Cross-dressing :: Christopher Sieber trades roles for ’La Cage’ tour
A funny thing happened to Christopher Sieber on his way to "Chicago" - he ended up in "La Cage Aux Folles."
The turn-of-events happened last March when Siebert was asked by the producers of Chicago - Fran and Barry Weissler -- to take the part of Billy Flynn in "Chicago." He explains what happens in the interview below, that is how the twice-Tony-award nominated actor found himself playing Georges to Harvey Fierstein’s Albin in the closing months of the musical successful recent Broadway revival.
What, you may wonder, is Sieber now doing playing Albin, the other half of the show’s gay couple? That’s the next part of the story that brings Sieber to the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater through February 8. He is, I believe, the first actor to play both the leads in the Fierstein-Jerry Herman musical, which is the only musical to win Tony Awards in each of its three Broadway incarnations.
Starring opposite him in the tour is George Hamilton, the Hollywood personality who has made some forty films and countless television appearances over his 50-year career.
In reviewing the show recently for the Baltimore Sun, critic Tim Smith wrote of Sieber and Hamilton: "Sieber’s towering performance, with its blend of multilayered acting, spot-on comic timing and inspired vocalism, makes you believe in the love story of Albin and longtime partner Georges as they both get caught up in the machinations of an amusing, if somewhat tired, plot.
"Sieber is partnered here by veteran actor and perennial celebrity George Hamilton. He puts his familiar gleaming smile to good use as Georges, the owner of the drag club and, thanks to a momentary diversion, father of a child he raises with Albin."
Sieber’s career has risen steadily since he made his Broadway debut in 1997 in "The Triumph of Love" (with Betty Buckley and F. Murray Abraham). He went into the casts of "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and "Chicago" (as Flynn), and was featured in the revival as one of the Princes in the 2002 revival of "Into The Woods." Playing Sir Galahad in 2005 Tony-winner "Spamalot" brought him his first Tony nomination as Best Supporting Actor; three years later he received his second - for playing Lord Farquaad in "Shrek: the Musical."
Beyond Broadway he’s appeared in two sit-coms: "Two of a Kind" where he played father to the Olsen Twins (in 1999), then "It’s All Relative," 2002’s precursor in to "Modern Family" in which the out Sieber played one half of a Boston gay couple.
Recently Sieber took time off from his tour to marry his partner Kevin Burrows late last month in New York.
EDGE spoke to Sieber before the wedding while "La Cage" was in Cleveland recently.
EDGE: You’re in Cleveland?
Christopher Sieber: This is our fifth city -- so far, so good. We started in Iowa and moved the show to Minneapolis, where I’m from, which is great. Playing your hometown is kind of cool. Especially when you’re the star of the show. That’s kind of neat.
EDGE: Do you enjoy touring?
Christopher Sieber: I’m getting use to it. I haven’t done in 20 years. The last show I did tour with was "Meet Me In St. Louis." That was when I was 23 years old and I could eat an entire pizza without even feeling it. Of course, now I am much older and my metabolism is a lot different. My energy level is a different story I use to be able to stay up until 3 in the morning, but that doesn’t happen anymore.
EDGE: What’s it like playing Albin?
Christopher Sieber: This is one of those demanding shows where I don’t seem to leave the stage. I don’t stop for three-and-a-half hours. I have to be at the theater an hour before to get into make-up and costume. From that point, I don’t stop until I get out of costumes, which is three-and-a-half hours later. It’s a lot of work, but it goes by so fast because there is no down time. When I am not on stage, I am changing a costume or wig.
Sieber to the rescue
EDGE: When you saw yourself as Zaza, what did you think. Were you like Gypsy Rose Lee in "Gypsy" and say to yourself, ’Mamma, I’m a pretty girl’?
Christopher Sieber: (Laughs) The funny part was that I didn’t get to see myself in full costume -- I had fittings and everything, but I never actually saw myself head-to-toe until weeks later. Because the quick changes I do are backstage without a mirror. I have a crew of people to help me get into the wigs and jewelry and costumes, so I never saw myself in full drag. I did recently see myself because here in Cleveland there’s a full mirror. So as far as feeling like Gypsy Rose Lee and saying, ’Mama, I’m a pretty girl’ - No. I never really had that moment. What’s funny is the only time I actually see myself is when I transform into Mother. When I dress like Margaret Thatcher, which is so flattering. What we have is a photo of Betty Ford backstage and her hair looks just like my wig. I have framed in my dressing room -- we could be sisters.
