British actor Douglas Hodge was acclaimed for his stridently creative London turn as Albin/Zaza in the new vest-pocket production of La Cage aux Folles that premiered at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London. Playing with a camp English dialect and accentuating vulnerability and neurotic energy, Hodge's dual performance as the mother-figure role in the Jerry Herman musical about a gay relationship at a crossroads won him the Olivier Award in London. At Menier, on the West End and now on Broadway, Hodge has slayed audiences with his impersonations of famous divas (Dietrich, Piaf, Monroe and more) when he's in Zaza drag, and touched people's hearts when he plays the hurt papa Albin. All this from an actor whose background is more Shakespeare than show tunes. Broadway newcomer Hodge talked to Playbill.com in the days following his 2010 Tony Award nomination as Best Actor in a Musical.
Playbill.com: I found myself pulled between a lot of emotions in a way that I haven't been at La Cage before. Your Zaza is so inventive and delicious, and Albin is sort of stripped bare, emotionally, by the end. There are real contrasts to your performance.
Douglas Hodge: Yeah, well, thank you. I find it fantastically poignant and always have done. I sort of see him as utterly vulnerable and fragile, as most of the drag queens that I have met in real life are. Their drag is this sort of suit of armor that [they] can put on to give [themselves] strength and personality. But as he sings in "A Little More Mascara," you know, "It's time to be anyone other than me." And that's really what happens as he kind of goes through the evening, is he tries on all these personalities and then finally gets to the mother, which is nearest to his own real, instinctive personality. And then finally in the end he's just himself and happy to be that and happy to be in love with the guy that he's been with for 20 years. So it's a really poignant journey, it seems to me, throughout the evening, you know, and very recognizable to anyone who's open to following that story. So, yeah, I think it's fantastically moving. Well, hopefully it is.
Playbill.com: Mild spoiler alert here! Albin is wearing a man's white shirt and black pants by the end. He's very stripped bare, for him. Did you and director Terry Johnson talk about that final appearance in the show? Was the simplicity of his clothes purposeful?
DH: Yeah. I think, constantly, people were asking me, even during the rehearsals this time 'round, what I was gonna wear and what I was gonna come out in for the final [costume] — as if it was gonna be his biggest, most extraordinary piece of drag that he'd worn so far. And my instinct was very, very strong that the story is simply that he rushes backstage, he puts his dresses on those other people and sends them out, and so he's wearing as simple clothes as possible, without any sort of need to try and define his own character. And that…kind of black-and-white look that they have for the finale, that's the simplest version that I could really come up with. They had versions where they had me in a suit, and I just kept sort of getting more and more stuff and just saying, "It's just gotta be him, alone and with nothing to prove and liking himself, finally."
Playbill.com: The effect is that he has somehow shed the baggage of drag, of being an over-the-top drama queen, and found something essential in himself. Am I reading too much into it?
DH: No, I would say that's all true. [Although] when he finally has to be the mother, that's in a sense what he's been training to be all his life. And that's the one thing they wanna get rid of him for. But for [all] the singing in the clubs and the being the women and the channeling all these divas, really, what he's been training to do is to play a woman — a mother, really and truly. And he's done that emotionally throughout his life with his adopted son.
|photo by Joan Marcus|
Playbill.com: Is Albin less of a drama queen now that he's been though this experience?
DH: I think that he's probably not less of a drama queen, no. [Laughs] But certainly, yeah, I imagined him before it and after it, I suppose, and in between, too. Playbill.com: Is he changed by the end? Is he less inclined to sing the "Mascara" song, less sad?
DH: Yeah. And I think he has greater self-esteem and he is happier with who he is. I mean, I think…he's a very fragile soul and I think that he self-dramatizes, so I'm sure there would be still lots of fun to be had and all that. And I think, yeah, he's gone on an extraordinary journey understanding himself and understanding other people and respecting other people, too. The whole thing for me is about transformation. I mean, in that song, "Mascara" — if you play Albin, you have to understand the "Mascara" song. He has to go from someone who, if you just follow the lyrics, is out of love with himself, to someone who finds himself dressed as a woman. And that transformation — kind of feeling that he's in the wrong body or in the wrong life or whatever — just gradually resolves until he really feels much more at home with himself by the end of the play.
Playbill.com: Your resume includes classic roles that are not exactly associated with laugh-riot comedy: Leontes in Winter's Tale, Andrei in Three Sisters, Titus in Titus Andronicus. But do you have a history playing clowns?
