Family Ties

''La Cage Aux Folles''' George Hamilton and Christopher Sieber on old Hollywood, gay relationships -- and why the best of times is now

Interview by Doug Rule and Randy Shulman
Published on January 26, 2012, 1:34am | Comments

George Hamilton is in the midst of a storytelling frenzy.

"I was back on the Concorde from London," recalls the Hollywood icon, "and Kirk Douglas is sitting next to me. And he says, 'Jesus, I've never seen you so white.' And I thought, 'God, am I really that pale?' I went in the plane's bathroom and I look in my little bag. I had this auto-bronzer. So every half hour on the trip -- it was only three-and-a-half hours -- I put on another coat of bronzer. By the time we landed in New York, I looked like Sidney Poitier!"

George Hamilton and Christopher Seiber at The Kennedy Center

George Hamilton and Christopher Sieber at The Kennedy Center

(Photo by Todd Franson)

In person, the 72-year-old Hamilton doesn't appear to have aged much -- he looks sensational -- and obviously using bronzer and not the sun to maintain his storied, perpetual tan is a big part of his physical success.

''I saw it happen one time -- the secret bronzer technique,'' marvels Christopher Sieber, who stars opposite Hamilton in the national touring production of La Cage Aux Folles, currently at the Kennedy Center (see review, page 51). "I walked in his dressing room door and his back was to me. His hands were moving across his face. And he turns around, and he's covered in streaks and streaks of brown." Sieber, a master of comic timing, pauses and brings his voice down to a mock-mortified whisper. "I watched it happen!"

The warm chemistry and playful rapport between Hamilton and Sieber is more than obvious as they sit for an exclusive joint interview in a box at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. And while they may not be lovers in real life – Hamilton isn't gay, Sieber is – it's clear they understand their characters' loving relationship at its core.

Sieber has been a fixture on Broadway for the past decade, earning Tony nominations for playing Lord Farquaad in Shrek the Musical and Sir Dennis Galahad in Monty Python's Spamalot. Hamilton, meanwhile, is a Hollywood screen idol, whose films range from Where The Boys Are to Love at First Bite. ''I might have been a small-town doctor,'' says Hamilton, who grew up in Arkansas, had it not been for his mother and older, gay brother, who strongly encouraged him to pursue an acting career in the 1950s.

Live theater isn't exactly a new arena for Hamilton, either, who last tackled Broadway in Chicago, where he played the role of super-slick lawyer, Billy Flynn, but the part of Georges in La Cage comes with far greater demands than that of Flynn. ''It would be easy for me to get a starring role that's in a range where I can just play it easy,'' he says, ''but this is far more challenging.''

Written by Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein, the musical version of La Cage Aux Folles is based on the classic French play of the same name that spawned two films, including The Birdcage. Hamilton plays the low-key, mild-mannered Georges, owner of a drag club on the Mediterranean where his prone-to-dramatic-flourishes partner Albin, played by Sieber, is the star, who goes by Zaza. The narrative pivots on a visit to the couple's home from the most conservative, anti-gay politician in France. Billy Harrigan Tighe plays the straight son the two men raised.

''The tone and the theme of the show resonates so many years later [but] in a completely different way than it did originally,'' says the 26-year-old Tighe. Indeed, written 30 years ago, La Cage was ahead of its time – and not just because it features a song -- "I Am What I Am" -- that became a gay rights anthem. In fact, both composer Herman and the original director Arthur Laurents suffered anxiety about whether the show was too gay for a mainstream America, particularly in a time of homophobic hysteria brought on by the early stages of the AIDS epidemic. So they tamped down anything too suggestive. For instance, Laurents, who died last year, noted in his 2009 memoir Mainly on Directing: Gypsy, West Side Story, and Other Musicals that the original 1983 Tony-winning production ended with Georges and Albin kissing on both cheeks – not the full-on lip smack of the current production. These days, La Cage Aux Folles takes its place of honor as one of the world's gayest musicals. It's also one of the most celebrated, earning Tony Awards for every production to date.

But it all comes down to Georges and Albin, the central relationship that forms the show's heart, powering its core of family ties and the value of love over all.

Tighe says there's something special about the way Hamilton and Sieber portray their characters' relationship and bring to life the show. ''To watch them every day," says the actor, "to see the dynamic between the two of them, and interact with them, is an experience I wouldn't trade for anything.''

METRO WEEKLY: So, let's start here: How is the experience of working together as a "couple"?

CHRISTOPHER SIEBER: It's exhausting! It's exhausting! He [points to George Hamilton] is such a diva. A pain in the ass. [Laughs.] No, working with George is great. He's wonderful. He's also self-deprecating. Not a diva bone in his body.

