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Amy Lennox as Sally Bowles, Cabaret
Amy Lennox as Sally BowlesPhotography Marc Brenner

Inside the gripping contemporary revival of hit musical Cabaret

Fresh from the show’s historic seven wins at the Olivier Awards, new cast members Fra Fee and Amy Lennox discuss the disturbing parallels between its fascist backdrop and today’s political climate

In 1939, the Anglo-American novelist Christopher Isherwood published Goodbye to Berlin, a semi-autobiographical novel set in the bankrupt Berlin of the early 1930s, recounting the writer’s intense friendship with teenage flapper Sally Bowles amid the Nazis’ rise to power. First staged in 1966, the hit musical Cabaret reinvents this world for the stage, more specifically the stage of the decadent Kit Kat Club. Here, Bowles performs as a cabaret singer alongside a cast of other misfits, including a person in a gorilla suit and the flamboyant Emcee, who mirror the political turbulence of the era.

Unfortunately, a story about otherness under threat in the face of disturbing political trends hasn’t stopped feeling contemporary since Cabaret first premiered. Maybe that’s why the musical has been revived almost every decade since, including several runs on Broadway and the West End, and a 1972 film adaptation starring Liza Minnelli. 

In fact, the latest revival – directed by Rebecca Frecknall – kicked off just last year, in November 2021, with Eddie Redmayne stepping into the shoes of Emcee, and Jessie Buckley (i’m thinking of ending things) playing Bowles. To say that it was well-received is an understatement. Earlier this month (April 10), the West End show took home a record-breaking seven Olivier awards, including the award for best director, best musical revival, and best sound design. It also snapped up all four awards for actors in a musical – Redmayne and Buckley won best actor and actress, while Elliot Levey and Liza Sadovy won awards for their supporting roles as star-crossed lovers whose relationship is jeopardised by the rise of fascism.

Now, though, four new actors have stepped into the latest version of the Kit Kat Club, painstakingly constructed by Frecknall and set designer Tom Scutt at London’s Playhouse Theatre. Taking over the lead roles are Fra Fee (Emcee) and Amy Lennox (Sally Bowles), alongside fellow newcomers Omar Baroud (Clifford Bradshaw) and Vivien Parry (Fraulein Schneider).

Understandably, the takeover didn’t come without at least a small amount of trepidation. “Initially it was very daunting,” Fee tells Dazed, while Lennox remembers sobbing when she landed the “apex of female roles in musical theatre” as Bowles. Both, however, are ultimately honoured to portray two of the most time-honoured characters from – as Isherwood would later call it – “a period of ecstasy, sentimentality, worry, hope and clock-watching”.

Below, the lead actors talk to Dazed about their roles in Frecknall’s Cabaret, how it feels to act in the shadow of previous adaptations, and why the musical strikes a disturbing chord with the events of 2022.

What initially drew you to this new iteration of Cabaret?

Amy Lennox: I was asked to audition by a long time friend and producer of the show. He saw me in a workshop of a new piece and it dawned on him that I might be the next Sally – and he was right! I saw the show on the Saturday night to get a feel for the piece and I auditioned on the Tuesday. It blew my mind. It was genuinely one of the best pieces of theatre I have ever seen. I think Rebecca Frecknall and Tom Scutt are geniuses. I sobbed when I landed the role.

Fra Fee: I became aware of this production of Cabaret when it was first announced in the spring of 2021, and I instantly wanted to be involved in some way. I had heard that it would star Eddie Redmayne and Jessie Buckley as the Emcee and Sally Bowles, so I called my agent and asked them to request an audition for the role of Cliff. I thought that was a part I could potentially play. However, when it didn’t go my way, I just moved on and looked forward to seeing the show. The role of the Emcee was never actually on my radar as something I might do, so it really was quite a shock when I got the call asking me to take over from Eddie. I was obviously thrilled though! 

Have previous adaptations informed your performance?

Fra Fee: Because the role was not one I had actually envisaged myself playing, I didn’t have a lot of reference points, other than a YouTube clip of the Sam Mendes production with Alan Cumming, and Eddie’s performance. Thankfully I’m a very different performer to both these actors, which means that what I was going to be bringing to the role would be inherently different. I really wanted to work on the character from the ground up to realise who my version of this enigmatic and fascinating character would be. 

I was inspired by an amazing book about Cabaret that Eddie lent me, though. It referred to the way the Emcee lures the audience into his world and traps them there, which I thought was a fascinating concept. So I try to lure the audience in through a sense of play and intrigue; it’s only once they feel safe in my company that they realise they’re perhaps in a place that they shouldn’t be. But by that stage, of course, it’s too late.

Amy Lennox: I tend not to allow myself to be influenced… I like to originate. I think my gut instincts [about] how I would approach Sally are very much my own, and together with the very best creative team I’ve been allowed to fully create a character that is very much my own.

How did you feel about following in the footsteps of the actors who have inhabited these roles in previous productions?

Amy Lennox: Some of the absolute best actors have played Sally, so I feel incredibly honoured. Judi Dench, Anna Maxwell Martin, and obviously Jessie Buckley. It is a role that demands a real actor and my God, you can get your teeth stuck into this role. It really is the apex of female roles in musical theatre, in theatre generally. It is the dream.

Fra Fee: Initially it was very daunting, particularly since I am such a huge admirer of Eddie Redmayne’s work. I think he’s utterly mesmerising, both on screen and on stage. However, I didn’t want that to put me off. The fact that I am approaching the role from a different perspective, and by leaning into my own performance style, has made me feel a little more reassured in my ability to do it. It is of course an honour and a privilege to be taking over the role from Eddie and I very much hope that I do it justice. After all, he has created this version of the Emcee for this particular production, so I feel a responsibility to deliver.

“It is unnerving how relevant this show still is despite being written in 1966. When we were rehearsing we used a real newspaper as a prop newspaper and it happened to read ‘Russian invasion imminent’. It’s chilling” – Amy Lennox

How do you feel about the outstanding reception to Cabaret’s West End run so far?

Amy Lennox: I’m not surprised that we have garnered 11 Olivier nominations and seven wins. It is inspiring and beautiful and visceral and raw. I think what Rebecca has created is a masterpiece, and it is a joy to share with people night after night and feel that energy in the space. It is truly mind-blowing. 

Fra Fee: I’m not going to lie, I feel like an absolute chancer riding on the crest of this production’s success, particularly after all of the show’s Olivier wins. Of course, I have nothing to do with those wins, but it is a real thrill to be involved in a production which is so critically acclaimed. I’m very much enjoying riding that wave along with everyone who has been there from the beginning. I just hope it continues to excite and thrill audiences, because it really is unlike anything I have ever seen before.

Are there any ideas or messages in Cabaret that you find particularly resonant in 2022?

Amy Lennox: It is unnerving how relevant this show still is despite being written in 1966. When we were rehearsing we used a real newspaper as a prop newspaper and it happened to read ‘Russian invasion imminent’. It’s chilling. This show teaches us that humanity doesn’t change and despite advances in technology, medicine, and living standards, in the end we are still all at the mercy of it all being taken away. There is always another Hitler waiting around the corner.

Fra Fee: Cabaret is set in a club that celebrates individuality and otherness, and, despite what we may like to believe, there are clearly still some external forces which aim to threaten that sense of liberation. It is imperative that we push back against such forces. It feels like an incredibly important production for this very reason, and it’s a real privilege to be involved in something that truly celebrates being ‘other’ with a wonderfully diverse and brilliant group of people. I hope that audiences respond to that aspect of the show and draw inspiration from it.