Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Conversation with
Christopher Sieber

If you're a member of the LGBT community, or just love musical theatre, then you are more than likely familiar with La Cage aux Folles in any or all of its various incarnations. Most people are familiar with the movie that started it all, but that movie was first based on a French play. The movie became a success in the States in 1978, and from that, the Broadway musical was born in 1983. Of course, with all of the success, Hollywood also had to produce an Americanized version of the movie which was also very successful. Back in '83, even if you hadn't seen the show, you were probably very familiar with the disco version of the musical's signature tune, "I Am What I Am," a song that has gone on to become a major gay anthem. Over the years, there have been local productions of the show across the country, and two Broadway revivals (and it's the first production to win three Tonys for Best Musical for the original production and the two revivals).

And now the latest version of La Cage has hit the road for a nationwide tour that is currently in Baltimore through November 6th at the Hippodrome Theatre. If you haven't gotten your tickets yet, there are several reasons to see the new production (which is a more intimate version of the original Broadway extravaganza), and two of them are the show's stars – the legendary George Hamilton has taken over the role of Georges (played by Christopher Sieber on Broadway) and the role of Zaza is being played by none other than … Christopher Sieber, the multi-talened, Tony-nominated Broadway star (taking over for Broadway's Harvey Fierstein)! I recently had the great pleasure of speaking with Christopher, from his hometown of Minneapolis, to talk about the new show, his outrageous role in Shrek the Musical and what the future holds.

CD: How is the tour going? This is your first tour, right?
CS: This is not necessarily my first tour. It's my second, but the first tour I did was 20-some odd years ago so … yeah, I was 22 then and you could stay up late and not worry about singing the next day. Remember 20 years ago when you could be irresponsible? (laughs) So this is a different experience for me because after the show I'm so exhausted because it's such a big part, I have to go back to my hotel room, watch TV and be quiet.

CD: On Broadway you played Georges, so you didn't have to go through as much preparation as you do now.
CS: Georges' songs aren't hard, they're not high. Georges has "You On My Arm," "Look Over There" … umm, he has … yeah, that's all he has, really. I have five or six songs as Albin/Zaza. It's a lot. It's a lot, but the part is so much fun to play, it really is, it's a blast. There's so much there.

CD: What made you decide to swap roles for the tour?
CS: I had done the show on Broadway, and I had kind of done Georges, and the producer Barry Weissler asked me if I would be interested in doing the tour, and I said, "You know what? I don't know. Maybe." And he says, "I kind of want to ask you to do Zaza," and I though that that was kind of a cool challenge actually, and it's such a great part, and I can scratch it off of my list of parts I wanted to play so I said sure, if we can make a good deal, make it worth my while to go on the road, I'll totally go. And, you know, I'm having a blast with it. And the hard part is watching George Hamilton do Georges, because when you do a part and you know the ins and the outs of it, and you watch somebody else do it, it's kind of like watching someone drive your brand new car in a way.

CD: Do you have the urge to give him direction?
CS: Yes, but I have to bite my tongue. (laughs)

CD: And what's it like working with George Hamilton?
CS: He is a doll, I'll tell you that. He is self-deprecating, so funny, a charming, charming, dashing man, not a diva bone in his body, just a lovely, lovely guy.

CD: That's always good to hear.
CS: Yeah, because it could make the tour really hellish if there's somebody opposite you who is a major diva, and most of the time divas … and I've worked with a few of them, and they're only divas when they have to be … they're the real insecure divas that are just basically bitches the entire time. They're horrible to be around.

CD: Looking at the show, the original version had that whole political/religious angle and it's still relevant in today's political climate.
CS: It's so relevant today, yeah. It's the gays against the conservatives, basically, is what the show is. It's kind of like the ongoing battle … the story is our son decides he wants to marry this girl Anne, and his girlfriend is the daughter of a very conservative politician who's trying to sweep clean the types of clubs like La Cage aux Folles, and sweep these people away so they don't exist anymore. So Jean-Michel wants his parents to butch it up and it just doesn't work out and hilarity ensues. It's a covert message about be who you are, and there's a line in the show that if we've done our jobs correctly you'll leave with more than a folded program and a torn ticket stub, because it's a covert message that will make you think a little bit. It's something like, "Life is too short to judge, to hate, we can all live together, and just because you're gay doesn't mean we can't be a family." And that message comes through and it's kind of an interesting … because in this production, it's such an intimate production. We've cut back a lot of the over-the-top numbers and everything, and just brought everything down real to make La Cage aux Folles an actual little club, and it works really, really well.

CD: Okay, I was wondering what the differences were between the original production and this version.
CS: Yeah, they cut back a lot, they cut right down to the story which is basically the family. So they really knocked it down. Terry Johnson, our director, really pared it down so it's almost like a play with the best music in the world.

