NEW YORK – As she’d be the first to tell you, Michelle Williams, a movie star with practically no experience as a singer and dancer, was not an obvious choice to play the nightclub entertainer Sally Bowles in “Cabaret.” She is making her Broadway debut in the role, at Studio 54, in the Roundabout Theater Company’s resuscitation of its legendary 1998 production, which brings back Alan Cumming in his Tony-winning turn as the Emcee. But she got the job only after Emma Stone (who does have a modest background in musical theater and, because of “The Amazing Spider-Man,” is more recognizable as well) dropped out.
“They didn’t call it an audition,” Williams said, recalling her first meeting with the show’s co-directors, Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall, who also is the choreographer. “But that’s what it was, and I’m fine with that. Sally was never a first choice. That’s why she had to go to Berlin.”
Even smaller in person than she looks on screen, Williams, 33, does not have a big-movie-star manner. She’s shy, earnest, thoughtful, and after being swarmed by the press following the 2008 death of Heath Ledger, with whom she had a daughter, a little wary of publicity.
Sitting in her dressing room a couple of weeks ago, on the day after the company had moved from a rehearsal space into the theater, she seemed both tired and a bit overwhelmed. On a coffee table in front of her were some encouraging messages in very large printing from her daughter, which she hadn’t had time to hang yet. Her nails were already emerald green, Sally’s trademark, and she was wearing heavy rouge and dark lipstick, but hadn’t yet decided what to do about her hair. For performances, she eventually settled on a platinum wig that is a sort of exaggerated version of her own blond bob. But at that point she was still considering what she called a “washed-out Kool-Aid color.”
“I’ve realized something about myself,” she said, talking about her decision to join the show. “When I said I wanted to do this, not a few people in my life said: ‘Are you sure? Aren’t you going to be terrified?’ I’m not good at thinking things through. I get excited about something, and that outweighs everything else. I don’t really carry the vision down the line to see the possibilities of how it might turn out.”
She smiled and added: “I think that for my work that’s actually been an OK trait. For life, not so good.”
She had picked up a “bug” for singing and dancing, she said, while working on the movie for which she is probably best known lately, “My Week with Marilyn.” At almost the last minute, the director, Simon Curtis, decided to bookend the film with clips of Williams singing and dancing in character as Marilyn Monroe, and Williams, who had researched the character for close to a year, spent a couple of additional weeks on a crash song-and-dance course.
“It wasn’t that I felt like I had a natural gift,” she said. “What I liked is that you can’t be in your head. You can’t sing and dance and think at the same time, and so there’s a joy to it. I don’t have enough joy in my life. Who does? And whenever I can get more of it, that’s where I want to go. I want more of that feeling.”
After several weeks of privately rehearsing with Patrick Vaccariello, the music director for “Cabaret,” and Cynthia Onrubia, the associate choreographer, Williams was still worrying about bringing her singing up to an “acceptable, nonembarrassing level,” and still trying to figure out how to make the part her own.
Cumming, who considers himself possibly the greatest living expert on Sally Bowles, having now played opposite four of them in London and New York (the original Roundabout production ran for so long that it wore out a nearly endless string of replacement Sallys, including Molly Ringwald, Deborah Gibson and Susan Egan), said that what makes the character memorable “is that she’s really vulnerable but projects this false confidence.” But, he added, “the problem you have to get round is that she’s not the greatest talent, so you have to go with the rawness and energy.”
That Sally isn’t so hot at being Sally might seem like an actor’s escape hatch, except that, as Williams pointed out, “You can’t just go out and be a general mess.
“I’m still trying to figure it out,” she went on, explaining that to research the part, she had traveled to Berlin and also visited with Don Bachardy, who used to live with Christopher Isherwood, whose “Berlin Stories” are the basis for “Cabaret.” “I’ve been thinking a lot about her. What is her specific lack? Is it because she’s lazy? Because she’s overenthusiastic? There are a lot of possibilities. Why she falls short and how she falls short. I’m still working on that.”