DH: No. Well, I've played Nathan Detroit [in Guys and Dolls], and I suppose I've always tried to bring out the great clown qualities in the saddest parts. I have a wonderful photo of Grock, probably the greatest clown of all time, just before he was about to go on stage, and he looks more or less suicidal. [Laughs] And I think that they're absolutely, inextricably linked, those two things. You know, to be able to be very, very upset, but also to be able to make people laugh… That's how I've always done my work, really.
Playbill.com: Do the serious roles you've played inform your work in La Cage?
DH: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Funnily enough, I find the structure of musicals — I mean, I've only done two musicals — but the structure of musicals, I've always found to be incredibly close to the Shakespeare work that I've done. I mean, people have always said they have a problem with why someone suddenly bursts into song, and I've never had a problem, say, playing Hamlet, with suddenly turning to the audience and saying, "What a rogue and peasant slave am I" or "To be or not to be." You know, these are moments, these great soliloquies, that have a great sort of structure to them, but they're almost internal and the emotions are almost more heightened. You start off as one thing and you end the soliloquy having reached a decision about something or about yourself. I find that incredibly true about the songs — it just seems like a seamless thing to me to be in a scene and then say, "Okay, let's sing about this and let's try and get to the bottom of this problem." And certainly when you do something like Titus Andronicus — although Titus Andronicus butchers about 20 people in the play [Laughs], there's an extraordinary amount of clowning in that, I think. A kind of terrible, Grand Guignol, dark, dark comedy at the end, once he's chopped his own arm off and he murders his daughter and he's murdering all and sundry around him. But, you know, he also has these great arias — and when we did it at the Globe, you're outdoors and it's pouring with rain, you suddenly have to turn and appeal to people, and I think singing the songs, like singing "I Am What I Am," is no different to that, really. It's the same process that you go through, you know.
Playbill.com: This new production is set in the late 1970s. Has that informed your work?
DH: Yeah, in some ways it has helped me in that there isn't the sort of politics of the whole AIDS period, without talking too simplistically about it. But you know, in some ways, I see it as a sort of golden age of homosexuality, when things were much more covert, but it was exciting and thrilling. I find that very interesting…that there's something celebratory and also secret about it, and all those things give it great energy, I suppose.
Playbill.com: How do you and director Terry Johnson work in the rehearsal room? There must be a lot of experimenting. Are you coming up with the ideas for Zaza's performance sequences? Is he?
DH: Yeah, that's all me, really. Well, I've worked with Terry a lot. I mean, one of Terry's great gifts with me is just to let me play, so I would come up with maybe 20 different things, you know. I mean, my route would be to just keep offering up more and more ideas and then he would, I suppose, begin to say, "Listen, this works, that doesn't work. This works, that doesn't work." I think the Piaf idea, to be honest — during performance, that emerged, long after the rehearsals. I just one night decided, because I was singing in French, I did it as Piaf, and I suddenly felt inspiration. [Spoiler alert here!] The "Marilyn" moment with the fan, I came up with in this rehearsal. We'd never done that in England. I mean, in fact what we had — we didn't have a Marilyn costume. That's completely new for New York. And the white, pleated dress is completely new for New York. To be honest, all the costumes are new for New York, more or less, apart from the "I Am What I Am" costume. You know, a lot of that is just play, really, and I suppose I have a history of doing impersonations … although I've never impersonated women before. [Laughs] What Terry's great at is he lets me follow any track as far as I need to follow it, even if it's completely stupid at the end of it.
Playbill.com: This is your Broadway debut. Are you loving New York?
DH: Yeah, I am. I haven't really seen much of it. I tend to be just kind of doing eight shows a week and then hobbling around outside of that, feeling sorry for myself, because I find it totally and utterly all-consuming, the whole job — the role, really. So there's also a limit to how long you can keep going — I mean, wearing high heels for six hours on a matinee day, it all begins to take over in the end. But I love New York. I always have loved New York, and to be here doing this is a dream come true.
Playbill.com: What do you do to protect your body and voice for such a strenuous role? Vitamins?
DH: I am having two massages a week. I'm having every kind of vitamin known to man. I'm having B-12 shots. [Laughs] Yeah, I'm taking care of myself.
Playbill.com: Will you stay in La Cage beyond six months?
DH: I'm pretty keen to stay, and I think that's probably what's gonna happen, as long as I can solve, yeah, family things. But I think, probably, I'll do a year. Probably, they won't do the deal on that, I shouldn't think, for the next couple of weeks, but certainly they've asked me to, and I would love to. (Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Write him at email@example.com.)