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Alan Cumming’s Audio Cabaret ‘Legal Immigrant’ Shows a Personal Side of Politics

The prolific actor turned his latest one-man show, now available on Audible, into a celebration of being an immigrant in America.

Alan Cumming Legal Immigrant

Alan Cumming isn’t exactly sure what to call his new Audible Original “Legal Immigrant.” Recorded at the Minetta Lane Theatre in New York, it’s an audio version of his touring show of the same name. It’s a themed cabaret. It’s a personal monologue. It’s a spontaneous live album. It’s a combination of all of those.

Written by Cumming, the show uses a particular song-and-storytelling format to give an overview of his experiences as an American citizen. As he explains in the show, he was inspired by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ decision to remove the phrase “a nation of immigrants” from its mission statement in early 2018.

From there, Cumming wanted to make something that framed immigration as a positive experience, highlighting the many artistic contributions to American culture from people born outside the United States. “Legal Immigrant” features a four-piece band made up of Lance Horne (who also contributed arrangements to the show), Eleanor Norton, Chris Jago, and Riley Mulherkar.

The show was conceived and developed before family border separation policies caught national attention. As he continued to work on it and take it to different venues around the country, those developments only bolstered his efforts to keep “immigration” from becoming a tarnished word.

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“It’s hard to avoid the notion that it’s such a contentious topic. Nobody really wants to talk about it right now. Everyone’s too scared. And I think everyone’s so exhausted because we are in such a polarized time,” Cumming said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “This administration thrives on chaos. That’s what I want to remind people, is that’s on purpose. They want us to be exhausted. They want us to feel unable to actually move anyone.”

So his answer was to put together a performance that embraced the idea of a cabaret to tell a personal story. Throughout the hour and a half show, he intersperses stories from his time in the States with songs that connect to each anecdote.

“That’s why I like doing it. It’s a very personal thing,” Cumming said. “When I do a cabaret, I’m interpreting it, putting my stamp on things, on certain songs and telling my story. It’s like a smorgasbord. You can have something hilarious next to something really upsetting, and then something provocative. You can make people cry, make people laugh, make people furious sometimes. But you always move on. You don’t stay in that place. And I think that’s what it should be. It should be a series of pokes in different parts of you.”

There are other ways in the show in which Cumming also focuses on not just the cultural and political way we talk about immigration, but the linguistic ways. In “Legal Immigrant,” he takes issue with the term “naturalization,” explaining that, for him, it implies that those who haven’t yet gone through the official citizenship process are somehow abnormal in the country where they live.

“When I was actually becoming a citizen, I thought, ‘Doesn’t anyone else think that’s weird?'” Cumming said. “It’s almost like, who wants to go to a ‘terminal’ building when they’re about to go on a flight? Does seem like the wrong kind of word to use when you’re about do something potentially life-threatening.”

If America is a “land of opportunity,” Cumming has had plenty of charmed ones. In “Legal Immigrant,” he talks of chance encounters with global music icons and on-set anecdotes with Oscar-winning co-stars. Cumming enjoyed career success before making a home in New York, but there’s a section of the show that approaches his very different upbringing in Scotland.

“I thought that was really important to point that out, the idea of this duality that so much of the people who aren’t from this country have. I’m always going to be a Scottish American. I think that’s a really interesting thing to remember, that this is such a young country and that the connections to the place where our forefathers are from is still very fresh and strong.”

That balance extends to the song he chooses for the musical parts of the show. “Legal Immigrant” is comprised of a number of medleys, blending pop and Broadway sensibilities. There are some choices with thematic resonance — a pair of songs in the opening come from Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along,” a show told backwards in time. But mostly, Cumming wanted to choose songs with a power that could translate to a live, in-person audience and to those eventually listening through Audible.

“They’re mostly songs that I feel I can act and have some sort of connection to. I like to arrest people’s attention,” Cumming said. “I’m not really a great singer. I think I’m quite a good interpreter of songs. I don’t want to sing nice songs, anyway. I don’t want to sing songs that are lovely. I want to sing songs that are about something.”

There’s a little bit of it in “Legal Immigrant,” but working on the show has made him think about his own life. Looking back at how far he’s come in his time across multiple continents made him think about the process of getting older.

I actually really enjoy talking about aging. I think it’s a topic that obviously is a two-pronged thing. I am aware that it’s happening in my face, my hair, and my body, but at the same time also I feel I’m in situations where I’m not doing it in the way that is accepted or conventional. I find that acting your age is just such a weird concept, as well. It’s such a subjective thing. Maybe that’s what I’ll do my next show about,” Cumming said with a slight chuckle. “I’ll call it ‘Acting My Age.'”

Alan Cumming: Legal Immigrant” is now available on Audible.

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