Jewish actor Mark Nelson relishes chance to be part of ‘Cabaret’

When a brick is thrown through his shop window at the start of the second act of the musical “Cabaret,” the character Herr Schultz, a Jewish widower and fruit vendor, tries to convince his non-Jewish fiancée that prankster schoolchildren, not Nazis, are responsible.

But she is not fooled — and neither is the audience of this Tony Award-winning musical, whose themes prominently include anti-Semitism in 1930s Berlin. 

Actor Mark Nelson, who stars as Schultz in the production now in the midst of a three-week run at the Pantages Theatre, said the character represents how the social, economic and political upheaval sweeping over Germany at that time affected German Jews. 

“Schultz himself sort of represents the Jewish experience, the German-Jewish experience of the rise of Hitler, in the course of his journey through the play,” Nelson said in a phone interview one day before the July 20 opening of the show at the Pantages. 

Nelson, who is Jewish, has appeared in “Cabaret” more than 170 times while touring with the Roundabout Theatre Company production of the show, which is currently on a national tour. But Schultz is not Nelson’s first Jewish role — far from it. 

The 60-year-old New York-based theater and television actor won praise in The Washington Post for his Shylock in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “The Merchant of Venice,” and he starred in a 2012 off-Broadway adaptation of Chaim Potok’s “My Name is Asher Lev.” He also performed in several Neil Simon plays, including “Biloxi Blues,” during which he introduced his then-rabbi to Simon backstage after a show.

“I am very drawn to [Jewish characters],” Nelson said. “It hasn’t been a conscious choice to play mostly Jews — just the way it happened — but very often when I encounter a Jewish character, something lights up in me and there’s an extra connection.”

“Cabaret” has been capturing the attention of audiences everywhere for 50 years. Nelson said he saw “Cabaret” for the first time in 1967, when he was 12 years old, one year after the musical debuted on Broadway.

“Oh, I just remember marching up and down the stairs in the living room, singing ‘Wilkommen,’ ” he said, referring to the opening song. “And I thought there was something edgy and daring [about the show].”

In the Pantages production, Randy Harrison (“Queer as Folk”) portrays the Master of Ceremonies at the Kit Kat Klub, a cabaret where people of Berlin come to forget about their troubles. Harrison draws on the sexualized manner of Alan Cumming, who won a Tony for his 1998 performance in the Broadway revival of “Cabaret.” 

The role of the Emcee was made famous in the original stage production by Jewish actor Joel Grey, who also won a Tony for the role. He starred alongside Liza Minnelli in the 1972 film adaptation, for which he added an Oscar. The show features the music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb.

Nelson said Harrison lives up to the work of his acclaimed predecessors. “Really, you’ve got something amazing coming in Randy Harrison,” he said.

B.T. McNicholl directs the touring show, which will run at the Pantages until Aug. 7 and at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa from Aug. 9-21.

Its intimate cast includes Andrea Goss as English cabaret singer Sally Bowles and Lee Aaron Rosen as her lover, Clifford Bradshaw, an American writer. Shannon Cochran plays Frau Schneider, Schultz’s fiancée, who runs a boarding house where much of the action of the play unfolds. Alison Ewing plays Fraulein Kost, a prostitute who accommodates sailors in Schneider’s boarding house, and Ned Noyes plays Ernst Ludwig, a member of the Nazi party who removes his coat to reveal a swastika-adorned armband in a climax of the song-filled production.

Sam Mendes’ technical reinventions to the show were many upon the show’s 1998 revival — Mendes is an original co-director of the production, along with Rob Marshall — and they are also apart of the touring production. Many of the show’s actors double as the musicians in the Kit Kat Klub orchestra, and the ending of the show, also Mendes’ own, is a direct nod to the horrors of the Holocaust faced by Jews. 

“Sometimes there’s a gorgeous silence in the house before the applause begins,” Nelson said.

So is “Cabaret” a Holocaust play? Many people have come up to Nelson at the conclusion and told him that Schultz’s story was their grandparents’ story.

“I’ve met people at the stage door who said, ‘My grandparents or my uncle stayed behind in Berlin because they believed the threat would pass,” he said, “ ‘And you brought them [their memories] back.’ ” 

Click here for additional information or to purchase tickets for “Cabaret” at the Pantages or Segerstrom.

