I’m in mourning today for Natasha Richardson, who passed away suddenly yesterday after an accident during a ski lesson at Mont Tremblant north of Montreal. She was, as an Associated Press article put it yesterday. “a proper Londoner who came to love the noise of New York.”
I’d been thinking about Richardson lately after seeing a version of Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie at the Metropolitan Playhouse last fall. I’ll always regret missing the 1993 revival of the play in which she starred along with Liam Neeson, Rip Torn, and Anne Meara. Now more so than ever. (I’m hoping it’s been preserved on videotape at Lincoln Center, so that I can view it for, ahem, research purposes.)
Her performance in the edgy Broadway revival of Cabaret eleven years ago remains a vivid memory. Directed by Sam Mendes and featuring Alan Cumming as the Master of Ceremonies and Ron Rivkin as Herr Schultz, and Denis O’Hare as Ernst Ludwig, the production evoked a sleazier version of Berlin nightlife than more elegant vision in Bob Fosse’s original, marvelously translated onto the screen with Liza Minnelli, Michael York, and Joel Grey. My family and I were fortunate enough to have a stage-side table at the “Kit Kat Club” (Studio 54), and we were riveted. Indeed, my poor father seemed more than a little discomfitted by the fact that the tickling boas and wiggling derrieres of the chorus girls were, well, right in his face.
You can get a sense of the production from this YouTube video of Cumming performing “Wilkommen” at the Tony Awards:
Richardson’s “Sally” was more damaged and fragile than Minnelli’s, a wonderful reinterpretation of the role that made you forget (at least momentarily) Liza’s iconic performance.
Here’s what Ben Brantley had to say about Richardson in his review of the production:
Sally Bowles has just stepped into the spotlight, which is, you would imagine, her very favorite place to be. Yet this avidly ambitious chanteuse recoils when the glare hits her, flinching and raising a hand to shade her face. Wearing the barest of little black dresses and her eyes shimmering with fever, she looks raw, brutalized and helplessly exposed. And now she’s going to sing us a song, an anthem to hedonism, about how life is a cabaret, old chum. She might as well be inviting you to hell.
Not exactly an upbeat way to tackle a showstopper, is it? Yet when Natasha Richardson performs the title number of ”Cabaret,” in the entertaining but preachy revival of the 1966 Kander-Ebb show that opened last night, you’ll probably find yourself grinning in a way you seldom do at musicals these days. For what Ms. Richardson does is reclaim and reinvent a show-biz anthem that is as familiar as Hamlet’s soliloquy.
She hasn’t made the number her own in the way nightclub performers bring distinctive quirky readings to standards. Instead, she has given it back to Sally Bowles. Ms. Richardson, you see, isn’t selling the song; she’s selling the character. And as she forges ahead with the number, in a defiant, metallic voice, you can hear the promise of the lyrics tarnishing in Sally’s mouth. She’s willing herself to believe in them, and all too clearly losing the battle.
For pleasurable listening, you would of course do better with Liza Minnelli, who starred in the movie version. But it is to Ms. Richardson’s infinite credit that you don’t leave the theater humming the tune to ”Cabaret,” but brooding on the glimpses it has provided of one woman’s desperation.
He concluded by calling her performance “an electrifying triumph.” You can get a dim sense of Richardson’s Sally from these two recently uploaded YouTube videos: