La Cage's Roger Allam on Makeup, Musicals and More

Luckily for London theatergoers, Roger Allam is rarely long absent from the London stage, the only question being just where the versatile performer will turn up next. He was Mark Rylance's original co-star in the long-running West End revival of Boeing-Boeing and Jodhi May's adversary in the London premiere of Blackbird. Allam of late appeared as Leonardo da Vinci in Antony Sher's Hampstead Theatre entry, The Giant, and on the National's Lyttelton stage during the summer of 2008 as Max Reinhardt in the Michael Frayn play, Afterlife. The original Javert in Les Miserables, Allam has teamed up with another onetime Javert, three-time Olivier Award inner Philip Quast, to play the latest Albin/Zaza and Georges, respectively, in Terry Johnson's London revival of La Cage Aux Folles. spoke to Allam the afternoon after the press had been in to check out the latest cast changes in a production that met with five stars that very day from the Evening Standard's new theater critic, Henry Hitchings. Not that Allam, himself a two-time Olivier Award-winner for the plays Money and Privates on Parade, reads the reviews.

So, last night was press night. How did you feel it went?
It's unavoidable especially with a comedy that having you lot in and also anxious producers and friends has an effect on the performance; it makes us nervous. Having said that, it went well. We had you by the end.

It must be interesting, in a sense, to hit the ground running with a show that has already been through two casts already—in the case of some roles, three.
That's often the case when you do something like this. In fact, I was working right up to rehearsals so I hadn't had a lot of time to think about it. I had a couple of makeup and wig sessions with Richard Mawbey and looked through various incarnations of what Zaza might be and the role sort of revealed itself.

You had some mighty serious wigs, suggesting at various times everyone from Tracy Turnblad from the musical Hairspray to the late Barbara Cartland. 
I've been through so many different incarnations in the last week. We started with one costume for instance, when Albin has to play "Mother," with a much grayer wig but the producers and [director] Terry [Johnson] thought it was just too aging; then we went to a new outfit but the wig wasn't ready. It's such a rush backstage for anyone playing Albin, with all those changes—so much so that I've never seen myself in the mirror as Mother. I haven't had a chance to really take it in.

Well, you must be the tallest Albin there has ever been.
I'm six foot. That's why I needed a Philip Quast to be my Georges unless one went for a contrast the other way in terms of a shorter Georges and a larger Albin.

You must have known Philip before, not least from Les Miserables days.
He wasn't the Javert right after me. We've probably known each other for about 15 years when we first worked on Macbeth for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1996. I was Himself and Phil was Banquo, and [Tony Award winner] Brid Brennan played Lady Macbeth. I was actually offered Georges at the Chocolate Factory,but I couldn't afford to do it at the time, though of course I went to see it with Doug [Hodge] and Phil, absolutely, because Phil's a friend of mine. This is the most fantastic role, so when the offer came round on the West End, I thought, “Why the hell not?”

In fact, you've not done that many musicals in your career, given that you were part of the epoch-making London premiere of Les Mis.
Yes. I'd done panto, of course, and Privates on Parade—stuff that used to a certain extent the singing and dancing—but I haven't done a full-scale musical since City of Angels, and the only one before that was Les Mis. Quite a number have come up which I've either not wanted to do or they've fallen through or I haven't got them. I've always hated the whole audition process, so when they just offered this to me, that was a relief. I suppose one thing that gave me pause when they offered it to me was that, having dragged up in Privates on Parade, I thought, “Should I go down that road again?” But this is such a great role. Though the other two were fantastic as well, this is probably the best musical part that I've played. It's very nice to be doing a musical again and such a lovely one, with so wonderfully touching a story.

How do you think Terri Dennis [Allam's mightily flamboyant character in Privates] would get on with Albin?
I don't think they'd get on at all. I don't think the stage would be big enough.

One realizes watching you just how rich the acting opportunities are—not least in your very moving, carefully created "I Am What I Am" [the show's celebrated first-act finale].
Well, this was by no means just me. It was suggested by Terry, the director, and Nigel Lilley, the musical director, that in a way what Albin does through that song is re-learn how to speak—to describe and articulate his feelings. That's why in the first verse, everything is all broken up and the sentences are barely strung together.

Did you see La Cage in London all those years ago at the Palladium?
No, I didn't, I think I was at Stratford. But I can't imagine it at the Palladium. It would have to be a completely different kind of show—I mean, just the scale of it and how would you give the impression that “La Cage" is a slightly down-at-heel cabaret space in the Palladium? It must have been a whole other ball game.

How difficult a sing is it for you? Albin (Zaza) has a lot more to do vocally than, say, Javert.
Oh, far more; this is by far the biggest sing I've had. I was apprehensive about that because I haven't really sung at all since the panto three years ago [Aladdin at the Old Vic], where I was constantly losing my voice because of the maniacal laugh. But then I found out that all Abbanazars lose their voice; they just do. [Laughs.] But, you know, that's the thing with musicals: there's always a way round things in a play. When I sprained my ankle very badly while I was on tour recently with God of Carnage, I missed a couple of shows and then I came back and we worked out how to do it with me not being able to move around quite so freely. If I lost my voice in a musical, I wouldn't be able to sing.It's just a different kind of thing. On the one hand, you're miked, so you don't have to make quite as much noise, but on the other hand, it never stops for you, so you have to keep singing and dancing. You just have to keep going.

You know that Americans in particular are always amazed that all you classically adept British actors can also do musicals, as well: Judi Dench in A Little Night Music, or Jonathan Pryce in Miss Saigon. Or you. 
I'm surprised that they're surprised. You know, you look at someone like Denis Quilley [London's original Georges opposite Broadway Tony winner George Hearn] and it was exactly the sort of thing he did. He actually started off doing more musicals in the late '50s and '60s and then went to Olivier's Nationa. There have been quite a lot of people who have had careers like that.

What is the regimen like for this role?
I do have to get here pretty early to have my makeup done, and it does take quite a lot of time. And then every week, I run the razor over the body, so from that point of view it's quite high maintenance. My sons [age nine and four] are very intrigued.

And what you realize from this production especially is that anyone who resists the sentiments of the show, or its appeal, becomes like Monsieur Dindon within the musical. 
As Terry Johnson says, the piece sort of opens up the liberal space, and it appeals to such a wide spectrum of people. You'd have to be—I don't know who!—to go out of the show not a bit more liberal and happier than when you went in.