EDGE: When you went into the show in March to replace Jeffrey Tambor, who left the show abruptly, the New York Times called you a hero. How did you come into the show?
Christopher Sieber: What happened was Fran and Barry Weissler, who produce "Chicago" and also produced this version of "La Cage Aux Folles," asked me if I wanted to do "Chicago" again. I had done it seven years ago and they wanted me to come back. I wanted to refresh my memory, so I went to see it. When I was picking up my tickets at the box office, I got this call that I wasn’t going to see "Chicago," I was going to see "La Cage Aux Folles." This was on a Sunday. I had no idea what was going on with Jeffrey Tambor, but it was great that I was going to see my friend Harvey. I get there and see that my friend Chris Hoch is playing Georges - he was Jeffrey’s understudy.
And I wonder why. Then when the show was over one of the producers asked me to come back stage, which is cool. I’m backstage and Harvey comes up and gives me a big hug. ’Are you gonna do it?’ he asked. ’Do what? I said. ’I want you to do the show. We want you play George. Jeffrey Tambor left and I need you to play the part.’ ’Sure,’ I said.
I got the offer Monday morning. The deal was done Tuesday. That Thursday I started rehearsal, then the following Thursday I was in the show. In seven days I was in the show. To answer your question, how was it? It was terrifying. I had no time to think, I had no time to be scared. I had no time to freak out. I just did it. I went in and worked my butt off. I got into the show. When the reviewers came a week later, which I thought was a bit soon, but they absolutely loved Harvey and I. There the producers were thanking me for saving the show and I felt I was into the part yet. Good thing I am very quick at picking up roles. I’m very fast at learning material. Still there was a little pressure.
A challenging role
EDGE: So you were playing Georges, now your playing Albin - how did that happen?
Christopher Sieber: It was funny because Barry Weissler came into my dressing room with Harvey and he asked if I was going to go on tour. And I asked, if he was because they had asked us both. Of course, if Harvey was going to go, I would go. Harvey’s like a little kid -- he’s so much fun to play with. But he said he wasn’t -- he has a lot going on with ’Newsies’ coming to Broadway and other things. Then Barry said, what do you think of playing Albin? And I said, that would be interesting. That would be fun. I’ll go out on the road and see the country. So here I am.
EDGE: What challenges are there with the role?
Christopher Sieber: It’s vocally demanding because it is all over the place. It’s ridiculous. Not only are you speaking in your own voice, but you have to have a character voice for Albin -- then there’s the character voice for Zaza that’s bigger than life. Than Albin dressed as a man has to have his own voice, then the mother has to have his own voice. So there are several different voices that I have to have. I use all parts of my voice -- my bass, my tenor, my falsetto. By Sunday night, it’s a challenge just to get through it. I mean you won’t hear it, but as a professional singer, I wonder what’s going to come out of my face. But it does. Then I have to quiet the whole day Monday. I can’t talk. I have to take it easy. It’s physically demanding. I’ve lost about fifteen pounds and it is only the fifth city. I’m doing the ’La Cage’ workout -- I hope to lose more. They’ve already taken my clothes in -- I looking forward to them taking in a few more inches. I go through about three liters of water every show.
A small show
EDGE: You get to sing the song that became the anthem for the gay right’s movement some 30 years ago: "I Am What I Am," What is it like to sing it today?
Christopher Sieber: The song has so much in it. In the context of the show, he’s being told he should be like everybody else, but he refuses to and is shunned by his family. But he’s gotta have pride, baby. It means so much to so many people - those brilliant lyrics: ’I am what I am/and I what I am needs no excuses.... ’ When the number begins Alban is devastated that his family is turning their back on him. It starts out small in the way Terry Johnson directs it. He’s so devastated, but then it builds as he gets his confidence. It becomes powerful and he blows the roof off the place. It’s lovely to see the reaction from the audience. Some people leap to their feet, which is so terrific to see. It’s one of the greatest songs pretty much ever written. One of the best musical theater songs of all time and leaves the audience stunned at the break.
