Christopher Sieber Talks About La Cage Aux Folles

sieberSeriously, this is the most vocally, physically, and emotionally demanding show I’ve ever done. It is three-and-a-half hours nonstop. I do have to sleep more because the show is such a workout.

Sieber plays Zaza to Hamilton’s Georges

I spoke with two-time Tony nominee (for Monty Python’s Spamalot and Shrek, the Musical) Christopher Sieber on the eve of his opening in La Cage Aux Folles at the Fox Theatre for a two-week stand starting January 3. We chatted a bit about his long run as Dennis Lancelot in Spamalot, then got on with the life story and current show. He was easy and fun to talk to, and we laughed often.

Adapted from a French play (1973) with the same title, La Cage Aux Folles opened on Broadway nearly 30 years ago. It was a bit controversial back then because it tells the story of Georges, a nightclub owner in Saint Tropez, and his lover, Albin, who is also “Zaza,” the leading lady in the drag show that is the central attraction of the club. The two have been together many years and have raised a son. When the boy brings his fiancée home to introduce the parents, complications (and lots of Tony Awards for both the original production and revivals) ensue. Many know it as the non-musical, Americanized film version The Birdcage with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane.

Why theater? What happened to you and when did it happen?

[Laughs] It started in my hometown Wyoming, Minnesota, in second grade. I was the class sieber, clown, I guess, and I turned it into a career officially. Some teachers saw something in me that made them think I was gifted and suggested a special school. I was like, “Wait, wait, wait. I have to go to a special school in a little bus…” and they brought me to Minneapolis with all these kids who could sing and dance and read really well and so that’s what I did. Then it turned into more and more inspiration, and before I knew it, I was doing theater and speech in high school, and that turned into state and national championships. I didn’t really know what I was doing; I just liked it. I decided in 10th grade that I should think about doing this, and then I had a couple of teachers who said, “You should think about doing this,” and then a couple of teachers helped me find some schools. I went into a program in New York and paid my own way (from spending the summer earning money at a car wash) and started working right away after graduation. I’ve been doing it ever since. People seem to like it, so I guess I’ll keep on with it. [Laughs]

I moved myself to New York on October 3, 1988. I was 18 years old and I got on a plane all by myself, which for a Midwestern boy is kind of unheard of, and I found my new life in New York City. And it was scary, I’ll tell you that. But I had a teacher who said, “Be afraid, be scared out of your mind, but never let fear stop you.” And that’s something I still live by today.

Fear can also be an actor’s motivation.

Yeah, and it’s why I like live theater so much. It’s dangerous. Anything can happen. It’s kind of like when people go to air shows or NASCAR: They don’t really go for the race; they go for the crashes. They won’t say it out loud, but they do, and I think that’s one of the electrifying things about theater: it’s live, it’s happening right in front of you, and anything can go wrong at any time. And I love it when it goes wrong. I do.

At your level, we don’t see most of the mistakes. You cover them well.

I think you’ll like me. [Laughs]

The first time I saw La Cage was at the Muny years ago. Are you familiar with that venue?

Of course! I’ve done several shows at the Muny. In ’95 or ’96, I was in Jesus Christ, Superstar. I played Judas, and then I did Guys and Dolls that same summer because somebody dropped out and Paul Blake who had become a friend, said, “Hey, what are you doing? You want to be in Guys and Dolls?” I said, “Sure.” Then I did Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat there, which is such a fun show and everybody loves it, and I think that’s all. But I love the Muny. I have such great memories and had such a great time. I always call it “theater camp” because you have to get a show up in eight days outside; you may not have time to make it amazing, but it’s always good. I love working that fast—the energy—and the audiences are wonderful.

You are playing Albin in the upcoming production [which is now winding up its run in Chicago] and I did notice that if George Hamilton [who will be playing Georges] and his understudy both got sick, you could do the show alone. [Sieber played Georges in the Broadway revival opposite Harvey Fierstein who wrote the book.]

I am totally prepared to do that. [Laughs]

What’s it like to switch parts?

Being on the other side gave me such insight into how to play my current part. Plus, it makes me understand both parts of the whole. Working with Harvey, seeing him play Albin, Zaza, the way he wrote it showed me what he intended—it was so insightful, really cool. And being able to work with Terry Johnson, the director, who is a big fan of Mike Nichols [director of Spamalot] who believes “Let’s make it simple; let’s make it easy, real and truthful.” With Albin, you could just go over the top and be crazy, but there’s a realness, vulnerability, and heart to the part. It’s all there, and I was lucky enough to work with these guys to find that. To be able to know the other part and how Georges reacts to Albin helps me play Albin better, too. But I do have my closet [wardrobe from New York] so I could go on at any time. [Laughs] I will tell you, though, seriously, this is the most vocally, physically, and emotionally demanding show I’ve ever done.

I can imagine it would be. How do you take care of yourself?

It is three-and-a-half hours nonstop. I do have to sleep more because the show is such a workout. I also have to make sure I have enough calories to do it; if I don’t eat enough, my blood sugar levels get so low, I just don’t have the energy. I felt that way at yesterday’s matinee. After I had dinner, I was “back.” And we have the dreaded five-show weekends in most cities where we stop on the tour, and those can kill you if you don’t take care of yourself. But it is so much fun to do, and the audience is right there with you, that it’s completely worth every breath, every heartbeat.

I hear that a lot from people who’ve been touring a long time. It’s the audience that keeps them going.

Yeah. You have to give out and they’ll give back. And, again, that’s a part of the joy of the “dangerous part of theater.”

What do you do for fun on the road?

That’s the best part of being on tour; you get to explore a new place every week or two. We were just in Boston, one of my favorite cities, and I got to go to some of my favorite restaurants and eat amazing food. That’s also true in Chicago—I’m a real foodie. My partner’s a chef so I like to try new restaurants. Also, there are cities I haven’t ever been to because the last tour I did was 20 years ago. I’ve been all over the country, though. I think the only state I haven’t been in is Alaska. Chicago is terrific but I can’t wait to get back to St. Louis. I haven’t been there since my days at the Muny. I’ve never played the Fox before, either. Every city has things to do and see.

Do you get tired of touring?

Not yet. [Laughs] But things are different from 20 years ago. We have cell phones and other ways to communicate. You’d just be on a bus or plane all day and couldn’t talk to anybody except the people you were with, and now you can text and all that and not feel so disconnected. I don’t think I’m going to get tired of it. It’s just that this is a show where I have to take care of myself. If I leave the stage, it’s just to change costumes. I don’t get a chance to just go back and sit down.

What would you like people to know about La Cage? What would make them want to see it?

First, Jerry Herman’s score. It’s crazy, and you can’t stop singing the songs. Jerry Herman writes the best earworm music of all time! You leave the theatrer, and even if you’re not a musical theatrer fan, you’re going to be humming the music, believe me. And my friend Harvey Fierstein’s book. I’d never seen the show until he invited me, then after I saw it, he said, “Are you going to play Georges for me?” And I was like, “What’? I loved it; it was so heartfelt and focused and real and intimate. To be able to be a part of that as Georges? It was terrific. Then three or four weeks into the run, we were asked to go on tour. Harvey had other commitments so they asked George Hamilton to play Georges and me to play Albin. And I said, “Oh my gosh! You know what? I think that would be a lot of fun!” And I would be the only actor in the show’s history who has now played both parts in the same production. Plus, I loved the idea of a chance to bring this character to life. | Andrea Braun

For more information, including show times and tickets, please visit the Fox Theatre’s website. La Cage Aux Folles runs through January 15, 2012.

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