I don’t mean to jump on the morbidity bandwagon, but I wanted to set aside a tiny slice of cyberspace to mention Natasha Richardson’s passing. She may not have been a tabloid sensation, or a $20M payday megastar, but she was a very talented woman who had a sound reputation in the New York theater world–and that’s one bunch of catty bitches, let me tell you.
I only saw Ms. Richardson on stage once. She played Blanche DuBois in the Roundabout Theater Company’s revival of A Streetcar Named Desire. She was the only good thing about that production. (John C. Reilly as Stanley? Yeah, because when I think of raw sexual magnetism, I think of Dewey Cox. Honestly…)
The production through which I first became aware of and awed by Ms. Richardson’s talent was the Roundabout’s revival of Cabaret, in which she played Sally Bowles. That show remains the single greatest Broadway production I have ever seen. I saw it when I was 16 years old. Up to that point, my understanding of musical theater was formed from having seen revivals of 1776 and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and participating in school productions of Guys & Dolls and Into the Woods. They showed me how a musical can be bubbly, fleeting entertainment. Cabaret showed me how a musical can scare the shit out of you.
I saw it three times, with different actors in the lead roles each time, and each time it never failed to knock me out. By the time that third trip rolled around, I was able to pay more attention to the people around me in the audience. There was an audible noise when the lights finally came up. It was the sound of everyone in the theater exhaling. They, like me that first time, had been quite literally holding their breath, stunned by what was happening before their eyes. Cabaret taught me that musicals can be taken seriously.
I saw the show three times, but sadly never with Ms. Richardson and the rest of the original leads. I only experienced her performance by listening the outstanding cast recording, which I highly recommend. If you need any convincing, I’ve included a YouTube post of her performing the title song. I know nothing comparable to it except Elaine Stritch’s “The Ladies Who Lunch” from Company and Patti LuPone’s performance of “Rose’s Turn” from Gypsy.
Ben Brantley described this performance in his New York Times review of the show from March 20, 1998:
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.
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.
Natasha Richardson’s death is very unfortunate; foremost for her family, but also for her fans. As the member of a famous acting family whose members have enjoyed long lives and careers, she clearly had a lot of great work ahead of her.