THE LEADING MEN: Candor and Ebb

The Leading Men   THE LEADING MEN: Candor and Ebb With April 15 coming up, here are three "Leading Men" who know how to tax their own talents and turn in a tour de force: Christopher Sieber (Chicago), Michael Arden (Bare) and John Tartaglia (Avenue Q).
Christopher Sieber
Christopher Sieber Photo by Ben Strothmann

SIEBER’S FLYIN’ HIGH AS FLYNN
Christopher Sieber just returned to Broadway as Billy Flynn in Chicago, but the 35-year-old hunk has been "Razzle Dazzling" audiences for years: as Rapunzel’s Prince in Into the Woods, Gaston in Beauty and the Beast and Agis in Triumph of Love. The 6 foot-2 actor, who "came out" last fall in the Advocate, first gained fame playing Dad to Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen on ABC’s "Two of a Kind" (1998). He now co-stars with John Benjamin Hickey ("he’s the best") on the ABC sitcom "It’s All Relative"; they play two loving gay fathers with a grownup daughter.

Born in St. Paul, MN, he was bitten by the acting bug while playing Stanley in Hello, Dolly! in tenth grade. Sieber has appeared in everything from soaps to "Sex & the City" to casinos and cruises, where he did the "cheesiest" revues with Idina Menzel. After wrapping up in Chicago on May 2, he heads for Los Angeles to play Bobby in Reprise’s Company (May 18-June 6).

Sieber, who’s incredibly warm, open and honest, almost quit acting eight years ago to become a flight attendant: "I had had it. I had zero dollars and was counting pennies to get on the subway." Luckily, friends talked him out of it, and these days he couldn’t be happier, especially since he met Broadway actor Kevin Burrows a few years ago. Burrows, 35, says, "Aside from his strapping good looks, I was attracted to Chris’ sense of humor. When I found out he was a huge fan of ‘Strangers With Candy’ on Comedy Central, I knew that this is somebody I could spend the rest of my life with."

Question: Congrats! You’re sensational in Chicago.
Christopher Sieber: Thanks! I’ve always wanted to play Billy Flynn because I’m usually [cast] as the nice guy. Billy can be nice, but he’s not. He’s out for himself. I also love this Kander and Ebb score, and I’m thrilled to sing it. I remember seeing James Naughton do it at Encores! and he was so good. I love being back in the theatre, and this cast is so unbelievably talented and supportive. I’m blown away.

Q: In "We Both Reached for the Gun," I love how you hold the next to-last note so long that you have time to bend over and tie your shoelaces.
Sieber: That’s fun. When I hold that note, I feel like I’m having a baby. My sides start aching. I’m really enjoying the style of Chicago and how Billy’s the ringmaster. From beginning to end, he’s in control. It’s so cool . Q: You’re playing "the silver-tongued prince of the courtroom," but you and Gregg Edelman were so charming as the Princes (and the Wolves) in Into the Woods that you both got nominated for 2002 L.A. Ovation Awards.
Sieber: Gregg’s terrific. I’ve always admired him since I saw him in City of Angels. We constantly made each other laugh.

Q: Gregg says you’re a "great comedian" and you guys had a blast. He says when Into the Woods was in L.A., your wolf costumes came with motorized tails. But they got cut before the show came to New York.
Sieber: Yeah. It was a really good idea that didn’t work. They built these butt imprints out of Fiberglas, and there would be motors inside them, and we could make the tails go up and down. I heard they spent $50,000 on each of them. But during "Hello, Little Girl," Gregg’s tail literally fell off, so he looked like a Chihuahua. We couldn’t get through the song. The audience went bonkers.

Q: What was it like working with Stephen Sondheim?
Sieber: Steve was so cool. One of the greatest theatrical moments of my life was doing a work session with him. He’s amazing in how he words things. In "Agony" [the comic duet between the princes], Steve says the "agony" in the song isn’t about, "Oh, my poor life." He said: "You’ve been yearning for this woman and you can’t get into her f---ing pants. You’ve got blue balls." That’s the "agony." Oh!

Q: On your TV show, "It’s All Relative," you play a gay father, and you’ve played Dad to the Olsen twins. Wouldn’t you make a good father?
Sieber: Uh-uh. No, no, no. I can barely feed myself. The kid would starve. I don’t cook. My partner, Kevin, loves to cook. He’s amazing. The Food Network is always on [at our apartment], and he can make anything.

Q: Maybe you’re too modest. Meg Allen of ProudParenting.com, a Web site for gay and lesbian parents, says: "Christopher Sieber and John Benjamin Hickey are doing more for gay civil rights than a hundred lawsuits against oppression could ever accomplish. They are putting the human face on same-sex couples and parents."
Sieber: Wow, that’s great. But I took the show because I loved the writing and I loved the character. Simon is so like me. He’s the calm one. He teaches third-graders all the time. He’s the peacemaker. But he’s also funny.

