The sparkling new season at the Broadway Theatre is about to launch, and the Olivier-nominated production of Cabaret is just one of the treats on offer. The Moment magazine spoke to its star Will Young (starring as Emcee) about his multi-faceted career as a writer, singer, political activist and film producer.
Since your career launched after Pop Idol (Will won the inaugural show back in 2002) you’ve broadened your scope to include acting, writing, documentary-making and producing a film (Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus) as well as singing and song-writing. Did you always have ambitions beyond a pop career, or has it been more of a happy accident?
I always wanted to sing and write songs: when I entered Pop Idol, it was about something I had wanted from about the age of four; singing was my first thing. Then I got to my second album and I found I was really enjoying the acting in videos – and when I was younger I had planned to go to drama school – and I fancied doing a play, and then a play came along. Things just sort of happen! I think the key is to be open to opportunities: now I am a singer and an actor, and I am pleased that that has bedded in, so now I’m thinking about the next thing. You only have one life, I might as well do as much as I can – within reason, you know, I don’t want to become a workaholic!
Emcee (the ambiguous, outrageous and sinister commentator on the events of the play) is a fantastic role to get your teeth into. Did you pursue it or were you approached?
I always wanted to play the part, in fact I remember years ago my dad saying: ‘that would be the perfect part for you.’ Then Bill Kenwright, the producer, approached me and I knew that Rufus Norris would be directing it, and I thought I just had to go for it.
You’re educated in politics (Will’s degree is in Politics) and are very politically active. Is your interpretation of Emcee informed by this, or does he come from a darker, more visceral place?
I don’t know where he comes from! I do think that being politicised to an extent and feeling particularly strongly about some of the themes in the play, such as money, dark power, attacks on minorities such as gay men and women, Jewish people, black people, it does tie into my understanding of what my role is. I never locked him down, but he does come out of my love of the weird, of clowns, and of course of cabaret. He just happened, and I think if I were to try and focus on it too much it might limit my performance. He is really unpleasant! He’s a strange mix of naïve, seemingly innocent and baby-like, but he can go from that to ‘I’m going to kill you because you haven’t given me what I want.’ He’s like the musical itself, there are so many levels to it. The character has a deep understanding of cabaret and what it is, and he has a deep understanding if what he wants to do with the musical numbers he performs. Within the numbers he’s always playing with a role but he’s also playing with the audience, one moment he’s all, ‘come in, have fun, relax,’ then he hits them with a line that gets a laugh but maybe on reflection it’s not so funny. But he does add light relief and at every stage he knows what is happening – he is literally the Master of Ceremonies and he is the master of the cabaret club.
Is this part of the appeal, the danger, the dark side?
I’m not so sure. The thing is that audiences always want to laugh, they want light relief – they don’t want, immediately, to be made uncomfortable, so I think that, to begin with, Emcee offers a comfortable escape from a story that is building and building. I’m not sure how comfortable audiences are with his psychopathic side. The reason I mention this is because I’ve seen it in audiences’ reactions – they often still want to laugh at things, even when I’m in a Nazi romper suit! It’s why I think the ending is so powerful, the ending smacks the audience in the face and says: ‘this is what’s been happening all along.’
How did it feel to get the Olivier nomination?
The whole thing was a brilliant run really, from finding the character, doing the show, getting the feeling that I was doing a good job and feeling very fulfilled by that. I wasn’t really thinking about the Oliviers, and then the nomination came in and I thought: ‘that’s just brilliant!’ I was really thrilled, really, really thrilled.
So, what next? You’ve done so much already!
I do writing, I’ve had a few pieces in the papers, and I’d like to do more commentary stuff, then I’d like to do some comedy or drama writing, I’ll see what happens. I might be doing another documentary, I’m not sure. And I’ve just signed to Island Records, so my next album will happen. I think the key is to not be fearful, I mean… I’m not scared of failure: if things were to go wrong I’d think, ‘Oh, I’ll be alright!’. It’s pretty selfish, really, I just do things I want to do! I’m not always going to get things right – I did a play, and it didn’t get brilliant reviews but I did as well as I could at the time. As long as you don’t enter into that mad world where you’re always relying on what other people think, then it’s fine!
Finally, why is Cabaret such a compelling show, and why should people see it?
Cabaret tells a great story, and I think that whoever’s in it, whoever’s directing it, people will want to see it. It’s a story about power, power without humanity, and it’s still happening now and people are turning a blind eye to it – that’s the same as what happened with the Nazi party. There’s an interesting quote: ‘what we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.’ My history teacher told me that years ago and I’ve always remembered it, but I think you can learn, and should learn, as things come up again and again. I think when you have a song called ‘Money’, which is about greed and selfishness, it says it all, really…
The Broadway autumn and winter season runs from Sunday, 20 October 2013 – Saturday, 11 January 2014. Cabaret runs from Monday, 2 December – Saturday, 7 December.