Joel Grey: More than just a master of ‘Cabaret’

In “Master of Ceremonies” (Flatiron Books), Joel Grey has written an unexpectedly exquisite memoir about the life he has led as a closeted gay man growing up during a time when being gay was fraught with excessive difficulties and danger.  He has spent decades forging an identity based on pretense and only last year finally conceded to the press that he was gay.  Grey always found solace on the stage where pretending allowed him to escape into a world of his own making, but he often felt shame-ridden and inauthentic offstage when he was forced to contend with powerful feelings and urges he didn’t fully understand.  He was always able to perform sexually with women, but found intimacy with them something of an afterthought or an obligation instead of a genuine longing.  He sought counseling for many years as a young man when therapists primarily focused their attention on ‘fixing’ gay men instead of encouraging them to embrace their sexuality, which did not really solve Grey’s dilemma.  Grey also was driven to conceal his identity by his intense desire to have a wife and children, something that simply was not done at that time with another man.  When he met his future wife of 24 years, actress Jo Wilder, he felt a kinship with her that was so special he thought it might just work out.  They raised two children together; his daughter who is the actress Jennifer Grey and her brother.  But their marriage imploded when he finally confessed to his wife about his homosexual inclinations when his children were already almost grown.  She simply walked out and their relationship ended.  By this time, the world had changed enough for Grey, ever the eternal optimist, to imagine he might find genuine love out in the open with another man.  There were brief attempts but they all soon fizzled and he is now well into his eighties and lives alone in New York City. 

Grey has struggled with many hurdles but there is a survival instinct within him that prevents him from falling into despair.  His story makes you feel for him, but also allows you to take pleasure in the joy and happiness and creative fulfillment he has often found.  Even now as an old man, he has found new excitement taking pictures, often with an old fashioned cell phone camera which has produced some startling images.   He likes the way the cell phone picture never quite captures what he thinks he has snapped as if it has a mind of its own.  His pictures have been shown in several galleries and reveal surprising images of small intimacies between lovers that often go unnoticed or empty landscapes that speak to a perennial aloneness.  Grey’s pictures transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.

Some readers will remember how he accomplished this on Broadway while playing the Emcee in Cabaret.  The role on paper looked dismal; just a few short musical numbers that were to be inserted between dramatic scenes, but Grey managed to convert his role into something spectacular.  He explains to us how he was able to pull this off.  He knew his character needed to be both seductive and beguiling but also menacing; a man who represented the grotesque perversions taking place inside the German psyche as Hitler rose to power.  But he struggled at first while trying to figure out how to achieve that balance.  Then he remembered the comedy clubs his father would take him to as a boy in Cleveland and his initial reaction to the stand-up comics who both scared and intrigued him.  Grey writes: “The nightclub comedian mopped his sweaty forehead with a breast-pocket hanky one too many times-the linen as yellowed as his teeth in his desperate smile.  Everything about the man-the sweat glistening through the pancake makeup, his thinning, dyed-red hair; the tasteless jokes that feel just short of dropping his pants-was proof for the audience of how hard he was working for them.”    It was this childhood memory that allowed Grey to create the Emcee who intrigued and horrified the world with his groping hands and leering face and scary over the top mannerisms.  When director Hal Prince saw his creation, he smiled and told him he nailed it.  Grey had found a way to mimic the disturbing insanity that had overtaken the German people.  The role would change his life. 

Grey grew up in a Jewish family in Cleveland that was filled with familial tensions running through it.  His grandparents on both sides emigrated from Russia and struggled in America to find their way.  His mother was one of five daughters, attractive and petite, but narcissistic and controlling and prone to darkness and nastiness that would scare Grey when he was a young child.  But his father’s gentleness was therapeutic for him.  His name was Mickey Katz and he was a saxophone player who played in Cleveland’s biggest nightclubs.  Grey would sometimes accompany his father in the evenings transfixed by his father’s natural charisma.  Grey describes his father ‘s magic by explaining to us how his father   always “made it his business to listen to and collect stories during the week.  He’d regale the other musicians with them while they were changing into his tuxes in the dressing room or were tuning up in the pit.  My father’s repertoire—which came from comedy acts, the music store where he bought his reeds, or even our family—fit perfectly into the scene.  Everyone crowded around him, laughing at his jokes and praising his musicianship.  My father’s stories were hilarious but never vulgar or mean; that just wasn’t his style…”

He would come to rely on his father for emotional sustenance as his relationship with his mother withered.  He remembers that when he was a young child she would brashly summon him to say hello to her friends expecting him to entertain them with his young charm.  He also remembers how she ignored his brother who would remain on the couch as Joel took center stage.  He can still recall how much he wanted and needed his mother’s love and how afraid he was to disappoint her.  He understands now that “as a young child we don’t have the emotional strength to choose between our parents, we need them both, we need them to need each other, we need all of it…”  But back then he was vulnerable to the family storms encircling him.  This would all lead to an explosive catharsis years later when he told his parents about a homosexual relationship he was having with the cantor at their synagogue which caused his mother to lash out at him with a ferocity that still stings.  His father was present to glue him back together and tried to convince him that she didn’t mean what she said; but from then on their relationship was pretty much ruptured.