Q: Why was it important for you to "come out" in the Advocate?
Sieber: Growing up, the only gay role models I had were Snagglepuss, Richard Simmons and Paul Lynde. I’m very happy to be an out gay actor on a national sitcom. I think John and I are the first to do that, playing gay characters as a couple. Surprisingly, we haven’t gotten any backlash. The ratings are great. The demographics are kickass. This month, they’ve moved us to Tuesdays at 9:30 PM. We’ll find out if we’re picked up [by ABC] for a second season in May, but everyone’s optimistic.

Q: Your show is set in Boston; will it deal with gay marriage?
Sieber: Yes, but we’ll tread lightly because it’s not a political show.

Q: If it were legal, would you and Kevin get married?
Sieber: We probably would, but we wouldn’t make a big public deal.

Q: There aren’t many Broadway leading men who are gay and out. Why?
Sieber: Maybe they’re waiting for the next big action hero role. I don’t know what they’re afraid of. "Coming out" hasn’t hurt my career, and I don’t think it will. If you’re a good enough actor, gay or straight, you should be able to play any role.

Q: When did you know you were gay?
Sieber: Third grade. I dated girls, but nothing ever happened. I had a lotta crushes on guys I grew up with, and I didn’t know why until I was an adult. I "came out" to my folks when I was 20. It was hard for them and it took a long time, but they came around. Now Mom and Dad have met Kevin and they love him.

Q: The Advocate says you met Kevin during The Lion King. Did we somehow miss your run as Rifiki? (Laughs.)
Sieber: Kevin jokes that he’s still finding Lion King makeup in places that he hasn’t been able to wash off. No, we became really great friends during Beauty and the Beast. I was Gaston. Kevin was the fork. He’s good for me. He doesn’t want anything from me, like money or stuff. He just wants me.

Q: You two made a sexy Dynamic Duo at the Broadway Bares 2002: A Comic Strip. Holy beefcake, Batman! When you guys stripped as the Caped Crusader and Robin, you gave a whole new meaning to "comic book buffs."
Sieber: That was Jerry Mitchell’s idea. We were taking our clothes off, pouring honey on each other, licking it off and making out, naked. I’m always happy to do something for Broadway Cares, and it was so much fun. That summer, we sure scored a lotta free drinks on Fire Island: "Look, it’s Batman and Robin!"

For more information, visit www.chrissieber.cjb.net.

‘RISING’ STAR LIGHTS UP A ‘BARE’ STAGE
Michael Arden is a boyish actor-singer-songwriter who’s beaming and teeming with talent. In Big River, he received a raft of radiant reviews for his Broadway debut as Tom Sawyer. In November, he sank his teeth into a workshop of Elton John-Bernie Taupin’s The Vampire LeStat. In January, this 21-year-old all-American boy from Midland, TX, staged an all star reading of his first musical, Easter Rising, featuring Gavin Creel and Max von Essen, at Makor. And David Hurst of Next magazine raved that Arden "could be a bright new voice in musical theatre."

Now this 6-foot ex-altar boy and angelic tenor brings his many talents to Bare, Jon Hartmere Jr. and Damon Intrabartolo’s Off-Broadway "pop opera" now in previews and opening April 19 at the American Theatre of Actors. In this coming-of-age story of teens at a Catholic boarding school, Arden plays Peter, a gay 17-year-old who’s wrestling with his religion, while discovering love with Jason (John Hill), the school’s gorgeous golden boy. Arden, who’s actually a church-going Methodist, says, "Peter is like a lot of young people, gay or straight. He’s trying to figure out his life and find out who he is sexually and emotionally, and his place in the world, and that struggle is something many of us went through in high school. But Peter dreams a lot and has a vivid imagination. The Virgin Mary appears to him as a Diana Ross look-alike. And the whole show’s set to a great score with everything from pop to grunge and gospel."

In Bare, the teens also tackle Shakespeare by putting on Romeo and Juliet. In one poignant, poetic moment, Peter subs for the actress playing Juliet, so he and Jason, who plays Romeo, recite the romantic masquerade ball scene to each other: "I love that. I trained as a classical actor at Juilliard. I jump at the opportunity to do classical text, and it’s sung here, so it’s two of my favorite things together. And John’s just a joy to work with. But I never in a million years guessed I’d get to play Juliet!"

Arden first fell in love with theatre at age nine when he saw a community production of Big River. When he joined the Roundabout and Deaf Theatre West’s revival, though, he had to learn sign language. "I went home from rehearsals many times in tears, thinking, ‘I’ll never be able to sign ‘Hand for the Hog.’ But I did it. Then it got cut. Still, it was a special show and just the greatest company of actors."

As charmed as his life might sound, it’s been touched by tragedy. The sweet, sensitive actor says, "My father died when I was three. My mom and he had divorced. She had gotten custody of me. And he was going through severe depression and committed suicide by shooting himself. I don’t have any memory of him. I was with my mom for a while, but because of the problems she had with drugs, I was raised by my grandparents."

