIECE Mystery!”

Cumming spoke with the Bradenton Herald ahead of his stop Saturday at Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in Sarasota.

Here’s what he had to say.

Hi Alan. Where are you now?

I’m on a train from Boston to New York. On my day off I’m filming introductions that I do for the PBS series.

You have so many projects going at once; how do you stay sane?

I do have a lot going on. But I have people to help me; I have a system. Oh, there’s a fox — I can see a fox out the window.

But yes, you just have to be really organized, that’s the thing, when you do as many things as I do. And I have a lot of agents, managers, assistants.

Even then, I sometimes feel I’m overdoing it a little bit. It usually works out though.

Right now I’m doing this play, and after this play ends, I’m going to be going back on the road with my show and the band. I’ve got writing projects going, scripts and working on the television show. I’ve always got lots of things. I feel like I’m at the center, not of a whirlwind, but a whirlpool. I’m usually quite calm, but there’s lots of things going on around me.

Would you say you like a little bit of chaos?

Probably not chaos. I just don’t wait until the phone’s ringing. I make a lot of my own work. And the more eclectic I think you are as an artist, the more eclectic things you’re going to be asked to do. So I wouldn’t say it’s chaos. It’s all just exciting. It’s all things I really enjoy or things I believe in or else I wouldn’t do them.

Different forms of expressing yourself?


Do you have a favorite art form? Or all they all different?

It’s all different. Like right now I’m really eager to get back on the road to do this show, the cabaret show. The form of cabaret itself is a relatively new thing for me. It’s a really incredible connection to the audience. Very personal and authentic. The range of things you can do within that evening I really, really enjoy. But I also enjoy filming and all of the different things I do.

You even have a perfume line. How does the celebrity perfume thing work? Did you get to decide what it would smell like?

Yeah. What you do is you sit with a nose person. And they get all these details. I told him all the sort of smells I thought I liked. And then he loaded up a bottle. It’s really interesting because there’s not real language about smells. When you talk about smells you reference them by other smells. So it was a really interesting thing for me to do. And then he goes away and does his magic. I actually really enjoyed it as a bit of an art project.

I mean, some people thought it was a joke. Because I was parodying old fragrance art and making homages to old ads. And because of my name of course. But it was something I really wanted to do. But at the same time it was fun to parody the whole celebrity endorsement sort of thing. And I was trying to make fun of something that I was actually involving myself in at the same time. Which I guess is a good allegory for life.

You don’t hesitate to voice your opinion on political issues that you care about. What problems are on your mind right now?

Well, partly that’s why I did this show and called it “Legal Immigrant.” I want it to be a celebration of immigration. I’ve spent my 10 years being a citizen and I feel that in those 10 years attitudes toward immigration have really changed. Especially in the last few years. And I feel like it’s too easy to just blame our problems on immigration. “The other.” People that we don’t know.

All forms of bigotry are based on fear of the other. And obviously there are problems in the immigration system. But to deride the whole idea of immigration itself is deriding America and what it stands for. So that’s something that I’m trying to do in my show. To say, let’s not drink the Kool-Aid. Let’s celebrate what is great about this country and fix it; but not make the thing that made us what we are, and continues to do so, the problem. That’s just maddening to me. So that’s really my big aim with this show. To remind people that we are a nation of immigrants. And I know that this administration wants that to end. But you can’t pretend that it isn’t. That’s just historical revisionism. We should be proud of who we are.

Where have you taken the show so far?

I started it last summer. I toured it a bit in May and June, a couple of weeks in New York. Then I started filming my TV show again so I couldn’t do it very much. Then we did a little spurt in December, including West Palm Beach. Which was very interesting, being so close to where the president was domiciled at that point.

Actually what I love is taking my show and my views around the country with all of the different demographics. It’s just really interesting to connect to people. You realize things. It’s like saying New York is all liberal. Actually there are people there who aren’t. And same when you go to other states. I was in Arizona in December. It’s really incredible to talk about immigration in Arizona, which is right on the border. And I found the feeling there was totally confounding to my expectations. It was really positive.

