Now, although he has top billing in the national tour of “La Cage aux Folles” (which starts performances on Jan. 17 at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater), Hamilton, 72, freely acknowledges being eclipsed nightly by his far younger but more stage-savvy co-star, Christopher Sieber.
In this new production of the 1983 Jerry Herman/Harvey Fierstein musical, Hamilton plays Georges, the owner of a drag revue whose leading lady, Zaza, is also Albin, Georges’s lover. While Sieber has been delivering the performance of his life as Albin/Zaza — he gives Herman’s anthemic first-act closer, “I Am What I Am,” the dramatic heft of “Rose’s Turn” — Hamilton has struggled with a torn Achilles tendon, difficulty remembering lines and a persistent sense of playing catch-up with a cast of Broadway triple-threats, Sieber in particular. (Adding to Hamilton’s insecurity, perhaps, is the fact that the “massively talented” Sieber, as Hamilton calls him, played Georges on Broadway, starring in the revival’s second cast opposite Fierstein as Albin.) And while Sieber has been collecting rave reviews the way Zaza collects feather boas, Hamilton’s notices have been mixed at best, at worst vitriolic.
But if Hamilton is not quite undaunted, he’s also game, the definition of a trouper at his most determined. “I can’t say the reviews are wrong, but I can say that within a few weeks, I’ll be on top of this,” he says in a recent interview in his suite at Chicago’s Palmer House Hilton, a block from the scene of his evening trials onstage. “When you arrive in New York you have four weeks of rehearsal, you have dancing, you haven’t sung onstage in years, and you have to go out there and hit those marks with a cast that’s done the show on Broadway. You’re on your back foot, and in my case, on my heel. And I thought, ‘What are you going to do, George? Get out of this, or go on?’ For me, the challenge was worth it. I’m only good when I’m behind. If I go down in flames, so be it, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. I would bet on me.”
So would his co-star. “George is 72 years old, but he’s out there doing it every night, and he’s getting better all the time,” says Sieber, a two-time Tony nominee (for “Spamalot” and “Shrek the Musical”). “Zaza is a great role, obviously, but Georges is actually the harder part to play, because he has to drive the show — he’s the ringmaster in almost every scene. There’s a lot more that’s under the surface than you might think, and I think George is finding a lot of that. He’s also, by the way, the most generous, most self-deprecating person I’ve ever worked with. There’s not a diva bone in his body.”