Alan Cumming and Ari Shapiro team up for “Och and Oy!: A Considered Cabaret,” coming to the Merriam Theater on the Kimmel Cultural Campus October 17. In a recent phone interview, PGN spoke with the Tony-winning actor and author (Cumming) and the NPR journalist and occasional singer with Pink Martini (Shapiro) about their show, a mix of songs and stories.

What can folks expect from “Och and Oy”?

Alan Cumming: It’s like this phone call, we just ramble on with no structure. It’s sort of about our different personalities. It is a bit meta — how we met, how we decided to do the show, the fact that we’re different, but we’re actually kind of the same. And we sing some songs.

Ari Shapiro: Our hope is that the show has the kind of thoughtful conversation you expect from a public radio program and the bawdy, entertaining song and dance numbers you might expect from an Alan Cumming show. There is a certain degree of surprise and delight in seeing these two things combined in an unusual way.

What can you say about the state of cabaret and how your show adheres to the genre?

Cumming: I think of cabaret as a smorgasbord. The form itself is about lots of different things being joined up against one another. Each one is bettered by the stark difference of the next chunk. You can be really hilarious and then you can be really tender. You can say something of political or social significance and then tell a cock joke. That’s the whole joy of it. You smash these things up next to each other and it’s a virtue. I like the form of cabaret for that very reason. For it to really work, you have to be very authentic, and vulnerable, and really be yourself. That’s when people really connect with you.

Shapiro: I had a friend in London who once told me too many performers confuse cabaret with musical revue. He said a revue is singing songs and telling stories, but a cabaret needs a reason to exist. It needs to be dangerous, and build connection with the audience, and end someplace different from where it began. For me, part of the fun of a show like this is that you can really mix it up and take a pop song, and a Broadway standard, and something from the American songbook, and something in another language, and they all belong because you combined them. I think less think about spending an hour singing Stephen Sondheim and Irving Berlin and more about the opportunity to reach far afield and pull in things that might be unexpected. 

Alan Cumming and Ari Shapiro.

How much do you “perform” a song, rather than just sing it. This isn’t karaoke where you are wowing us with a rendition of a familiar song but internalizing it. I think of Alan’s performance of “I Shall Be Released” in the film “Any Day Now” that really made me hear that song anew. He was acting it. It was so moving. 

Cumming: You have to make it your own. I agree with what Ari said about the musical revue thing. I was just the artistic director at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, and I kept saying, “There’s more to cabaret than a girl singing ‘Maybe This Time’ with a feather boa around her neck.” And, of course, in my set, I sang, “Maybe This Time,” but I did not wear the feather boa, so I was bucking the trend! But I do think there is so much more to it. The possibility really excites me. We both have nice voices, but we are not Kristin Chenoweth. People are not coming to hear our mellifluous tones, they are coming to hear our personalities. It’s about this authenticity and making it your own. That’s why with “Any Day Now,” I’m playing a character in the film, but I sang that song like me. You have to find your own way into a song that makes sense to you. What is hilarious, is that I didn’t know [“I Shall Be Released”] and they sent me a video of Bette Midler singing it!

Shapiro: We have a Bette Midler song in our show. 

Cumming: We do! That’s right!

Shapiro: It randomly came in on something’s shuffle that dropped into my life like a gift from the cabaret gods. 

OK, guys, how queer will this performance be?
Shapiro: Oh, It’s very queer!

Cumming: It’s queer, queer, queer. The gayest thing ever!

Shapiro: By public radio standards, it’s racy. By Alan Cumming standards, it’s tame.

What about your patter? I expect there to be wit and Jewish jokes. Is this like a Catskills act?

Cumming: It totally is — yes! [Laughs]
Shapiro:  I never thought of it in those terms, but now that you put it that way… 

Cumming: It’s totally Catskills! If the Catskills were gay and sort of weird. 

Shapiro: The nice thing is, and this is part of the name, “Och and Oy!” that I’m the “Och,” the Jewish one — sorry, Alan is the Och, the Scottish one, and I’m the Oy!, the Jewish one — and it points to our difference, and also how well the two of us go together.

Cumming: I just realized, talking about the Catskills, the place where I live in the Catskills, someone told me that because so many gay people live there, they call it the “Swish Alps!”

Shapiro: That’s brilliant!

Ari, you have performed with Pink Martini, what can you say about doing this kind of show where you are the star not the guest?
Shapiro: Pink Martini prepped me for an experience like this. I’ve sung with the band for more than a decade now, and they provide this incredible infrastructure that I am able to plug into. So, for me and Alan to create a show like this together, and perform it is the next step for building something from scratch. It feels like a natural segue, and an exciting one.

Alan, you also have a new book coming out, will you tell stories from that in your act? 

Cumming: Sure, some of the stories I tell are in the book. It’s a bit of a blur. I’m doing a solo show, and “Och and Oy!,” and the book. It is all constructed confessional, with songs. No songs in the book though. The book is about my life and how you can have this seemingly fabulous life and at times you are a hot mess. That is what the show is about.

Shapiro: As long as you’re hot

Cumming: That’s all that matters. Maintaining my hotness. It takes a village.

Is there a song either of you needed to sing?

Cumming: That’s the great thing, we sing songs we would never normally sing. It’s great that we can do whatever the fuck we like. 

Shapiro: Each song scratches a different itch. There is not one song so much as it is the arc of the evening to take me on journey, and hopefully the audience as well, and each spot along the journey satisfies in a different way.