By the time the show began previews, on March 21, she had settled on a version of Sally that was both fragile and knowing, with an exaggerated Mayfair accent and a sometimes grand manner that the character gradually sheds, but she confessed to still being a little nervous at times.
“I’m still losing sleep,” she said after an early performance. “I don’t think it’s apprehension. I wanted to do this from the minute I heard about it. It’s just the unknown.”
Linda Emond, who pays Fraulein Schneider in the show and, as it happens, is a longtime friend of Williams’, said of that same early performance: “We’re all nervous. I still have the jitters. But Michelle is probably just more honest about it. She’s exposed in a way, and she’s willing to say, ‘I’m scared to death.’ But what I also see is that she is absolutely thrilled to be here.”
That Williams is a movie star is doubtless part of why the directors chose her. But despite three Oscar nominations by the time she was barely 31, she is a curious kind of star. She has managed a major movie career without appearing in many major movies. She earned her first Oscar nomination in “Brokeback Mountain,” had a smallish role as Leonardo DiCaprio’s dead wife in “Shutter Island,” and played opposite James Franco in “Oz the Great and Powerful,” which ended up an international blockbuster. But mostly she has made her reputation in low-budget, or even bare-budget, indie films like “Blue Valentine” (for which she got her second Oscar nod), “Take This Waltz,” “Meek’s Cutoff” (perhaps the scrimpiest Western ever made) and “Wendy and Lucy” (in which her co-star is a mixed-breed retriever) – the kinds of movies that critics love but that are strangers to the multiplex.
“My Week With Marilyn” was an exception. In most of her films, she plays not a glamour queen, but someone sensitive, misunderstood, a little put-upon.
“I wouldn’t even say it was deliberate, because it comes very naturally,” she said, explaining why she has been in so many indies. “They don’t feel like super-pointed choices. It just feels like a very natural expression of my interest.”
She has turned down some roles in bigger movies, she admitted, “but it’s like someone saying, ‘I’m going out, can I get you a cup of coffee?’ and I’m like, ‘Nah, I’m good.’ It’s just not me.” Mendes, the “Cabaret” co-director, has been an admirer of Williams since seeing her in “Dick,” the 1999 comedy in which she and Kirsten Dunst play teenage ditzes who accidentally bring down the presidency of Richard M. Nixon. “She’s incredibly natural, with real delicacy,” he said.
Marshall added, “The ingredient that Michelle has that’s so rare is her vulnerability.”
While Roundabout is looking to “Cabaret” as a presold money earner during tough financial times – even the earlier peek-a-boo advertising campaign, not to mention Cumming, are back – Mendes said he was “not interested in a cryogenically frozen production.”
“Frankly, that’s happened to some shows I’ve directed,” he added. “But this show is deepened by the actors, and they make a huge difference. ‘Cabaret’ is only worth doing if you have an outstanding Sally. It’s about acting first. The singing comes later.”
The singing matters, though. In this production, Williams gets to sing not only the famous title song, but also two numbers that were added only in 1998, after they were used in the movie, “Mein Herr,” and “Maybe This Time,” which she turns into an exploration of Sally’s true nature.
“I keep reminding people, this isn’t Michelle singing and dancing – it’s Sally Bowles,” Marshall said. “You want to see all of it: the frailty, that she’s in a second-rate club, everything.”
Looking back at her career, which included a long stint in the sudsy teenage series “Dawson’s Creek,” Williams said: “Some material gives back to you. The other stuff taps you out. What helped me was being in situations where you had to learn very quickly how to adapt, and that’s how I feel about this.”
She recalled that, at one point, she told Emond: “They’re going to teach me to sing and dance and act on the stage, and they’re going to pay me? Whatever happens, I’m going to come out of this better than when I started. Even if I’m embarrassed, I’m going to be better.”