By Lee J. Green
New York-based actor Donald Corren makes his first journey to Alabama for a journey back in time to Berlin during the twilight of the Jazz Era.
One of the most famous American musicals of all time, “Cabaret,” comes to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival stage in Montgomery, through Aug. 6.
The veteran actor of stage, screen and audiobooks has played many roles in his 40-year career. But he considers playing Herr Schultz one of a few “roles of a lifetime” and it connects him with his family heritage.
Herr Schultz is the only Jewish character in the show, a middle-aged fruit vendor. He has a romance with the owner of the boarding house he is staying at, Fraulen Schneider, that is put at peril by the Nazi ascent to power in Berlin.
“Their love affair is really the heart of the piece,” said Corren. “It leads to the wedge being driven between them by the Nazis, who threaten to shut down the boarding house. Schultz tells them he is German, but they say, ‘you’re Jewish so you need to go’.”
Corren’s great-grandfather immigrated from Odessa, Russia, to Stockton, Calif., in 1901. He first had vegetable cart, and would go on to develop a very successful furniture empire in northern California.
Corren and his father, Mel, wrote a book about his family’s journey to the United States, “I’ve Lived It, I’ve Loved It,” which is available on Amazon.
“It’s a classic Russian Jew immigration story. My great-grandfather was a very industrious man,” he said. “Our family also helped build Temple Israel (in Stockton) and my mom was the president of the congregation.”
Corren got involved in theatre when he was only five years old. “We had a very progressive school system, and our grammar school even had a drama club.”
In high school, he learned all aspects of the theatre and earned a scholarship to the prestigious Julliard School of Acting.
Corren started his professional career in Chicago, working alongside playwright David Mamet, actors William Macy and the Belushi Brothers. Then he would go on to New York City to do theatre and the accomplished pianist supplemented his income by playing in some piano bars.
Corren originated the role of Cosme McMoonin in the celebrated Broadway production of “Souvenir.” Then when Harvey Fierstein left the ground-breaking “Torch Song Trilogy” in 1984 to make the movie of the same name, Corren took over his role on Broadway. “To follow such a legend is a challenge, but it was such a groundbreaking show and in incredible experience for me.”
Ten years ago, Corren was in a Holocaust-themed show called “The Soap Myth.” Written by playwright Jeff Cohen, it dramatizes the conflict between Holocaust scholars and historians who require documentary proof when determining the history of the Holocaust and survivors who were the eyewitnesses to the horrors.
“It really connected on a deep level and is a very important work still performed today (with Richard Dreyfus in the lead role),” he said.
The next show he did connected with his Jewishness but with a much different tone and subject – “Old Jews Telling Jokes” – about the Borscht Belt comedians.
Corren also has narrated more than 150 audiobooks, including one titled “First The Jews,” which delves into antisemitism and the hatred that has been infesting the world for more than 3,000 years.
In 2021, Corren made his first trip to the Deep South. He played a doctor in the Netflix movie “Dolly Parton Christmas on the Square,” filmed in Atlanta.
He said when he found out about “Cabaret” auditions for the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, “I had heard about the tremendous reputation of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival had and (Schultz) is a role I have always wanted to do. I grew up with the musical.”
“Cabaret” was based on a 1951 play “I Am a Camera,” which was adapted from a semi-autobiographical novel by Christopher Isherwood, called “Goodbye To Berlin.”
Debuting on Broadway in 1966, the groundbreaking musical by John Kander, Fred Ebb and Joe Masteroff focuses on the nightlife at the seedy underground Kit Kat Club.
Alabama Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Rick Dildine said, “the club itself serves as a metaphor for the ominous political developments in Germany at the time. The story is both realistic and representational.
“As an artist, I feel there is a difference between art and entertainment. Art focuses our attention while entertainment distracts us,” he added. “’Cabaret’ uses entertainment to focus our attention on how a society’s norms can be chipped away even while we are all laughing and enjoying the show.”