When he steps into the Broadway production of La Cage aux Folles this month, character actor Jeffrey Tambor will break with his reputation of playing TV characters who are sour ("The Ropers"), sad ("The Larry Sanders Show") or crazy ("Arrested Development"). This time, he's a smoother leading-man-type, Georges, a partner in the title drag club and life partner to a high-maintenance drag performer, Albin, to be played by La Cage librettist Harvey Fierstein. It marks Tambor's third Broadway appearance following the original production of Larry Gelbart's Sly Fox (1976), opposite George C. Scott, and the 2005 revival of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, for which he won (along with the Ensemble) a Drama Desk Award. Of the antsy, playful, wisecracking Tambor, Fierstein said, "I'm five years old, but he's three, so you put the two of us together, there's a lot of trouble." You can't fake chemistry, Fierstein said, adding, "That either happens or not, and the two of us walked into a room together, started talking and realized the chemistry was there — and then you just ignore it, then you just let it cook. So it's sort of easy, and it'll be a very different Georges and Albin…"
In spite of his healthy resume of film and TV roles, Tambor, a San Francisco native born in 1944, has many regional-theatre acting and directing credits, and earned his MFA in one of the country's few genuine repertory theatre programs. We cornered him recently at a press event in between rehearsals.
You have a past in Detroit, my hometown.
Jeffrey Tambor: Yeah, I went to Hilberry Classic Theatre. I lived on campus, and I was there for five years.
It's still one of the only rotating repertory theatres in America.
JT: Yeah. You had a show there, and — good or bad — you were on for nine months. Was it a great foundation?
JT: Huge foundation. You put all theory aside "Hi, here's theory." Boom! "And here's reality: Make this work." Yeah, it was one of the best. I count myself a very lucky man. I was going to go either to the Guthrie Theatre or there, and I chose there. I don't know why, but I love Detroit, and I learned a lot there. I had come from San Francisco to Detroit, and it was my first time away from home. I didn't know how to write a check, and there I was in Detroit, Michigan, and I learned how to write a check.
Hilberry Repertory Theatre at Wayne State University is not known for musicals. Is La Cage aux Folles your musical debut?
JT: No, there was a musical at Hilberry! A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. I played Pseudolus on the Hilberry stage, but this is my first time on B-B-B-B-B-Broadway.
|photo by Josh Lehrer|
Have musicals been offered to you before?
JT: I had a musical offered to me before, and I did turn it down. The real story, the funny story, is that … I did actually audition for [the original production of] this show, with Mr. [Arthur] Laurents [the director] and Mr. [Jerry] Herman — and, I thought, Harvey, in the room, but Harvey says not. I was turned down, but I actually did very well. They were very kind. I think the offer had already been out, but Mr. Laurents said, "You did very well. You're not going to get this role, but I am going to use three pieces of business you used in your audition." Which I thought was great! I sued him.
That was 25 years ago?
JT: Is it 25 years ago? Anybody have a chair?
And it was for a replacement?
JT: It was the originale [cast], and [for] Albin, and here I am. That's the interesting thing about this business.
One of the things I love about Georges is that there is a public Georges and a private Georges — a showman and then a family man. Are you playing with that?
JT: Yeah, that's very true, and yeah, I am playing with that. [Referencing his hairpiece on a La Cage poster:] The hirsute and the maybe non-hirsute. I would like to do that — the fact that there's youth and there's less than. I would like that. It would be kind of interesting.
|photo by Josh Lehrer|
There's a great sense of "play" and "performance" to both Georges and Albin, in their relationship.
JT: There's a great sense of play in this. There's a great deal of "fun" and there's a great deal of seriousness, and I think that has melded beautifully in the piece. Plus, he gets to learn a life lesson, taught by his heterosexual son, that just slaps him in the face [and] makes him learn about his own kind of love and reinvigorates his own [relationship], which is quite, quite [wonderful]. And Harvey and I — we knew each other from before, but he treats me as if I'm his first, so to speak. He's seen them come and go. He's great and he's sweet and lovely. … We're having a good time. He works hard.
You're working with the author. Is there a sense of flexibility to the script?
JT: There's a bit, yeah. They're giving me a bit of room. It's very interesting, because sometimes I go, "Forget my room! There's a tried and true way here, and I'm listening to that." My predecessors are very good. Kelsey [Grammer] is magnificent, Doug [Hodge] is magnificent, but I'm going to try to find Jeffrey's way in, as well. That's my name. Jeffrey. Jeffrey Tambor.
You don't know what it's like until you get in front of an audience, particularly when you're partnering with an audience in the nightclub scenes…
JT: That's the fun. It's all throwing the dice. I remember directing a play, Burn This, and I didn't know it was as funny [as it is] until opening night. They were screaming, and I went, "Well, of course! Ha, ha…" No idea it was that funny. And I'm not the first. When Georges is playing with the audience, there's a sense of doing "bits," vaudeville gags…
JT: Bits!? I don't do bits! Yes, I steal from the best! …You go, "Oh, what have my predecessors done?" And either you borrow and say, "Thank you very much," or you say, "Well, I see the territory and I'll find my own way." I think you're foolish if you go, "Absolutely not!" [and don't steal from other actors]. You're foolish.
You're not afraid of an audience?
JT: This is a film, isn't it? An audience — what audience? No, I love audiences. As you said that, my adrenaline [shot up.] Really. But that's the fun.
(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He's also on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.)