EDGE: This is the third time that "La Cage" has come to Broadway, but it is very different than either of its previous versions. What’s so special about this one?
Christopher Sieber: I had never seen it until I did it. I saw the original movie and ’The Bird Cage’, but I never saw the musical. I’ve known Harvey and Kevin, my partner, did a production, and they both say it always seemed crazy and over the top. But this production, Terry Johnson cut down a lot of the humongous numbers, and they cut down the cast. It’s a very small show, actually; and very intimate. It’s really focused on the family -- it’s almost down like a play with some amazing music by Jerry Herman. It’s the way Harvey wanted it to be done. He always wanted it to be a play with some music in it, and that’s what we have here.
Playing Dan Savage
EDGE: One of your recent roles was playing Dan Savage in the musical version of his book "The Kid." What was it like playing someone who could come to the theater and watch your performance?
Christopher Sieber: Well the whole thing about that, if you know Dan -- and I got to know him through the whole process -- is that he’s so self-deprecating. He’s always about justice and right, even if it is at his expense. During that whole process, we were investigating how we were going to develop the birth mother. He said, ’you could say anything you wanted about me. You can could paint me anyway you want. I don’t care. But don’t say anything bad about the birth mother.’ He was very protective of her. And he was very much involved in the process throughout. The scariest thing, though, was playing someone who is very much alive and in the audience watching you. Normally I don’t care who is in the audience - some celebrity, the President. I don’t care. I don’t give a fuck. But with Dan Savage there and I’m playing him, it’s a whole new level of self-conscious. If you ever read Dan’s book -- it is based on the book ("The Kid: What Happened After My Boyfriend and I Decided to Go Get Pregnant") Dan wrote about he and his partner Terry adopting their son D.J. - it’s a really funny, touching story; and we turned it into this musical that’s really, really good. We opened off-Broadway and got great reviews. There are plans of taking it further and taking it to a small Broadway theater, so hopefully I’ll be involved in that again.
EDGE: Is being funny easy to you?
Christopher Sieber: I had a crazy, funny family, so it was ingrained in me. But I also have worked with some great people when I was younger that taught me about comedy. About the concept of less is more, and to let the audience come to you-type stuff. I worked with Mike Nichols and Eric Idle, two of my favorite people that taught me a lot. But generally, I was always a funny kid. I was the class clown who turned it into a career. It seems to have turned out okay.
EDGE: Has being out hurt your career at all?
Christopher Sieber: No. Because I take it as it comes. If you live in fear and that your personal life is going to effect your career, you have to live your life. It’s just what I do. If people have a problem with it, it’s not my fucking problem. It’s their fucking problem. I am just going to continue doing good work and enjoying my career and enjoying my life. So fuck them, that’s what I say.
La Cage Aux Folles runs through December 18 at the Shubert Theatre, 270 Tremont Street, Boston, MA. For more information, visit the Broadway Across America/Boston website. The tour continues through Feb. 12 at the Eisenhower Theatre in Washington, DC; Feb. 14-19 at the Kravis Center in W. Palm Beach, FL; Feb. 21-26 at the Tampa Bay PAC in Tampa, FL; Feb. 28-March 4 at the Philharmonic in Naples, FL; March 6-11 at the Dupont in Wilmington, DE; March 13-18 at the Benedum in Pittsburgh, PA; March 20-25 at the Orpheum in Memphis, TN; April 10-22 at the Music Hall in Dallas, TX; April 24-May 6 at the Hobby Center in Houston, TX; May 8-13 at the Majestic in San Antonio, TX; May 15-20 at the Gammage Auditorium in Tempe, AZ; May 29-June 3 at the Belk in Charlotte, NC; June 5-10 at the Bob Carr in Orlando, FL ; June 12-24 at the Broward PAC in Ft. Lauderdale, FL ; July 10-22 at the Pantages in Los Angeles, CA ; July 24-Aug. 5 at the Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa, CA.
For more information on the tour, visit the show’s website.