Alan Cumming has been gone from Scotland for a long time. After graduating from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, he spent a decade in London before moving to New York 18 years ago. He still comes home occasionally – he keeps a flat in Edinburgh, and was recently at Scone Palace filming a VisitScotland ad – but the 51-year-old has been away for more than half his life.

“I tell Americans I was born in Aberfeldy, which means nothing to them,” the actor/writer/singer recounts with a laugh. “I might mention growing up near Carnoustie, but only golf people might know that. So, generally, I say I was born in Perthshire and grew up near Dundee. But I love it in the States when they say, ‘Where are you from, Edinburgh or Glasgow?’ Neither! ‘And where are you from, Los Angeles or New York?’ ” Artistically, however, Cumming is, in a way, from Edinburgh and Glasgow. In 1984, while studying in Glasgow, he and erstwhile comedy partner Forbes Masson took their Victor & Barry double act to the Fringe. “We were on at the Harry Younger Hall at the bottom of the Royal Mile.” He stops to do the math(s). “That was 32 years ago! F**k me! And I’m still doing basically the same show, ha ha! Although maybe there’s a little more nuance to it.”

He has been back to Edinburgh since then, performing in the National Theatre of Scotland and John Tiffany’s The Bacchae in 2007. But this year he’s premièring in the UK the show with which he has been touring the US on and off for the past year. Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs is exactly that: a latenight cabaret in which he performs a collection of emotional numbers. Some are funny, some are heavier, but each has special meaning to him and comes with an anecdote or three.

So, after an opening rendition of Annie Lennox’s ‘Why’, followed by a version of Keane’s ‘Somewhere Only We Know’, this all-rounder does a medley of Lady Gaga’s ‘Edge of Glory’, Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ and ‘Firework’ by Katy Perry. A diva trifecta in one song…

“Totally!” he beams. “It’s intense. But, also, I do it because they’re all the same f**king song! It’s a little observation not about plagiarism but about banality in music. But then I say, ‘That’s not a judgement, because even the most venerated musical genius – Stephen Sondheim, say – will write songs that kinda sound the same.’ Then I do a Sondheim mash-up, where I make it all sound like one song in 45 seconds.”

The show grew in part out of the after-show parties Cumming hosted in his dressing room during his Broadway run in Cabaret. “But also in 2009 I did a one-man show called I Bought a Blue Car Today, which was the first time I’d done a cabaret. That transmogrified into another show called Alan Cumming: Uncut. And then while I was doing Cabaret, I was asked to do two weeks at Café Carlyle in New York.”

Sappy Songs is the result. In it, Cumming says he’s singing songs he never thought he’d sing, “by artists I never thought I’d go for”. Such as? “ ‘ The Climb’ by Miley Cyrus. I’m intrigued by the way people are judgmental about music. If you stand back from that song and forget it’s Miley Cyrus and take off your judge-y hat, it’s actually a beautiful song with a lovely lyric. And I commit to singing it completely, without being cynical.”

He isn’t being ironic? “No, I don’t do irony,” he insists, with no evident irony. “Well, I do, but not when I sing. I want to be authentic. Then I pull the rug from under you sometimes.” Some of that rug-pulling comes in the sections in the show where he talks about his father, the abusive figure at the heart of Cumming’s excellent, painfully honest 2014 memoir, Not My Father’s Son. Now he’s completed a second memoir, You Gotta Get Bigger Dreams, which he’ll be launching at the Edinburgh Book Festival during his visit home. It was, he says with some relief, a much easier book to write – not least, he adds, “because it’s based around photos. It started off because I had an exhibition a few years ago and wrote little stories for each photo. It wasn’t all just me with famous people – some are little scenes, like a copy of the New York Times on a table on the day Elizabeth Taylor died, with some beer bottles, then I tell the story about when I met Elizabeth Taylor. Or there are photos from when I did a cross-country trip with my dog. Some of them are from nearly 15 years ago, and they’ve got funny period details, like me complaining how it took two hours to upload a photo using the dial-up modem.”

From crappy technology to sappy songs – what, to him, is the defining essence of the numbers he’s singing in his show?

“It’s a song that just connects, either through the melody or most probably the lyric – it hits you in the guts and it hits you in the heart. When I was a little boy, my brother used to sing ‘Danny Boy’ to make me cry. I would just burst into tears. I think it’s the line, ‘the pipes, the pipes are calling’. I’m Scottish – what can I say?” he laughs again. “I hear a piper in Times Square in New York and I get misty.”

Words: Sam Peters
Picture: Tré

Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs, The Hub, 6–27 August, 10.30pm

Alan Cumming: True Life Misadventures Baillie Gifford Theatre, 27 August, 6.45pm

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