We chat to John Partridge about his starring role in the touring production of hit musical La Cage aux Folles which lands in Birmingham’s Gay Village in May!
La Cage aux Folles is coming to Birmingham on its first ever tour of the UK. Presented by Bill Kenwright, the lavish new production of the award-winning musical extravaganza stars John Partridge as Albin/Zaza, Adrian Zmed as Georges and Marti Webb as Jacqueline.
Georges and his long-term husband Albin, a dazzling drag artiste who stars as Zaza in the infamous La Cage aux Folles nightclub, live a vibrant life in the heart of St Tropez.
However, when Georges’ son announces his engagement to the daughter of a right-wing homophobic politician who’s determined to close down the colourful venue, Georges and Albin are forced to hide who they really are...
Zone caught up with EastEnders and West End star John Partridge to talk about the real message behind the story of the show, his lengthy preparation before stepping out on stage, and his ongoing love affair with the city of Brum.
You’ve starred in La Cage aux Folles since early January, John. How’s it been going, and what has the audience reaction been like?
It’s been going fantastically. Even though it’s never toured before, we’ve had the most amazing response to the show, and it just feels so wonderful.
How would you summarise the story of the show?
La Cage is all about hard-won freedoms in the face of conservatism.
With the current rise of right-wing conservatism and extremism in both Europe and the United States, do you think the story of La Cage is particularly relevant right now? There’s quite a strong comparison to be made between Anne’s father in the show - a right-wing politician - and Donald Trump.
Yes, it’s definitely very topical. The story of La Cage is just as relevant now as when it was first performed on Broadway in the 1980s, if not more so. We haven't had one show where there hasn't been a standing ovation, and that’s because they’re applauding the message and the essence of the show. That’s why it’s just so heartwarming for us.
What would you say the true message of the show is?
That you can be whoever you want to be, no matter what race, religion or sexuality you are. We all have to learn to accept, celebrate, acknowledge and respect each other’s differences. We need to realise that we’re all individuals living together, so we have to get along.
Why should people, especially LGBTs, come and see the show?
Everyone should come and see it because it will remind them what life is about. Life is a beautiful thing, and we can all be different within it. You are who you are, so be proud of that.
What’s it like singing the iconic song, I Am What I Am?
For an actor like me, getting to stand up on stage and share that moment with the audience is completely life-affirming, and the response I’ve had has been absolutely wonderful.
There must be quite a lot of preparation involved for your role as a drag queen. What’s it like playing Albin/Zaza?
It’s exhausting, for want of a better word! I have to get to the theatre a good two hours before the show starts, to start putting on my makeup. After a song called A Little More Mascara, I transform from a man into a woman, which is all done by illusion because I already have all of the makeup on from the start. I just unveil myself more and more as the show goes on. I have to shave everywhere because, as a lady, you can’t have any of the unwanted hair that seems to be all over my body. This is a real female illusion, so I have three pairs of tights, spanks, padding and gaffer tape for tucking. In the first half alone, I have 14 costume changes, some of which are only 90 seconds long. The costumes are completely out of this world - it’s such an opulent and fabulous show.
Have you always been a fan of La Cage?
I first saw it in 1987 at the London Palladium, when I was 14. It became the soundtrack to my youth. I never thought in a million years that I’d be able to be a part of this wonderful show. It’s an honour to sing these songs and bring this show to life. When we take the production to Wimbledon, 10 of the original cast members are coming to watch us, which is just wonderful. It feels like a real La Cage aux Folles family, and it’s great to be a part of that.
You did a lot of musical theatre before you starred as Christian in EastEnders. Does it feel good to really be getting back into it?
Yes, it’s all about progression for me. It’s about learning and continuing to grow and develop as an actor, whether that be on television, in musical theatre, performing in a one-man band, singing in concerts or through any other medium within the arts. Right now I’m learning a lot about being a lady! That’s not something I ever thought I’d say.
Do you have a preference when it comes to performing on television or in the theatre?
They’re very different. With theatre you get an instant reaction from an audience, so you know straight away whether or not they’re enjoying it. There’s nothing better than holding an audience in the palm of your hand and being able to hear a pin drop followed by an applause. It’s an instant buzz. Television is different because you’re not necessarily sure how it’s going to be received. Sometimes you have to wait as long as eight months before you even see it. But I like and respect both platforms and mediums.
Musical theatre must get pretty exhausting - you’re doing up to eight shows a week for months on end. How do you make each show as exciting as the first?
You have to be disciplined. It’s very tiring to give your all that many times a week, but your training and professionalism guide you through. I trained at the Royal Ballet School from the age of nine to 16, and that training really helps. You also have to work a little bit harder for some audiences because they vary from city to city. You have to adjust your performance to fit different venues and cultures.
You’ve performed in Birmingham a number of times, in Cats, Miss Saigon and panto. What’s the Birmingham audience like?
It’s always great - warm and very much ‘up for it’. I absolutely can’t wait to get Zaza into the Hippodrome and have some fun with the Brummie crowd because I know they’ll be really receptive to it.
You were also in Birmingham over Christmas, performing in Chicago. How do the roles differ?
They’re very different shows, but in some ways they aren't that dissimilar. Billy Flynn and Zaza are both showmen - or rather one’s a showman, the other a showgirl. Billy is quite the consummate showman, so I’m sure if anyone could give Zaza a run for her money it would be him. In fact, I think they're a match made in heaven. Zaza Flynn... Who knows?
Are you looking forward to coming back to Birmingham with La Cage in May?
Yes, I love being in the city. I’m from the North West, so it’s close enough to my home that I get to see my family and my mum, who’s suffering with dementia. I have lots of friends in and around Birmingham now too, so it’s great that I can catch up with them - although with eight shows a week, I barely get any time off. I love starring in the Hippodrome because it’s a great venue to play. It's a beautiful theatre, so I'm really looking forward to getting back and performing there again.
Interview by Lauren Cox
La Cage aux Folles shows at Birmingham Hippodrome from Tuesday 16 to Saturday 20 May.
Tickets and info: birminghamhippodrome.com
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