Grey found the greatest solace of his young life with the Cleveland Play House where he had roles in many productions beginning at age nine.  Theatre was his sanctuary; the place where no one could hurt him.  As he put it, it was a world without “fat jokes, crude sex jokes, fag jokes, take-my-wife jokes….”  He eventually managed to get the attention of Eddie Cantor who put him on television.  He found representation with the William Morris Agency, which was representing clients like Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, and Laurence Olivier.  The William Morris Agency envisioned him as a song and dance man and booked him into the Copacabana where he was a big hit, but Grey really felt grounded on the Broadway stage.  He would go on to win a Tony, Golden Globe and an Oscar and act in more than a dozen Broadway shows, as well as perform in over twenty films.  Grey embraced each of his characters by envisioning them as fully fleshed out flawed people who are forced to overcome their traumas by relying on their own inner resources.  Much as Grey has his entire life.

Grey’s memoir has an unusually authentic feel to it; the sound of a man unburdening himself after decades of silence and a life lived professing half-truths to those closest to him.  We feel his ease as old age finally releases him from the burdens he has lived with.  He doesn’t present himself as a saint or a sinner, but simply a man who did the best he could with the options available to him during his lifetime.  His choices reflected his desire to survive and thrive, and protect himself from the wrath that would have befallen him if he had come out as a young man which was a term and concept that didn’t even exist back then.  He is still moved by the power of the life force and feels comforted by the changes he has witnessed in recent years.  He writes movingly “I am heartened by the irrepressible nature of desire, and that the fear of aloneness is greatly diminished by the inner quest that is now my companion.  I know first-hand the power of transformation, that things can, and things do change.  A doting mother turns into an antagonist; a wife becomes a stranger; children grow into adults; a husband of a woman finds he loves men; and the horror of a crass vaudevillian becomes the beautiful part of a lifetime.”  He comes to the end of his life by fully opening his heart and we get to witness his reckoning.

Elaine Margolin contributes book reviews to the Jewish Journal and other publications.

Joel Grey, Jewish actor best known for ‘Cabaret’ role, comes out at 82

It’s no longer surprising for a prominent actor to come out publicly as gay.

What is a little surprising, however, is when he does so at age 82.

Joel Grey — whose illustrious career includes winning an Academy Award, Tony Award and Golden Globe Award, all for playing the master of ceremonies in “Cabaret” — came out Wednesday in an exclusive interview with People magazine.

“I don’t like labels,” he told the magazine, “but if you have to put a label on it, I’m a gay man.”

Grey, who was married to actress Jo Wilder for 24 years and is the father of actress Jennifer Grey, was already out to friends and family, but had not spoken publicly about his sexuality.

Grey’s original surname was Katz, and his father, Mickey Katz, was also an actor. In the People interview, he recalled growing up in Cleveland and “hearing the grownups talk in the next room, my mother included, talking derisively about ‘fairies’…”

In addition to his award-winning “Cabaret” performances, Grey, who is also a photographer with three books of photographs and a Museum of the City of New York exhibit to his credit, has played a wide range of roles for stage, film and television. Among the more incongruous ones, given his Jewish background: Joseph Goebbels in “The Empty Mirror” (1996), Ghost of Christmas Past in “A Christmas Carol” (1999) and the narrator in “Twas the Night Before Christmas”(1974).

His CV includes some Jewish roles as well, however: in 1994, he appeared in the show “Borscht Capades,” which the Philadelphia Inquirer described as a “kind of a Yiddish vaudeville.”  And while he may not be a Jewish doctor, he’s played them on TV, including Jude Bar-Shalom on “Brothers & Sisters” and Dr. Singer on “Grey’s Anatomy.”

Shia LaBeouf arrested at New York performance of ‘Cabaret’

Actor Shia LaBeouf, who starred in the “Transformers” movies and the play “Nymphomaniac,” was arrested inside New York's Studio 54 during a performance of “Cabaret,” police said.

The actor was charged with criminal conduct and disorderly conduct and taken into custody, NYPD detective Brian Sessa said.

