“La Cage Aux Folles” has stood the test of time. Based on the original 1973 French play and the subsequent film versions, the musical by Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein has had a long shelf life since it debuted in 1983. The story of Georges, the owner of a posh nightclub on the French Riviera, and his partner Albin, a performer who plays the club’s star Zaza, has earned a steady stream of Tony Awards through remounts and touring productions.
The latest relaunch hits Denver this week with film, television and stage stars George Hamilton and Christopher Sieber in the two lead roles. We caught up with the pair after their Denver debut to talk about the demands of the two roles (Sieber has played both), the durability of the material and the enthusiasm of crowds on the latest tour.
This is a story that’s been told many times on stage and on film since its debut in 1973. What was your first experience with “La Cage Aux Folles”?
Christopher Sieber: I first saw the French movie when I was 18 years old with subtitles, which is the best way to see that movie. Don’t do the dubbed version because their voices are hilarious. I had heard of the musical “La Cage Aux Folles,” but I had never actually seen it. I’d seen “The Birdcage,” but I’d never seen the musical when I went into it on Broadway. I was going to go back into the Broadway show “Chicago” and play Billy Flynn, and I was at the box office waiting for my ticket to go refresh my memory. My phone rings and it was my agent saying, “They don’t want you to see ‘Chicago’ today, they want you to see ‘La Cage Aux Folles’ across the street.
My friend Harvey Fierstein was playing Zaza at the time. I saw the show, he was terrific. Harvey dragged me in his dressing room, shut the door and asked, “Are you going to do this show with me? Jeffrey Tambour just up and left. I need you to help me.”
Seven days later I was starring opposite Harvey Fierstein on Broadway. The first time I saw the show was going into it. I never expected to be in the show, and I never expected to be Zaza. They said, “We’re doing a tour. Are you interested?” Harvey said, “I can’t do it,” and they came to me a couple of days later and said, “Would you like to play the other part. I think we have George Hamilton.” I said, “You know what, that sounds like a blast. Let’s go do it.” Here I am, a year and a half later, having played both parts in the same production. I’m the only actor who’s ever done that.
George Hamilton: What’s interesting to me is that I’ll be on some nights and hear my lines coming out of him. I’ve got to say, “What was that?”
I had worked for (producers Barry and Fran) Weisslers, also as Billy Flynn in “Chicago” a couple of times. It had been the only Broadway involvement I’d had except for working with Alan Jay Lerner, Julie Stein and David Merrick for other things years back. I came to New York with the theory that I was going to look at two or three Broadway shows and make a decision. I went there with the theory that I was going to go to Broadway and replace Kelsey Grammar – that was the bait and switch. So I went there, I saw two performances and they varied greatly – I was so surprised.
I didn’t quite get it. I’m not that savvy. I thought it was a funny show, but it’s not really equal. My character (Georges) does a lot of spade work, he lays out a lot of plot. The trick for me is not to say it too fast so they don’t hear it and not to say it too slow so it’s laborious. It’s got to be there so it doesn’t look like you’re laying it out.
I hated the first act. I thought, at least in the second act, I’m starting to be involved. But what happened was, I started to find a base to it after a while. It started to become more interesting.
I don’t think I understood the subtlety, the difference of the characters. It was like Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.
I have to ask Chris, what do you feel is the harder character to play?
CS: Both of them are hard to play. Georges in the ringmaster; you really are in control even though it looks like you’re completely out of control. You’re the producer, you’re the director, you’re the father, the lover, the husband. You’re all that stuff and you’re just trying to keep them all in one room. It’s a lot. Georges is a difficult part to play.
It doesn’t get that credit when people talk about it.
So how did you get over your hesitations about the character?
GH: It’s incredibly hard and I found it unrewarding, but I’m so strange. If something isn’t going to work, I will fight until I die. If I can’t get it, I’ll try to go back and find out why not. Doing it with Chris, my initial instinct as an actor was to compete and play out. I realized that was not right.
It took me a while to figure that out. I started realizing that the more I centered on him, the more the relationship developed. He can play it out and play it over the top and big.
There were times when they said we didn’t have chemistry, and I believe we have very good chemistry now. There were times when they said we didn’t have presence, and I couldn’t figure why.
It takes a while to get the medium. Touring is much harder than Broadway.
This basic plot has enjoyed success as a traditional play, several films and a Tony Award-winning musical. In your mind, what makes this story so durable?
CS: Bottom line is that I think it is such a great story. It’s a story about love and family. It’s a terrific story, and there’s Jerry Herman’s score. You can’t stop singing those songs.
GH: I was told that it was going to be very edgy, that it was going to be supported by an enormous amount of gays and that we’d have to fight city hall. I thought, well does this mean bodyguards?
But it has been the nicest experience. We’ve never had one incident of any kind. Au contraire, one day we were on stage in Delaware and I saw things that looked like rocks coming at me. We picked on up – it was a bloomer; 85-year-old women were throwing bloomers with their names on the back.
CS: They had come prepared.
GH: It’s become an American theater classic. It’s like “Our Town” now. It’s about family and love and being who you are, being true to who you are. I think it’s timely in the sense of gay marriage, but I don’t think it’s about all the things it was before.
I think this is something that anybody can come and see and enjoy.
“La Cage Aux Folles” plays through Sept. 16 at the Buell Theater, 1101 13th St. in Denver. Tickets start at $25. Information: 303-893-4100 or denvercenter.org.