His grandparents were thrilled to see him on Broadway, but after Big River closed, "I was upset. I had left Juilliard. I thought: ‘I’ll never work again.’ It was a big dropoff. I’m so happy I had composing to put my energy into." Arden’s musical influences include Ben Folds, Billy Joel and Elton John, and while at Juilliard, he scored and orchestrated As You Like It. Most recently, he wrote a beautiful and beguiling duet called "N and R" for the "Embrace!" concert for the Matthew Shepard Foundation. Sriram Ganesan and Jonathan Sandler played two guys gazing at each other across a subway track and fantasizing about the other ("I could look at you forever"). Arden, who wrote it within a week, says, "It was really exciting to hear it sung, and it was so much fun because they acted it so well. When I see performers of that caliber do my songs, it makes me so proud to be an actor and to be a composer." For more information, visit www.barethemusical.com.

‘AVENUE’ CUTIE IS BUSY AS A ‘B’
John Tartaglia performs with the irrepressible puppets of Princeton and Rod in Broadway’s Avenue Q, but they’re not the only thing he has his hand in these days. The adorable 26-year-old actor from Maple Shade, NJ, will make his solo cabaret debut April 5 and 26 at the Ars Nova Theater. He will host an all-star concert of Snoopy! The Musical on April 12 at Symphony Space, featuring Sutton Foster, Hunter Foster, Deven May and Christian Borle, to benefit the Pied Piper’s Children’s Theatre. Plus, he’ll appear with Rod on TV’s "Hollywood Squares" airing April 19-23, alongside Danny Bonaduce, Arianna Huffington and Martin Mull. Rod says, "It was amazing, but I think I was flirting too much with the host, Tom Bergeron."

As for his cabaret act, Tartaglia says, "It’s gonna be funny and over-the-top, like a seventies variety show." Directed by Jamie McGonnigal and accompanied by Michael Patrick Walker, he’ll sing songs by Jason Robert Brown and Alan Menken, and croon a tune by the Dixie Chicks. Avenue Q’s Jennifer Barnhart, Stephanie D’Abruzzo and Aymee Garcia will provide backup, and Rod will be literally on hand as a special guest. (Maybe they call it puppet love, but Rod confides: "Carson Kressley [from ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’] and I are secretly seeing each other!")

Tartaglia, who’s openly gay, is happy at how much audiences love Rod: "It’s really wonderful. Most every gay man has gone through what Rod has, and by the end, the audience is cheering for him to ‘come out.’ Gay or straight, people relate to Rod. The message of the show is to love and accept yourself for who you are."

What a difference a year makes. In March 2003, the "Sesame Street" puppeteer was making his Off-Broadway debut in Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx’s Avenue Q and received this column’s "Star Performer" award. Now he’s on the Great White Way where he’s played for everyone from Tom Hanks to President Clinton ("Everyone was peeking through the curtain to see how he’d react to ‘For Now’; he loved it!"). Sunny and funny as ever, he admits, "The Tony talk is exciting, but the only way I could win is if Hugh Jackman keeled over, which I hope he doesn’t do because he’s incredible. I love being in Avenue Q's amazing ensemble, and just being on Broadway is honor enough!"

For more information, visit www.johntartaglia.com.

WHERE THE GUYS ARE
There’s so much to see in New York: Johnny Rodgers, the MAC Award-winning singer-songwriter, headlines April 8, 15, 22 and 29 at 9:30 PM at Mama Rose’s, 219 Second Ave. (212-533-0558). He and his band will really rock with "Movin’ Into Graceland," his toe-tapping tribute to Elvis. . . . MAC winner Valentine Ryder swings into Dillon’s April 1, 8, 15 and 22 at 8 PM at 245 W. 54th St. (212-307-9797). Backed by Barry Levitt, he’ll be joined by Scott Parrish.

Congrats to Tom D’Angora on winning a 2004 Bistro Award for his hilarious musical-comedy act, Divas I’ve Done. He brings it back April 6 and 13 at 9 PM at Don’t Tell Mama, 343 W. 46th St. (212-757-0788). And 2004 Bistro winner Ruben Flores, the sexy Mexican crooner, returns April 30 at 9:30 PM at the new Helen’s cabaret, 169 Eighth Ave. (212-206 0609). Kudos, too, to two other "Leading Men" alumni who won 2004 Bistros: Tom Andersen, for outstanding CD ("Who Knows?"), and Bobby Belfry, for outstanding vocalist.

Finally, you can catch Bistro winner and Broadway veteran Jim Walton singing for his supper in Chef’s Theater, at The Supper Club, 240 W. 47th St. (212-239-6200). It opens April 13 with celebrity chef Tyler Florence, who’s quite a dish in himself.

Got comments or questions? E-mail me at waymanwong@hotmail.com.

Until next month, let’s hear it for the "boys"!

Wayman Wong edits entertainment for the New York Daily News. He has been a movie and theater critic for the San Francisco Examiner, a writer for The Sondheim Review and a Drama-Logue Award-winning playwright.

Johnny Rodgers (left), Rod and John Tartaglia, and Michael Arden
Johnny Rodgers (left), Rod and John Tartaglia, and Michael Arden Photo by Bill Westmoreland and Ben Strothmann