LaBeouf was escorted out of the theater by police after refusing to go when asked to do so by security guards, said NYPD spokesman George Tsourovakas.

The 28-year-old actor, who gave police a Los Angeles address, began making a disturbance and then used obscene language and became belligerent after security guards asked him to leave, Tsourovakas said.

“He was being rather difficult and combative, verbally … to the point where security guards asked him to please leave the premises and he refused,” Tsourovakas said. “Police were called and he was detained and arrested.”

Charged with disorderly conduct, harassment

LaBeouf, 28, was arraigned on five charges in the tiny, packed courtroom at Manhattan's Midtown Community Court after being arrested on Thursday evening.

He was charged with two counts of disorderly conduct, one count of trespass, one count of criminal trespass and harassment in the second degree.

As the disheveled-looking actor left the court alone wearing a bright blue T-shirt and baggy pants he was mobbed by waiting photographers and reporters.

‘Cabaret’ Glides Into Shoah-Era Tango

Once, when I was on an all-night bus ride in Brazil, an Argentine man sitting in the rear strummed a guitar, singing one tango after another. The slow, emotional music, its lyrics filled with loss and nostalgia, seemed the appropriate soundtrack. But after a while the Brazilians aboard had enough.

One passenger finally yelled, “Don’t you know any sambas?”

Another shouted, “He doesn’t know any sambas! He only knows how to cry.”

Yes, tango is sad music. No wonder that Jews, and Jewish musicians, have been drawn to it. With its melancholy passion, it’s a vehicle for expressing the mournful side of the Jewish soul … and experience.

Jewish Tango Cabaret — a performance at the New JCC at Milken in West Hills on Saturday, May 13 — takes this link a step further. The show uses dance, music and song — as well as drama and narration — to trace high and low points in Jewish history from the mid-1930s to the late 1940s. The live music will be performed by a five-piece tango band headed by Argentine-born Pablo Goldstein; the dancing is by Tango for Three Dance Company — all of whom are Jews originally from Argentina.

Goldstein got the idea for the show three years ago when he saw a recital/lecture that demonstrated the musical links between tango and Jewish music. He then spoke with Arnold Kopikis, an Argentine-born rabbi who had already researched the topic.

“The tango began in Argentina, of course,” Kopikis said in an interview with The Journal, “in the brothels and lower-class bars, often played by Italian and Jewish immigrant musicians. By the 1920s, the tango had radiated out from Argentina to North America and Europe. It became the rage in Paris and London and Berlin.” By the 1930s musicians were blending tango with the popular music of each region. Jewish musicians did this as well, combining it with traditional Jewish music.

Kopikis said that tango was a part of Jewish life even in the ghettos and concentration camps: “There was a Jewish poet who was assigned by the Nazis to gather an archive of poetry for a museum that the Nazis hoped would display the relics of a disappeared culture. What happened is that this poet found a whole series of tango lyrics in Yiddish. He hid them, escaped, and was able to get to Israel with the lyrics. These were not translations. These were tangos originally written in Yiddish.”

These tango lyrics, Kopikis added, harshly describe daily life in the ghetto, and even in the death camps.

“I’m a musician,” said Goldstein, the show’s music director, “and the knowledge that there was this connection, that tango had been a part of Jewish life moved me deeply. I wanted to put this concept together in a total musical-theatrical presentation, one that includes dancers and a real tango band.”

Goldstein also realized that some songs in Hebrew from Israel’s early days had tango roots.

“Yaffa Yarkoni and others sang tangos — like “Habibi” — that inspired a young Israel in the 1950s. So for Jewish Tango Cabaret, I wanted a vocalist who not only sings in Spanish — the language of most tangos — but also in Yiddish and Hebrew.

His singer, who goes by the single name Elisheva, is Mexican and Jewish, heavily steeped in Yiddishkayt. She grew up absorbing these songs, without even knowing they were tangos.

“Her voice is beautiful and pure and melodic,” Goldstein said.

The show’s setting is a fictional cabaret in Berlin whose owners and customers are Jewish. It starts during the early 1930s, the elegant but ominous years between the wars. As the interplay among song, instruments and dancers evolves, so too does the drama. We see the cabaret after Kristallnacht, its furniture in ruins. The scene shifts to a ghetto, then to a concentration camp, where — Kopikis said — the tango continued to be played and danced, in improvised locations, offering a bit of hope in the face of death.

Jewish Tango Cabaret’s only spoken words are a narration (in English) before each scene. The narrator is an old man remembering his life story, what he’s experienced, and the dancers, musicians and singer perform that man’s memories.