I love going out and finding out what the country’s thinking.

How would you describe the show to someone who hasn’t seen it?

I’d say it’s a cabaret based on my 10 years of being an immigrant in this country. And also a celebration of immigration. And also about getting older. Funny stuff about getting older. And also talking about my homeland. I’m a Scottish-American, so I also talk a lot about that. I sing a song about that.

But overall, the great thing about cabaret as a form is that you can have all sorts of different genres and topics and material. So it’s kind of a smorgasbord, if you will. But with the overall theme being a celebration of the idea of immigration and the American ideal.

You’ve won a lot of prestigious awards throughout your career. Is there one that means the most to you?

The ones that mean the most to me are not to do with my work.

Obviously I’ve gotten them because of my work. But the ones that are for humanitarian things, I really feel. Because I’m basically being rewarded for standing up and saying what I believe in and being myself. And I think that’s much more of a rewarding thing than something that I’m already good at, like acting. I got an award years ago from the Matthew Shephard Foundation. His mom gave it to me. And I thought, what an incredible honor it was to have someone like that saying thank you for signing up to try to stop the terrible things that happened in her life.

And also things from Scotland. When I get things from my homeland I’m very touched. I got an OBE (Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) on the Queen’s honor list a few years ago. And I was little bit anxious about that. But actually what was so great about it was that it was not only for my contribution to the arts but also to the quest for equality for LGBT people in Britain and America. So that was really incredible when that was shouted out in Buckingham Palace and I got to walk forward. So things like that mean so much more than just, oh, you did this character.

Do you have any advice for people who want to stick up for a cause?

Just talk to people. Talk to your friends, talk to your parents, talk to your family. The best way to change people’s mind is by example. Not to be aggressive. Try and make people see the consequences of actions. If you do this, then it’s going to affect this and this and this. It’s actually eye-opening to say quite simple things sometimes.

My TV show is the first network drama to have a gay character in the lead. I’ve been very amazed; millions and millions of Americans are seeing a gay relationship they have never seen before. Just people having breakfast and things like that. And it’s not a big deal — it’s just a cop show, and, oh, this is happening, too. I think that’s how you change things. You just make people familiar and unafraid of things they hadn’t seen before. You have to remember that for someone to change an opinion or an attitude, they’re not going to do it if you harass them. They’re going to do it because you’re kind and open to them.

What’s your next project?

For the end of April I’m going on a safari and I can’t wait. Right now, I’m on an option with CBS so I’m waiting to see if “Instinct” is going to be picked up again for a third season in July.

I’ll probably make a film. I’m just not sure which one yet. And I’m going on a sort of international press tour for “Instinct” in June. So there’s a variety. And if none of it happens there’s always writing I can do. I’m actually slightly hoping that none of these films come up so I’ll be able to do some writing and some little things here and there.

Any music, movies or TV shows that have impressed you lately?

I’ve really been loving “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” I just love how it captures that time and how beautifully shot it is. I met the people actually, the Palladinos, who make it. And I was really fascinated by them. I just love the attention to detail and going back into a world where things were very different and just capturing that in a very beautiful way.

This won’t be your first time at the Van Wezel. You were here two years ago for your “Alan Sings Sappy Songs” tour. What do you make of Florida?

Right. I love that it’s a purple theater. I’ve never played in a purple theater — I just think that’s amazing.

And I think that Florida is so huge. A few years ago I did a road trip to Key West after a show in Fort Lauderdale. At the end of the week I had a concert in New Orleans. So we drove all the way from Key West and it seemed to go on for days and days. Florida is kind of like IKEA — once you’re in you can never find your way out.

Details: 8 p.m. Saturday. Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, 777 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. $47-$77.

Info: vanwezel.org.