'Cabaret' Is Her Life

'Caroline in the City' star Lea Thompson uses her career's sometimes painful lessons to create a first-rate Sally Bowles.


"I always said Lea was born performing."

Shannon Katona is talking about her younger sister, Lea Thompson.

Most people know Thompson as the star of the NBC television series "Caroline in the City" or the mother in the "Back to the Future" movies. Beginning Tuesday, however, Mechanic Theatre audiences can see her in a considerably less wholesome role, that of "divinely decadent" Sally Bowles in the 1998 Tony Award-winning revival of Kander and Ebb's "Cabaret."

Sally, a second-rate singer performing in a raunchy Berlin dive between the two World Wars, may seem like a stretch for Thompson, especially since this is her first musical. But the 39-year-old actress from Minnesota insists it suits her quite well, thank you.

" `Cabaret' always spoke to me because I was raised in this kind of provocative artistic environment, and my mother is a painter and a jazz singer, a sculptor," she says. "Even though it was the Midwest, it was also that time in the '70s and coming out of the '60s when everything was up for grabs."

Which brings us back to Katona's childhood recollections. Thompson was the youngest of five and, as told by Katona (who is five and a half years older), the first time her kid sister ever walked, she was trying to dance.

"My mom used to play piano and narrate stuff for us to act out, and my brothers were lions and tigers and my other sister and I were deer," says Katona, a romance writer and longtime Baltimore resident. "This one night we were all dancing around the living room and Lea just went the whole length of the room, she wanted so badly to dance with all of us."

By age 4, Thompson was already eager to study dance, but her brother Andrew, who was then dancing with a company in Rochester, Minn., and now dances with the Colorado Ballet, insisted she wait until 10, telling her that's the age dancers begin at the Kirov.

"At one point my entire family -- my four brothers and sisters and my mother and father -- were all in `The Nut- cracker' except for me," Thompson says with a trace of envy still evident in her voice.

At 14, she joined the Minnesota Dance Theatre, "a very cool company," she says in a phone conversation from Pittsburgh, where "Cabaret" played a recent engagement. "It was wild stuff we were doing. It was not running around in fluffy pink tutus. It was a real intense education."

This is as good a place as any to get to what could be called "Lea Thompson's Disclaimer": "Because I'm small and kind of have a youthful air of energy around me and a Midwestern voice, people have tended to think I'm some type of archetype -- the girl next door, and I've done well with it. But, of course, it's not who I am, because I'm not an archetype. I started my artistic career as a modern dancer, which is a heady kind of strange artistic thing."

Thompson, who graduated from high school at 16 and set off to be a professional dancer, is tired of talking about how that career came to an end, but she reluctantly sums it up. "I joined American Ballet Theatre [in New York], the farm team, briefly -- American Ballet Theatre II -- just like four months. Then I was let go," she says. "[Former artistic director Mikhail] Baryshnikov told me I was too stocky."

"It's a real hard thing when you've been dancing and it's been your whole thought process from day one. It's hard to move out of that," says her sister. But Katona remembers the resilient Thompson saying, "If I've got Baryshnikov telling me that I'm not going to make it as a dancer, then the next logical progression would be acting."

Thompson started out making commercials, including a number for Burger King, then rapidly moved into film, chalking up a dozen movies in four years. Among these were "Jaws 3-D" (1983) in which, as she puts it, she played "shark bait," and the first of the "Back to the Future" (1985) movies, in which she played "Oedipus' teen-age mother."

Even a box office dud like "Howard the Duck" (1986) had its advantages, giving her a chance to sing on screen.

But with the exception of frequent engagements singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" at sporting events -- she will sing at the June 11 Orioles game -- "Cabaret" has afforded Thompson her greatest opportunity to sing before a live audience.

"I figured out I spent the most money in my education on my singing classes," she says.

Granted, Sally Bowles, her ex-patriot British character, isn't supposed to be a polished chanteuse. In "The Berlin Stories," on which "Cabaret" is partly based, author Christopher Isherwood wrote, "She sang badly, without any expression ... yet her performance was, in its own way, effective."

"Don't let anyone fool you," says Thompson, insisting that all the actresses who play the role try to sing their best.

In the revival alone, that list ranges from Natasha Richardson to Jennifer Jason Leigh and Teri Hatcher.

Leigh was starring in the show, which is directed by Academy Award-winner Sam Mendes, when Thompson saw it on Broadway two years ago.

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