Cabaret, With a Twist: A Female Emcee

Willkommen. Bienvenue. Welcome. It's the slick, enticing opening of the musical, Cabaret, currently in rehearsal at Dartmouth College. Words sung by the Emcee, an iconic role played always, it seems, by either the androgynous but circumspect Joel Grey, or later by the audacious, suspendered Alan Cumming. In a break with tradition, a woman--Dartmouth senior Virginia Ogden--will portray the Emcee in the upcoming production, opening on Friday, November 3. 

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Ogden understands that a female in this role is a departure and a challenge, and she is all in. "The minute I was cast, I stopped watching YouTube videos of [Grey's and Cumming's] performances . . . I knew that my Emcee was going to be fundamentally different from theirs, and that female-bodied Virginia trying to play either of their versions of the role was going to fall flat . . . So I'm trying to strike a healthy balance of stealing nuggets of genius from these brilliant actors and staying true to my Emcee." While a female Emcee is not unheard of (Amanda Palmer at the A.R.T in Boston in 2010 and Karson St. John at the Cygnet Theater in San Diego in 2011), the gender-switched casting is unusual, and will undoubtedly add a fresh note to the staging of this now 51-year old musical.

We might never have known Cabaret if Christopher Isherwood, the author of the book upon which the play and musical are based, had been better behaved. He was asked to leave Cambridge University for writing joke answers during his second-year exams. He ended up in Berlin in 1929, put down roots, and observed the culture of overt sexuality and artistic creativity, along with political unrest and the rise of the Nazi party.

"Cabaret is more than women in fishnets, which is the way it is sometimes marketed. It's a history play," says Cabaret's director Carol Dunne, artistic director of Northern Stage and senior lecturer in the Dartmouth Department of Theater. Explaining the choice to stage this particular play at this time, she states that Cabaret "looks at what can happen when you're looking the other way.” Theater Department Chair Jamie Horton adds that far from being a historical relic of a bygone age, Cabaret is "ripped from the headlines of today's papers." Ogden hopes the play will humanize this period in history by putting names and faces to those who played various roles in the Nazi rise to power. "The Emcee's job," she states, "is to facilitate the audience's relationship with these characters and to drive home the message of the show in ways I think the audience won't be able to forget."

To further quote the song, consider this your invitation to “Come to the Cabaret.” It will be performed in the Moore Theater of the Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth College on November 3, 4, 9, 10, and 11 at 8:00 p.m. There are Sunday matinees on November 5 and 12 at 2:00 p.m. For further information, see the Hop's website or call 603-646-2422

Featured photo of Virginia Ogden as the Emcee (above) by Rob Strong, used with the permission of the Hopkins Center and Dartmouth College. For a fun history of Cabaret, where you will learn, among other things, that Dame Judi Dench once played the role of Sally Bowles in London's West End, click here.


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Susan B. Apel, writer, ArtfulEdge

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