Christopher Sieber spreads his wings in ‘La Cage aux Folles’Top Highlights, Entertainment Feature Friday, August 10th, 2012
If you don’t know the show La Cage aux Folles, don’t tell anyone. Your gay card may be revoked and you’ll be exiled to Santee.
Here’s the 411. The show is endearingly known as La Cage. In 1973, Jean Poiret’s play La Cage aux Folles opened in Paris and ran for 1,800 performances. The play was then made into a hit French film in 1978. Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein hatched the musical version in 1983 which won six Tonys and ran for more than four years. Jerry Herman’s score included “I Am What I Am” which became an ubiquitous gay-pride anthem.
Director Terry Johnson’s reimagining of La Cage opened in 2008 at London’s fringe Menier Chocolate Factory. The company excels in breaking with tradition. Menier originates musical revivals in its 180-seat space that often transfer to the West End and Broadway. La Cage opened in the 2010 Broadway season, then went on to win the 2011 Tony for Best Revival of a Musical, Best Director and Best Actor in a Musical.
Rather than the chic St. Tropez nightclub-world setting for the film and original Broadway production, Johnson’s vogue aims lower. Think of wilting boas in a drag show at the Chi Chi Club where the design motif is cigarette burns in the upholstery.
Broadway San Diego’s feathered doyenne grew up gay in a town the likes of Lake Wobegon, where students drove tractors to high school; an unlikely starting point for a Broadway triple-threat. Then again, it might be the ideal circumstance. Christopher Sieber, 43, makes his grand entrance to town as Albin, the irrepressible drag queen Za Za.
Off-Broadway, Mr. Sieber played Dan in The Kid, based on the internationally syndicated relationship and sex columnist Dan Savage’s autobiographical account of a male couple’s adoption experience. New York Times’ Ben Brantley wrote of Mr. Sieber’s performance.
“Mr. Sieber – who delivered exaggerated, Tony-nominated comic performances in Broadway musicals – is equally at home with the low-key style demanded here … he develops a charming, self-deprecating rapport with the audience early on. And he never oversells Dan’s stand-up-style comic lines.”
What a shiny new McCormick Reaper is to a Minnesota farmer, the Times review is to Mr. Sieber. A-list theater directors have found Mr. Sieber good company including: Michael Mayer, Scott Elliott, James Lapine, Walter Bobbie, Casey Nicholaw and Mike Nichols.
Tony nominations for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his work as Sir Dennis Galahad in Spamalot and the down-on-his knees shorty, Lord Farquaad in Shrek Broadway has primed him for the next big show; projects await, mums the word.
In a recent telephone interview the San Diego LGBT Weekly learned that the more than two decades in Gotham’s highly competitive theater industry have not diminished Mr. Seiber’s earthy candor. Just as interesting, one senses a subtle suggestion Christopher Sieber is a person of faith.
San Diego LGBT Weekly: Does Garrison Keillor get the Minnesota thing right?
Christopher Sieber: That’s absolutely right. I saw his radio show in New York a couple of times.
Was going to high school tough in the rural Midwest?
Being a gay kid, that was rough. I didn’t know any other – I did know other gay kids but we didn’t recognize each other. I was bullied, but I used humor (to protect myself). There were some assholes in school. I was told early on don’t worry about that stuff.
When was the moment you discovered you wanted to be an actor?
I was in third grade and was in a gifted program (for children) called Omnibus. They shipped us off to the Children’s Theatre in Minneapolis to do workshops and little plays. I found out I was pretty good at it, it wasn’t an effort to learn that (acting), it came naturally. In high school I had a couple of teachers who were so good at telling me that I probably should leave, (in Minnesotan) ‘You should leave Minnesota because there is nothing here for you.’ I did. I got on a plane all by myself at 18 years old Oct. 3, 1988 to go to school and I’ve been a resident of New York ever since.
How did you choose the American Musical and Dramatic Academy?
It had everything: the dancing, singing and acting that I knew nothing about. I learned a lot. I still don’t know what I’m doing.
What was it like learning the ropes In New York?
It was strange coming from a small town. Some people say, ‘I come from a small town of 10,000.’ I came from a small town of 642 people – in Minnesota. Imagine being a gay kid in (a town of) 642 people. People drove tractors to school. (There was) no real outlet for me. I moved to the largest city in the world. I was overwhelmed for two or three months. Then it became really easy. I was learning how to do this. It kind of all happened.
How did you get your first agent?
I got my first agent from a showcase at school. She didn’t really do anything for me. But I had an agent. Then I started getting little shows here and there. Now I’m with Abrams for 15-16 years.
You originated two roles in Monty Python’s Spamalot. How did rehearsals start off and ramp up to full throttle Python?
The weird part of that was all of us are funny improv actors. We loved it when things went wrong. It was so much fun. We actually created a lot of the transitions. The rehearsal process wasn’t even work. It was sheer fun every day.
You’ve replaced actors in major roles on Broadway. What is that process like? How much room is there for adding your take on a role?
At the beginning you just let them tell you what to do. As the character grows you know how to put yourself in there and find your way.
Coming out in showbusiness is a major decision. When did you decide to take the step?
It was so weird. I guess I came out when we were doing a show. How weird is that? I don’t want to sound like a fuckin’ hypocrite or a moron. I’ll do it. I’ll tell the world. It’s no big deal. If you make a big deal about it will be a big deal. But if you don’t, it won’t.
