When Randy Harrison goes into the audience as the Emcee in “Cabaret,” he never knows what he’ll find.
“Sometimes people have been scared. Sometimes they’ve refused to dance and sometimes it has been very fun,” he says. “When all goes well, it’s very rewarding.”
That audience interaction, Harrison says, is the tightrope he walks each night. Following in Alan Cumming’s Tony-winning footsteps, the “Queer as Folk” star knew the role was iconic. He just didn’t realize how exhausting – or fluid -- it could be.
“It took some months to build up stamina,” he says. “Weekends are hard. You do two shows on Saturday and two on Sunday. During the dead of winter, when I started the tour, I was just persevering.” Now, some 250 performances later, he’s in a groove and able to pace himself.
That audience interaction? “I’m not that outgoing in life,” so it was hard at first. Two hours before the first show in each city, he uses the sound check to walk into the audience to see what kind of energy he needs to get to the first row. Then, he gauges which rows he can work. “How close our show is to the proscenium makes a huge difference.”
If a theater doesn’t have easy access to the audience, “I may have four people to choose from.”
Having those kinds of variables, Harrison says, makes the revival of “Cabaret” interesting for an actor.
“It’s a role I’ve always loved,” he says of the Emcee. “When I was younger, I didn’t think of myself for the part. It wasn’t until this revival happened that I thought I wanted to do it.”
To find his way into the part, Harrison revisited the script and realized it had clear structure, but plenty of freedom. “The more I could bring my own sense of humor, intelligence and naughtiness, the better the role worked. There was really no point in imitating what someone else had done.”
Best known as the Oscar-winning vehicle for Liza Minnelli and Joey Grey, “Cabaret” is the story of a seedy nightclub singer, the show’s emcee and their plight in Germany before World War II. The musical was revived in 1998, won Tonys for Cumming and Natasha Richardson and enjoyed a long run on Broadway. Cumming brought it back in 2014, then Harrison was cast in the touring production, which hits Omaha next week.
Before he signed on, Harrison had a recurring role in the hit USA series “Mr. Robot.” “I thought the show was smart and good,” he says, even though he wasn’t shown a full script when he audition.
Since he wasn’t needed for the second season, he welcomed the freedom to try something like “Cabaret.” For him, it’s a return to his roots.
The 38-year-old graduated from the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, then appeared in a number of stage productions before venturing to Los Angeles to try his hand at television.
Quickly, he was cast as Justin, the gay teen in “Queer as Folk.” The series ran for five seasons and gave him the kind of career boost few actors get. It also provided the kind of financial stability that would allow him to try different things.
“It made me realize I could feed my soul and be the actor I wanted to be.”
Post-“Queer as Folk,” Harrison starred in everything from “Equus” to “Waiting for Godot” and “The Who’s Tommy.” He also got the chance to direct and produce web content.
“I’d like to do more television after this,” he says of “Cabaret.” “Usually, my next jobs are in reaction to what I’ve done just before.”
Creating an online series, he says, could be the next wave for him and other actors. “When I started out, you went on the rounds, met the casting directors and waited for somebody to give you an opportunity. Now, there are more opportunities. That feels a bit more empowering.”