GEORGE HAMILTON: [Laughs.] Self-deprecating means I wear Depends?

SIEBER: [Laughs.] I didn't say ''self-defecating.''

HAMILTON: This is not a marriage made in heaven.

SIEBER: [Laughs.] This was an accident? What?

HAMILTON: It was a total accident how this came about. Truthfully, I was in the process of going to Broadway but I didn't know exactly what I was going to do. I had had a couple of offers, and I hadn't played Broadway since doing Chicago, which Chris was also doing.

SIEBER: We both did the role of Billy Flynn on Broadway.

HAMILTON: He sang and I, of course, mimed. [Laughs.] The point of it is, we had worked for the same people and the idea of [the national tour of] La Cage Aux Folles came up. I always loved the play. I loved the original movie with Ugo Tognazzi and The Birdcage. I thought it was an extraordinary thing. But then I realized, when I saw the show, that there's a lot more to it than I had thought. There are lot of nuances and things that I hadn't really grasped when I'd seen the movie. And they told me that they were going to get a really fine actor to play the other role, which gave me hope because I felt, well, there has got to be one of us. [Laughs.] Chris -- talk about humility -- came in and actually auditioned. I was at his audition, and when he finished, I walked straight over to the director and said, ''That's the guy.''

MW: George, you're mostly known for film acting...

HAMILTON: I got a Screen Actors Guild card back in '58, which proves it!

SIEBER: It does prove it. You want to set the record straight that you were never on The Love Boat so you can just nip it in the bud?

HAMILTON: Never did Love Boat. I did Dynasty. But people mistake me, you know. They think I was Baywatch --

SIEBER: I would have loved to see you on Baywatch.

HAMILTON: -- because they know about that eight-pack that I have.

SIEBER: Well it's a nine-pack now. You added one. [Laughs.]

HAMILTON: The bottom line is that when I knew that Chris was going to do the show, I felt very comfortable because he had already done Georges --

SIEBER: [I played] his part on Broadway. Opposite Harvey Fierstein [as Albin].

HAMILTON: I thought, "Well, this is going to be very interesting to see how he plays the other role." And truthfully, I depended on Chris because I had no real knowledge of how to play Georges.

SIEBER: We got a relationship going pretty quickly. An actor giving another actor notes is not a cool thing sometimes, but George wanted all the information he could get. And I said, ''Well, if you want to hear, I'm going to tell you how it is.'' And I've been pretty blunt.

HAMILTON: But you've never said anything unkind.

SIEBER: Not yet, not yet. Just wait. [Laughs.]

HAMILTON: The tricky part of this whole deal is that Georges's part is not written to be funny. An actor coming into Georges's role gets letdown initially thinking, ''Well, why don't I get that laugh?'' And the truth of the matter is, you're not supposed to get that laugh.

SIEBER: You're not supposed to because you're the straight man. But the part of Georges drives the show.

MW: Chris, you've played both characters. Do you have a preference?

SIEBER: I don't. Georges is not the flamboyant character in the show, but Georges has such an incredible thing to do in the show. You really have to hold the show together. Georges is the glue. Because the character is a stage manager, a producer, a director, a husband, a lover, a father, all these things, everything's just coming at Georges for two-and-a-half hours, and then he has to deal with his lover Albin, who is out of control, just nuts – and drama, drama, drama constantly.

But Zaza/Albin -- I'm having a blast. It is so much fun to play, but exhausting beyond belief. The show is the most vocally demanding show that I've ever done in my entire life. To keep up the energy and then bring all that energy just down and be able to be so focused to make sure the audience is right there with you at the end of act one where it's so quiet that people are literally on the edge of their seats. It's a rewarding feeling to know that there's an audience there in the palm of your hand and you could literally do anything with them. It's a powerful moment.

MW: George, did you have any qualms about playing a gay man?

HAMILTON: Let me just give you a little history so that you kind of understand where I come from in this situation. My half-brother, Bill -- I called him my half-brother, half-sister [Laughs.] -- he was from my mother's first husband. And Bill was gay. I learned a lot about his world from him. And the world at that time was bitterly hurtful. It was a [gay] world more of drinking than it is now, of gymnasiums. People didn't work out. They drank. It was all about closeted relationships.

And my brother really didn't like to have anyone know that he was gay, but the lovers he had were all very kind of macho in style. And as he got older and as his life started to change -- he died really of alcoholism, both renal and liver failure -- I literally kind of held his hand through his whole death for six months and was in the hospital with him every day. And during that time, I healed my relationship with him and learned a lot about him. The last question I asked him before he passed away was, 'What would you do if you had it all to do over again? What would you change?' And he said, 'I'd love more.'