If you’re good at what you do, it doesn’t matter if you’re straight or gay. It doesn’t matter. I was on the cover of the Advocate. It hasn’t hurt me at all. I plug away.
You met your partner, actor and chef Kevin Burrows, when the two of you performed in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Was there any irony or comfort in those circumstances?
How gay is that ! (laughs) Yeah, do it at Disneyland. He was a Townsperson and I was playing Gascon. I thought, ‘He’s an arrogant asshole, but he’s hot.’ Then we started talking, and before you know we’re really good friends. And before you know it we’re kind of a little (hot) for each other. And then he gave me a kiss one time for my birthday, we were still friends. But this kiss for some reason went on for a second longer than a friendly kiss. And it changed my life.
Who asked whom to marry?
I asked him to marry me. But that was years ago. (laughs) I was on tour still and I said, ‘I’m coming home for Thanksgiving, why don’t we get married?’ He said, ‘That sounds like fun. Let’s do it.’ We did it (married) in our living room. Our friend Adam married us.
You’ve played a partnered gay male in The Kid navigating the adoption process.
I played Dan Savage.
Are you and Kevin considering adopting a child?
Oh, no. No. No, dear. No, Thom. I can barely feed myself. The child would starve.
I don’t have that parent thing in me. I know I’m not that guy and neither is Kevin. We have an African Grey parrot. She’s lovely. She’s our little girl. There is nothing about children that I like. (laughs) My friends have children and they’re so much fun to be with.
On Broadway you unexpectedly replaced Jeffery Tambor as Georges, playing opposite Harvey Fierstein’s Albin. Now you’ve dropped your pants and stepped into sequin gowns playing opposite George Hamilton. That is extraordinary versatility.
Why thank you. It was funny, they asked me to do the tour. Harvey (Fierstein) and I were a possibility about going on tour. But Harvey has his show Kinky Boots coming up. The (producers) said, ‘I think you should play Za Za. And we think we have George Hamilton to play Georges.’ I said, ‘You know what, let’s do that.’ The good part about doing Georges first was, George Hamilton wasn’t very quick on picking-up lines, he doesn’t remember things. He’s a movie actor. He doesn’t have that memory muscle that theater actors have. It took him six months to be fine (with lines). But I was always feeding his lines. So, the good thing is, I knew his part and I was there for him. Harvey wrote it so you see the interpretation the author wanted. That was really helpful.
Is there an alpha queen back stage?
(Laughs) We’re actually all pretty – pretty good. There are hissy fits that happen every now and then when you’re on tour. It (the company) becomes a microcosm – it’s your life, it’s your home, it’s your fake life. People get a little frustrated. We’re actually a good happy group of actors. That’s a good thing because you don’t want to get stuck on the road with a diva. It’s horrible.
The show is a work-out. What is your daily regimen on the road?
Wake-up, thankfully, have coffee and yogurt and fruit, (get to) the gym then go see stuff around the country.
What advice can give to young actors and aspiring drag queens?
The young actors (need to) keep going and believe in yourself, enjoy the ride and pay attention to everything. The world is crazy. You can be a better actor by doing people’s essences. As far as young drag queens, keep it funny. Don’t get all ‘drama.’ It’s much better when you’re funny. If you can, sing live. It’s much better.
Let’s get to the James Lipson-esque questions. Who is your favorite author?
What is your favorite dessert?
I don’t really have a sweet tooth, but it would be chocolate cookies.
What was your most memorable on-stage disaster?
I was in a show called Shrek, where I play Lord Farquaad. I’m 6’ 2” and my character is four-and-a-half feet tall. I did the entire thing on my knees. I had little puppet legs. It was a fun illusion. Right before the curtain rose for the big number where Lord Farquaad is revealed my little puppet leg broke. There was no way I could do the number. I called the stage manager and said, ‘Stop the show I broke my leg!’ All hell broke loose. They stopped the show. Everybody is freaking out. The crew were freaking ‘cause they really like me. The conductor came out from the pit and said, ‘He broke his leg! My God, he broke his leg!’ My little puppet leg is dangling and they said, ‘Oh my God, you didn’t break your leg.’ And I said, ‘I did break my leg, it’s this leg.’ So, they stopped the show for five minutes, then started and everything was alright.
What is your favorite flop?
I don’t know if people remember this, a show called Ain’t Broadway Grand. It was written by two brothers that own a construction company and (they) financed the show by themselves. I think they directed it by themselves at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. My friend Tim Albrecht, God bless his soul, said, ‘You gotta come see this show! It’s not going to be here tomorrow. I have hundreds of free tickets! Please, come see my show.’ It was just terrible. They had this song they kept playing over and over and over again. It was just terrible – it stuck in my head (sings) daa-da-da-da-da-da – da Ain’t Broadway grand!’
Who is the person you’d love to dine with?
Oh, one of these, huh. Wouldn’t it be fun to go back and talk with Jesus? What did you really mean by this?
Well, uh …
How about Jerry Falwell? That would be fun.
You’d end up throwing food at each other.
Yeah, that would be a hoot. How about Liberace?
What has been the most defining moment of your career to date?
My first Tony nomination. It was more about the nomination than anything else. Because there is a tangible feeling of the respect of your peers that is so overwhelming. You realize that people really do enjoy what you do and they noticed you. I’ve never been noticed (like that) before. They singled me out twice. Twice.
OK, last question: at the end of the day?
I need a glass of Chardonnay.
‘A votre santé.’
La Cage Aux Folles plays the Civic Theatre Aug. 7 through 12.
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