The fabulous Zaza, as portrayed by singer/actor Christopher Sieber, is the heart and soul of La Cage aux Folles, the current revival of the smash Broadway musical now playing to packed houses at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. Co-starring longtime Hollywood icon George Hamilton, the show charts the adventures and misadventures of a pair of comical, high strung, gay showbiz entrepreneurs who run a popular Parisian drag club.
Zaza is the flamboyant star of Hamilton’s musical revue. In real life, however, he’s simply Albin, the doting but excitable significant other of Hamilton’s more down-to-earth Georges. It’s a showy yet difficult role to pull off. But the multi-talented, imposingly tall Christopher Sieber is more than up to the task, as is his extraordinarily powerful but multifaceted voice. We had an opportunity recently to speak with him about the show, and found him to be earnest, engaging, and very much excited to doing La Cage at the Kennedy Center, his first stage appearance here.
“This show is just perfect in the Eisenhower Theater,” he said enthusiastically. After having done the show in St. Louis at the Fox—a large venue that “looks like every 4500-seat house,” he finds that La Cage is best suited to a more intimate space. “The sets are purposely designed to create the feel of a small, intimate Paris club,” he says, “and it’s a wonderful match with the Eisenhower which creates the same feel.”
“When I was practicing the show here after St. Louis, I needed to recalibrate my voice,” he continues. In the smaller space here, “I needed to pull back the volume, even to hit the back row,” he says.
Sieber also enthuses about the Kennedy Center itself, finding the complex to be ideal for staging live theater. “Everybody’s been wonderful here,” he says, adding, “they just have everything here that anyone would want or require” to put on a great show. “I’m also excited to be spending four consecutive weeks in one place,” he adds
Not quite 43, Christopher Sieber originally hailed from St. Paul Minnesota. Although he’s now best known on the theater circuit, he broke through into the public consciousness for his role as Kevin Burke, TV father of the now ubiquitous Olsen twins in the short-lived sitcom “Two of a Kind” in the late 1990s.
On stage, he’s appeared in a number of shows including Chicago, in which he played the role of Billy Flynn. But his career really began to catch fire when he effectively created the role of Sir Dennis Galahad in the popular 2005 Broadway musical, Monty Python’s Spamalot—a part for which he received a Tony nomination. He also played the role in the London production.
He scored another hit as Lord Farquaad in the 2008 Broadway production of Shrek, the Musical, copping several award nominations including a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Musical.
But ending up as Zaza in the current touring production of La Cage was something of a surprise. “I’d been playing Billy Flynn in Chicago, and had just wrapped up the show. Early last year, I was in New York and was in line to consider doing another show. I had a little time on my hands, and my agent urged me to go see La Cage,” he says. The show was already a hit and Sieber enjoyed it immensely.
But it was also at that time that the show’s cast was facing some changes. One of the show’s original stars, Kelsey Grammer, had moved on, and another, Jeffrey Tambor, who’d been playing Georges, suddenly had to leave the show, reportedly due to health issues. Sieber’s phone rang. It was his agent. “He said, ‘they’ve got a big hole in the show now,’” with Tambor’s departure, says Sieber. “And my agent says, ‘So. Are you gonna do the show?’”
As he hadn’t yet signed up to do the other show he’d been considering, Sieber jumped at the chance to play Georges, opposite the author of the show’s original book, Harvey Fierstein, who was then portraying Zaza-Albin. Only one problem now remained. “I found I had just seven days to put together the show,” he says.
One thing about Broadway veterans, though. They can put together even the most challenging roles with the greatest of speed. “When you don’t have the time, you still have to be ready to remember your lines and get the character and style down. I was prepared but I was really nervous about going on that first night,” says Sieber. “But Harvey and I just clicked. We had a wonderful time. All the audiences just loved us.”
When the show’s run ended, its producers were already planning to take it on the road, and “Harvey asked me if I’d do the role of Zaza opposite George Hamilton as Georges. Of course, I said yes,” says Sieber.
After doing Georges, playing Zaza, he admits, is something entirely different. “Georges has to be the businessman. There are so many moving parts in the entertainment business he’s trying to run, so many things he’s trying to control. But Zaza is completely the opposite,” he says. “He’s the star, and he’s always trying to manipulate Georges.”
Zaza also involves more physical acting than the part of Georges. “I had to switch how I walked, from male to a kind of roll. I also worked with Harvey to see how he wanted the lines delivered. I actually ended up stealing some ideas from him,” Sieber laughs.
Another challenge in playing Zaza is an obvious one: he’s also Albin. “These two characters are two completely different people,” says Sieber. “Zaza is the star. But Albin is really a wife, lover, and mother. Zaza is over the top. Albin wants to be loved and wanted,” says Sieber.
In the show’s primary conflict, Albin’s adopted son, Jean-Michel, invites his fiancée and her parents to the home of his biological father, Georges, ostensibly to meet them and his estranged mother. Problem is, her father is a morals-obsessed politician. Jean-Michel’s solution? Albin has to leave the house and he’s not invited to dinner.
“Albin has been a mother to Jean-Michel,” says Sieber. “He’s deeply wounded by this betrayal, because he’s really done his best to be a mother.” But when Georges’ real wife doesn’t bother to show, “Albin steps in to take her place. It needs to be his greatest performance, but he knows he can pull it off.”
Sieber enjoys pitting his bigger-than-life dual character against George Hamilton’s more staid partner Georges. Hamilton “is a lovely man, delightful, self-deprecating,” says Sieber. “He’s not a diva at all,” and the way he plays Georges, as usually “a reasonable guy and not bossy” helps to anchor the show. Playing against him, “I try to imagine him as Clark Gable. Or Maybe Mickey Rooney,” he chuckles, adding, “because Mickey really had a lot of experience with difficult marriages.”
Sieber also enthuses about working with the rest of his fellow cast members. The touring production “has less people involved. The original had 35.” But again, the smaller cast makes “the production seem more realistically intimate,” he believes. “And except for the obvious female characters, remember: everybody is a man. Everybody.”
Sieber thinks the strength of the show lies not only in the fascinating interplay between Georges and Albin. It also involves the sheer believability of its characters—eccentric by the standards of most, and yet fully developed and surprisingly normal human beings. Ultimately, Sieber considers La Cage aux Folles to be “a play with music—and the music is this amazing score. I think the characters and the music make an instant connection with the audience,” he says, “and I’m excited to go on stage every night to give the audience a wonderful show.”
Video highlights, courtesy of BroadwayWorld TV