I thought, 'God, that was never him.' He was always worried about whether his studs matched his links or whether his shirt [matched his] shoes, or whether he had a Rolls Royce – he was very materialistic. But it came down to that. And I thought, 'My God, that's what it was all about for him.' And it changed me. I understood the gay world through my brother. I understood it in Hollywood because I saw that the whole town ran on gay power. Everybody of talent in every department had that eye that my brother had.

MW: Do you think it made you more accepting of the gay world to have a gay brother?

HAMILTON: Of course it did.

MW: But it's not a given -- it could have gone the other way, though. What in you made you accept him?

HAMILTON: Well, he was dying, and when someone is dying and you are talking to him about real things, you either walk away or you get involved. And I'm a person who doesn't really walk away from much. When I have a challenge or something, I like to see it through -- win, lose, or draw. Because the lesson is what it's about for me. As much as I'm flip and funny about stuff, I love the challenges of doing things.

MW: Is it fair to say that you bring part of your brother's memory into this performance?

HAMILTON: Every night, every night. I use him with Chris a lot. Especially when [the son] Billy accepts him in front of us all, because that's the feeling I would have thought my brother would have had, when he got acceptance from me for who he was.

MW: George, you come from the heyday of Hollywood. At that time gays in Hollywood – Rock Hudson, for example – had to live a different, sheltered life. Today, even though more gay actors are coming out, there's still this underlying notion that if you want a leading-man career in Hollywood, stay in the closet. What's your perspective?

HAMILTON: I can't tell you what is correct or what is right as far as the answer to that. I can tell you what is. [Years ago,] the rule of thumb at the studio was that you could not wear any form of religious medal -- that divided your audience immediately. You didn't take big stands -- actors were not to be politicians. Most actors I've known don't have a lot of really terrific ideas about politics and all that. They have this very liberal attitude and take it to the hilt. But gay...

Well, it was said that if you were gay, you could not be a leading man. It was a dictum that was not verbally spoken, but generally thought by the studios. I knew actors that were gay. I went under contract with several at the very end. And they played heterosexual parts -- look at Rock Hudson in Giant, what an incredible role he played. I think that dual life was very hard for all of them because they were playing something they really weren't. But they all knew each other and there were people who were not only accepting of it but who -- well, Elizabeth Taylor, for instance. Elizabeth loved Rock. She loved Monte Clift. She understood what was going on in the studios and she also understood AIDS and everything else.

MW: But it's different now than in the day of the matinee idol. Shouldn't it be easier for actors to come out and be part of the Hollywood system?

HAMILTON: Truthfully, I don't know if Middle America will accept a [major] gay man in a leading heterosexual part. They will accept it as a gay part, but they think that there is something that is not right about a gay person playing a heterosexual. There are pockets of this country that will not accept it.

MW: Christopher, as a gay man working in this industry, do you feel comfortable?

SIEBER: It's not a big deal. And what George said about a gay man playing a straight man, I'd have to disagree because I've played many straight people on television. Neil Patrick Harris on How I Met Your Mother plays a womanizer for god's sake, and he's very gay [in his public life]. I think it's actually easier. It's not such a big deal.


(Photo by Todd Franson)

MW: Chris, is it true that you got married during the run of this tour?

SIEBER: Yeah. My husband Kevin and I got married on Thanksgiving. We've been together for so long and then [same-sex marriage] was voted on [in New York]. We got married on Thanksgiving, because that's kind of Kevin's High Holy Day. He's a chef, so he loves to cook and Thanksgiving is his feast day where he makes all this food for all of our friends. So we had a bunch of friends over, and one friend who's ordained, did it in our living room. It was very casual, very laid back. And we're going on our honeymoon in March. We're going to Central and South America on a big cruise ship. It's going to be awesome. And then in June we're going to have our big reception because our living room can't hold about 150 people, so we're going to have it outside in a tent.

MW: How long have you been together?

SIEBER: Almost 11 years now. We met during Beauty and the Beast on Broadway. He was a fork and I was Gaston, and it was meant to be.

MW: So he's an actor, too.

SIEBER: He was. Now he's a chef. He left the acting business. He now runs a company called ''My Cooking Party'' in New York City. And it's kind of a cool. It's a SoHo loft where a group of about 25 people get together and he teaches you how to make your food. And you drink lots of wine and you cook the food. It's a big party, so everybody cooks their own food -- a gourmet meal with his assistance. It's a lot of fun.

MW: Has the experience of being married changed your relationship?

