I am what I am

Christopher Sieber as Zaza and George Hamilton as Georges in the touring production of "La Cage Aux Folles" coming to ASU Gammage in May (Photo: Paul Kolnik)

Actor Christopher Sieber has done funny proud in plenty of Broadway musicals, from “Shrek” to “Spamalot.” Seems he was already rocking the comedy vibe during second grade. “I took being the class clown and turned it into a career,” quipped Sieber when we spoke by phone Friday morning.

He was happy to be in Dallas, the latest stop on the national tour of “La Cage Aux Folles” that hits ASU Gammage in Tempe next month. It’s a classic Broadway musical featuring music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, plus book by Harvey Fierstein — best known to some for songs like “I Am What I Am.”

Sieber knew early on that he was “the fat kid with the thick neck and thick glasses,” but he also knew how to work a crowd. “I had no fear,” he says — though Sieber’s parents hardly shared his delight. At first, he used “typical third grade material” like this little gem: What the difference between pea soup and roast beef?Anyone can roast beef!

Parents, take heart. The annoying imps of today may blossom into actors whose idiocyncracies make them masters of the art. Sometimes with weird twists of fate along the way. Seems Sieber’s first foray into musical theater performance was landing the “Stanley” gig as a 10th grader in a community theater production of “Hello Dolly” in the tiny town of Wyoming, Minnesota. “Hello Dolly” also features lyrics and music by Jerry Herman.

"La Cage Aux Folles" cast members inside a birdcage that looks about the size of Sieber's first NYC apartment (Photo: Paul Kolnik)

Sieber first saw the bright lights of New York City when he up and moved there on Oct. 3, 1988. He was 18 years old, and recalls making the flight alone after “working all summer at a car wash” to save money for the “little closet of an apartment” located on Broadway near 73rd Street — inside the Ansonia Building, a renowned “grand hotel” in early 20th century Manhattan. While there, Sieber put himself through school — where I suspect he shared more sophisticated material with fellow theater students.

His “first professional gig” was performing in a Hilton Head, South Carolina production of “Singin’ in the Rain.” It paid $200 a week. Sieber shared that originating roles has been a particular passion through the years. “I love to create new things with people.” When summers find him back in NYC, Sieber enjoys sharing pearls with young performers through “Camp Broadway,” Broadway Artists Alliance classes and such. His advice for up and coming actors? “Be yourself.”

One night just a year or so ago Sieber got the call that landed “La Cage Aux Folles” in his lap. Turns out the invitation to see a performance of “La Cage Aux Folles” starring Harvey Fierstein was much more. A friend took Sieber backstage to meet Fierstein after the show — telling him that “Harvey would love to say hi.” But Fierstein had something else in mind.

Sieber recalls that a quick round of the usual “How are you?” type banter was soon followed by Fierstein asking “Are you gonna do it? Are you gonna do the show?” Seven days later, Sieber was in the show he describes as “a brand new production that’s more intimate and more focused on the two families.”

“It’s kind of a play,” reflects Sieber. “You get to know these people, you really care about them and it’s so fulfilling in the end.” The musical recounts the adventures of a gay couple at a time when folks were far from accepting such things. Sieber notes that even the most “conservative” audience members warm up to the musical, and its message — usually during the show’s second act.

“It doesn’t matter who you love,” says Sieber– whose marriage last Thanksgiving to longtime partner Kevin Burrows was made possible by NYC legislation granting marriage equality to gay citizens. “A family is a family,” adds Sieber. “You can’t legislate love or family.”

"La Cage Aux Folles" runs May 15-20 at ASU Gammage in Tempe

Though the “you’ll love us once you get to know us” thread is still there, Sieber says “the gay stuff is almost passé” in “La Cage Aux Folles.” Times have changed, though not enough, since the musical — directed by Arthur Laurents — opened on Broadway in 1983. Sieber notes that even the men who created the now famous “I Am What I Am” musical “took female dates to opening night” because they were “still afraid.”

The original Broadway production earned six Tony Awards, including best musical, score and book. Both the 2004 and 2010 Broadway revivials of “La Cage Aux Folles” earned the Tony Award for best musical revival. The touring production coming to ASU Gammage May 15, which stars George Hamilton as Georges and Sieber as Albin, is based on the latest revival.

Sieber clearly adores the musical’s finesse with farce, and its bevy of brilliant showtunes. The class clown has grown up. Sort of. I suspect there’s still plenty of boy inside the man — making him the perfect embodiment of “I Am What I Am.”

— Lynn

Note: When last I heard, there were just ten slots left for this summer’s “Camp Broadway” at ASU Gammage — you can click here to learn more. Before “La Cage Aux Folles,” ASU Gammage presents “Green Day’s American Idiot,” which opens April 24. Click here for details on their 2012/13 season. Also, watch for the May 1 announcement of 2012 Tony Award nominees here.

Coming up: Life happens, “Red” rules, The sound of success

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