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.’ ”