CD: And speaking of music, you certainly get to perform probably the most iconic gay anthem ever. What's it like to sing that song every night and wonder if audiences are really getting the message of it?
CS: Well, my parents saw the show and my mom said, "You made me cry," and I was like, "Why," and she said that song, "I Am What I Am," "it was you." And I was like, "Yeah," and she said it was just amazing and great, and I was so happy because my mom never gives me compliments. (laughs) My parents never give me compliments because it's the Minnesota way – if someone gives you a compliment then you think you're something! (laughs) But they gave me a compliment and I was very surprised. But that song, it moves people and it certainly is one of those songs that you have to be prepared for even as a performer because you kind of have to go down a rabbit hole with it. Luckily, I've had a lovely … quite the history of, you know, being a gay man, and I'm 42 now and all the stuff that I had to go through I can use in that song. But basically, ultimately, it's all about pride and being true to yourself and being who you are. And I think it's one of the best songs for musical theatre ever written. It really is. It's like a little play in itself. But such a great song, and so moving and the words are so true, "Life's not worth a damn, till you can say hey world, I am what I am. And your life is a sham, till you can shout out loud I am what I am." I mean those are just terrific lyrics.

CD: It gives me goosebumps just hearing you say the words.
CS: Oh, good!

CD: How long does it take you to get into the whole Zaza character?
CS: It's about 45 minutes before the show, we start our makeup process which is basically just kind of a base because I do put the makeup on stage myself in front of the audience.

CD: And you're in and out of makeup throughout the show?
CS: Well, the way it's done now, Albin just stays in his show makeup, because somebody noticed that between shows in the West End and on Broadway, the showgirls don't take their makeup off, they don't even take their wig prep off. They just put on a bald cap and sunglasses, and they go out. So that's exactly, when we hit the Promenade scene, that's exactly what we do. So I have a hat on and I have sunglasses on, and I still have my big old lashes on and my eye shadow (laughs), so I'm only in and out of makeup three times, not like the old show where it was every other scene where you had to put on, take off, put on, take off.

CD: You're now playing the role Harvey Fierstein played on Broadway. Any urge to take on any of his other roles now, like Edna in Hairspray?
CS: I did Edna already at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. It was a great experience. It was exciting.

CD: Cool! Speaking of roles that require some preparation, I remember seeing you on the Tonys doing your part from Shrek the Musical. Did you have to do that entire part on your knees?
CS: Yeah, yeah, I pick the parts that kind of destroy me for some reason. (laughs) For my next show, I think I'm going to do one called "Whispers in Pajamas," where I'm in a bed, in pajamas and I have to whisper all my lines and music to a nursemaid and she has to sing it for me. That or "Jazzy the Musical" in a little hoveround chair. (laughs) Yeah, I do parts because I like the challenge of it and plus there's so much stuff you can do, like weird stuff, like Farquad in Shrek the Musical was so bizarre. I got the opportunity to write with David Lindsay-Abair most of the part, so what ended up on stage was mostly my fault, and all the stuff with me being on my knees and everything, because we were in development and we started about three years prior to it finally hitting Broadway, we started with one act and three songs and as we progressed, every other month we'd get together, and before you knew it we had kind of a show, and we were trying to figure out what to do with Farquad, how to make him small and we were maybe going to put a trench in the stage, or maybe hiding me behind set pieces and little things, and that would be a nice fun little running gag, but one day I came in with these little legs that I had constructed, I put them in front of me and I knelt down and did this little dance with them and it was the funniest thing we had ever seen, and we were like that's it. And it ultimately became this huge thing and I apologize to everyone else who has to do that part ever. It was so funny, but ultimately it was exhausting and it ruined my body, my neck and shoulders, my spine and my back and my hips … my knees are fine actually. The weird part is my knees are fine, but everything else hurts.

CD: Hopefully the only thing that hurts after this tour is your feet from the heels! How long is your tour with La Cage?
CS: We are going to be on the road for about a year or so, 42 weeks. I think we end in Canada.

CD: Well, I'm sure you're going to take a nice long rest after this, but what's your dream project down the road? What do you want to do next?
CS: Well, it really sounds like a cliché but I really want to direct something. It's so cliché but I think I have a good eye for things. I teach kids, high school students, that really want the desire to do theatre, I do workshops and stuff with them, and that's really actually a lot of fun because they come prepared and they really want to do it, so that's really nice. I like doing that, but to direct people, to do a production would be really neat if I could do that. I think I have a good eye and know the pace of the shows, and I know how to work things so I think it would be … even if it was just an acting coach or something, I think I'm pretty good at that, I guess. I don't know. (laughs) We'll see.

CD: I think there is plenty of evidence to prove that!
CS: I know that when I teach I can get these kids to do stuff that they didn't think was possible, and you can see it on their face when they have a breakthrough, they're like, "Oh my god! I never even thought of that!" And I'm like, "Yeah!" We just did one here in Minneapolis and it was terrific. These kids came in and they were prepared and they were just great. They were really enthusiastic, and not all of them could sing but it doesn't matter if you can sing or not, even if you're doing musical theatre. You just have to interpret it right and do it right, and people will buy it.

I think that whatever role Christopher Sieber is interpreting, audiences will buy it. You can get more information about the national tour of La Cage aux Folles by visiting

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