Since French playwright Jean Poiret wrote it nearly four decades ago, La Cage aux Folles has had as many looks as its leading “lady,” the fabulous Saint-Tropez nightclub star Zaza.
The much-adapted piece tells the story of a loving, longtime gay couple whose world is turned upside down when the son they raised together announces plans to marry the daughter of a conservative, anti-gay politician. La Cage has been a play, a French-Italian movie, a splashy, Tony Award-winning 1983 Broadway musical, an American movie (retitled The Birdcage and moved to South Beach) and a Tony-winning Broadway revival — twice.
Much has changed for gay couples over all those years, but given the often-rancorous debate over marriage equality, La Cage aux Folles, which returns to South Florida on Tuesday for a two-week run at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, still feels very much of the moment.
Last month, the touring version of Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein’s hit musical played Charlotte just weeks after North Carolina voters approved a constitutional ban on gay marriage. This week, it’s playing Orlando, where a story about the show’s family values prompted a letter of complaint to the Orlando Sentinel.
The stars of this grittier La Cage aux Folles are the suave and perpetually tanned George Hamilton as nightclub owner Georges and Broadway veteran Christopher Sieber as his partner, Albin, aka Zaza.
Sieber, who married his male partner of 11 years in New York in November, believes much of the noise surrounding the issue of same-sex marriage is just that: noise.
“In traveling around, I’ve learned that people are awesome,” says Sieber, whose many Broadway credits include the height-challenged Lord Farquaad in Shrek the Musical and Sir Dennis Galahad in Monty Python’s Spamalot. “The politicians and the talking heads are the problem. … It’s not who you love. It’s that you love.”
And that statement about love zeroes in on the broad, enduring appeal of La Cage aux Folles.
This latest iteration was born at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory in 2008. Director Terry Johnson’s smaller-scale, less-glamorous take won the 2010 Tony Award as best musical revival, giving La Cage an unprecedented hat trick after its best-musical win in 1984 and best-revival win in 2005.
The new La Cage aux Folles, says Fierstein, is what he always thought the show should be.
“Jerry Herman and I have been doing this together for 30 years now,” says the four-time Tony winner, who is nominated this year for writing the hit Disney musical Newsies. “I didn’t want the [first] revival, but he said, ‘Let me have it, please, and the next one is yours.’ So I said OK. …
“I thought the marble palace Georges and Albin lived in the original was ridiculous. I made jokes about it,” he says in his distinctive rasp. “They should live in the kind of place where your work overtakes your life, a place filled with costumes and props. It should be worn, a little Blanche DuBois. And I said, ‘Don’t give me 16 drag queens. Give me a few. And make them a little tacky.’ ”
Though he became famous as the writer and star of Torch Song Trilogy, in which he played a Jewish drag queen, Fierstein hadn’t played Albin/Zaza until joining the latest revival in 2010. He replaced Tony winner Douglas Hodge opposite Jeffrey Tambor’s Georges, and when Tambor left the show after 10 days, Sieber became Georges to Fierstein’s Albin.
“Albin wasn’t ever a role I wanted to play or had planned on playing. But if you don’t say yes to challenges, what’s the point?” Fierstein says. “Chris and I were friends, and working with him was a dream.”
Hamilton, who has spent most of his career working in movies and television, feels the same about Sieber. At 72, the man who has had a long string of beautiful women on his arm comes across as self-analytical and humble, focused on being a good father to sons Ashley Hamilton, 37, and George Thomas Hamilton, 12. And like Fierstein, he’s enjoying the challenge of La Cage aux Folles.
“I don’t for a moment feel I’m the star of the show. Chris has been of great help. He had just done the role [of Georges], and he’d say to me, ‘Just do it.’ But I had to find my own way to do it,” Hamilton says, adding admiringly of Sieber, “My God. I sometimes just want to sit in the front row and watch him.”
Hamilton admits to being hard on himself and taking a long time to develop his performance.
“You’ve got to get out of your head. It takes your spirit and your soul, losing what you think is effective and going to what touches you,” he says. “This is an amazing moment in my life. Being with these people and learning from them has given me such a gift.”
Sieber said yes to playing Albin on the road because “… to do the other part was a great opportunity. It seemed a little dangerous. Harvey made it look easy. I stole a lot from Harvey.”
Because he has played both Georges and Albin, Sieber says he knows La Cage “backwards and forwards.” Singing the show’s defiant, iconic anthem I Am What I Am at the end of the first act is always an emotional highlight.
“There is so much there. It’s a pinnacle. So many things come together in it. You really have to get in the zone and go there. I get a little defiant,” he says.
At 43, Sieber is nearly three decades younger than his famous costar. He likes to work fast, while Hamilton takes his time. But he thinks Hamilton has hit his stride and that the two have developed a lovely onstage chemistry in which his Albin is something of a caretaker to Georges.
“He’s very adorable, such a good guy and a trouper,” Sieber says. “We have gay and straight people in our show, but everyone has to be out there. It’s big and bawdy, yet really intimate. La Cage has a good book and a great score and lyrics. Everything works together really well. We make people cry and laugh. Even guys who get dragged there by their wives.”