“The show is not just artistic, it’s also educational, and for all ages,” said Teresa, Goldstein’s wife and one of Tango for Three’s dancers, who also prefer, for their performance work, to use only their first names. “We want people to know an aspect of Jewish culture and history that’s not known at all. But we also emphasize the triumphant periods after the war, the founding of Israel, as well as a celebration of Jewish life in the U.S. The same characters who are at the cabaret in Berlin in the 1930s, and later in the ghetto and the concentration camp, meet in a nightclub in New York in 1948.”

The show is only being performed on one date in the Los Angeles area, so I had to rely on a taped preview to get a sense for it. What I saw includes part of the New York 1948 reunion dance and song, set in a Manhattan nightclub. There’s bust-out energy in the music and dance, tangos in Spanish and Yiddish, and swing-dancing — an emotional and exciting reaffirmation of life.

“We did the show at the San Diego Jewish Arts Festival and at Temple Emmanuel in Beverly Hills,” Teresa said, “and got wonderful responses.” The day after this interview, the Jewish Tango Cabaret went to Argentina to perform there.

Omar Zayat, director of the Latin American Jewish Association, which is presenting the show, said the show is a natural fit for his group’s efforts. Who better to sponsor a performance about tango and Jews than an organization that caters to Latin American Jews?

Jewish Tango Cabaret will perform on May 13 at 8 p.m. at The New JCC at Milken, 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. $25-$40. Jewish Tango Cabaret will perform on May 13, 2006 at 8 p.m. at The New JCC at Milken, 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. $25-$40. For more information, call (818) 464-3274 or visit

7 Days in The Arts

Saturday, February 11

An old elevator shaft sided on three sides with brick and topped by a skylight becomes the backdrop and running theme through photographer Mark Seliger’s latest book of Platinum Photographs, “In My Stairwell.” Welcomed into the stairwell are noted personalities of varied walks, from singer Willie Nelson to skateboarder Tony Hawke to actress Susan Sarandon. Selections from the book are on display at Fahey/Klein Gallery.

Through March 4. 148 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 934-2250.

Sunday, February 12

A week without klezmer? Not in this town. Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust jumps on the accordion bandwagon with a concert today by “Miamon Miller’s Bucovina Klezmer.” A reception follows.

2 p.m. $20. 6435 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (323) 651-3704.

Monday, February 13

You’ve read the arguments; you’ve seen the movie. Today delve into “The Meaning of ‘Munich'” with a panel of speakers representing pro and con, brought together by the Republican Jewish Coalition and Pepperdine University. The group includes University of Judaism professor Michael Berenbaum, Pepperdine professor Robert Kaufman, Emmy Award-winner and UCLA instructor Kathleen Wright and Allan Mayer, political and media adviser to Steven Spielberg.

7 p.m. Free. Drescher Auditorium, Pepperdine University, 24255 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu. R.S.V.P., (310) 506-6643.

Tuesday, February 14

Dateless Valentines find their go-to event in tonight’s “Go Where the Love Is” courtesy of Uncabaret. Comedy queens Beth Lapides, Julia Sweeney, Hyla Matthews and Laura Kightlinger keep the funny coming, while you sit back and just deal with the drinks.

8 p.m. $15 (plus drinks). M-Bar, 1253 N. Vine, Los Angeles. (323) 993-3305.

Wednesday, February 15

You might know him as Larry David’s dad, but Shelley Berman’s also been called the Father of the Modern Monologue. He delivers his lesson in “Comedy and Its Reflections in History” this evening at 24th Street Theatre, with a Q and A to follow.

8 p.m. $25. 1117 W. 24th St., Los Angeles. (213) 745-6516.

Thursday, February 16

Joel Stein has something to say tonight. The sometimes-controversial L.A. Times columnist, Time magazine writer and on-camera commentator for VH-1’s “I Love the 80s” offers up his signature brand of satirical social commentary in an event very originally titled, “A Conversation With Joel Stein,” sponsored by the folks at The Jewish Federation’s Young Leadership Division.

7:15 p.m. $18-$25. Creative Artists Agency, 9830 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. R.S.V.P., (323) 761-8372.

Friday, February 17

Canada’s folk/roots/world music ensemble Beyond the Pale goes beyond pure klezmer by uniquely blending it with Balkan, Gypsy, Romanian, bluegrass, jazz, reggae and funk inspirations. They make their Los Angeles stop on their California/Southwest Tour tonight at Genghis Cohen.

10:30 p.m. $10. 740 N. Fairfax, West Hollywood. (310) 578-5591.