SIEBER: Yeah. I feel like I love him more. And actually, there's a little more warm fuzziness going on. Now I know it's just us -- it's just us, and that means something. It's really cool, a nice feeling. I always said "partner" before. Now I say, "Kevin, my husband." He is now really, truly, indeed, by law, my husband.

MW: La Cage was written long before gay marriage was even considered in society, but in many regards it speaks strongly to the marriage equality movement.

SIEBER: Absolutely. It's a great example of, it's not who you love, it's that you love. Now that I'm married, I keep waiting for it to destroy the fabric of America and so far it hasn't. That was our plan all along, you know, to bring down the United States of America with our gay marriage. Unfortunately, it didn't happen yet, and it didn't happen for a lot of my gay friends, who are now married, as well. I know there are a lot of politicians out there who will say that we can marry goats and all this other garbage that they keep spewing and it's absolute bullshit. For them to say that is completely ignorant, but they're pumping the American public with misinformation. That's the worst part. Okay, that's my soapbox and I'll get off it.

MW: It's a good soapbox to be on. How old are you?

SIEBER: I'm 42 now.

MW: And George?

HAMILTON: I'm a young 72. Am I smiling through the Botox? [Laughs.]

SIEBER: You are smiling. Oh, look, your eyebrow just moved! [Laughs.]

MW: George, how do you feel about gay marriage?

HAMILTON: Well, first of all, how I feel about marriage? [Laughs.] With anything I say, you gotta go down that road. I have a different approach to marriage: it isn't in my nature. The only reason I ever wanted to get married was to have a child. I thought, what is the purpose of getting married if you don't want children? I got married to a girl from Texas who later married Rod Stewart, and I realized the only way to save our relationship was by getting divorced. And I haven't been married since the '70s. So the idea of marriage to me was "What's the purpose?" If you are committed to someone, you're committed to them, you don't need a piece of paper. It was my way. But when it means something to the other person that you're with, so much that it gives validation to the relationship – as you say, Christopher, "it's just us, it's just us" – then it's something you have to look at differently.

So in my interpretation, I would do that for a partner. So that's the way I look at marriage. I've done marriage, I know what it is, I know the responsibility. And things do change in a relationship. It's more of a business. It is a more day-to-day, less romantic, after three or four years. Once you get into a partnership, any type of partnership, there's an obligation, contractual, that the government comes in and is involved in your relationship. And I think people have to realize that. But I don't think they understand it. They think it's something very romantic that we carved our name on a tree and it's forevermore.

MW: You two share a kiss on stage...

HAMILTON: I've probably kissed Chris more than [Kevin] has. [Laughs.] Every night I explain to Chris before we do our kiss, I say, "This is Clark Gable," or "This is a Mickey Rooney," or "It's Cagney tonight." We were taught those kisses at MGM. You had to give these kisses that really weren't kisses, but had to look good on camera.

SIEBER: He showed me the Gable. You kind of pull it in and then wait. And then a little further and wait, and then you go in for it. He calls it a kiss. I call it mouth rape.

HAMILTON: Gable would swish his mustache from side-to-side and then he would go over and -- look, they taught me at MGM you do not kiss by leaning in, that looked weak. You pull them toward you. So that's what I do with Chris.

SIEBER: And it's weird because we're both pulling at the same time.

HAMILTON: Because you can't be upstaged, you hate it. Immediately I see that claw of his coming over, and practically rips my head off.

SIEBER: Claw?!? Wow!

HAMILTON: He completely covers my face, and he got this damn scene again. The man knows how to steal a scene.

SIEBER: I don't steal.

HAMILTON: No, you just borrow.

MW: George, had you ever kissed a man before on stage?

HAMILTON: No, never.

SIEBER: That was a fun day in rehearsal, wasn't it? We just kind of did it.

HAMILTON: Did you think I was at all timid?

SIEBER: Yeah. Because your eyes got really wide. [Laughs.]

HAMILTON: What bothered me was my right foot went up. [Laughs.] One of the funniest moments for me in the play is a little bit of an improv we do. We do a little dance, somehow Albin gets the end of the couch and I try to get him off there. And then I get under his dress. Well, once I got under his dress, I fall forward. And one night I had to back out, and my hair all goes forward. [Laughs.] So it's a very funny thing. But now it's precision. I have to plant my head straight up his ass and then back out. To think that I had my head up your ass and that's part of my career....

SIEBER: You know what? I'm going to stitch that on a pillow: "George Hamilton had his head up my ass and then gave me the Clark Gable."

La Cage Aux Folles runs to Feb. 12 at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Tickets are $65 to $130. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.


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