At a press conference today Norton was unveiled in the full drag he will wear as Zaza, the alter ego of Albin and the star attraction at the St Tropez drag club he runs with partner Georges, La Cage Aux Folles.
The Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein comedy musical centres on the couple and their relationship with Georges’s 24-year-old son Jean-Michel, whom they have brought up together. When Jean-Michel brings his ultra conservative future in-laws to meet his unconventional parents, all manner of farcical goings-on ensue.
Trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama, Norton began his career as an actor before moving into stand-up comedy. He found fame as a BAFTA-winning chatshow host, with late-night offerings So Graham Norton and V Graham Norton, in which he indulged his own brand of innuendo-based humour. In the last few years he has moved into reality television, presenting the BBC’s theatrical talent shows How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?, Any Dream Will Do and this year’s search for a star to play Nancy in the forthcoming production of Oliver!, I’d Do Anything. He recently returned to chatshow duties with BBC Two’s The Graham Norton Show.
Speaking today, Norton said he had wanted to appear in La Cage Aux Folles since seeing the musical when he was living in San Francisco in 1984. “I remember then thinking when I am old enough to play that I would love to do it”.
Norton said his main concern in joining this production at the Playhouse was not to wreck it. “If I don’t destroy it… I’ll be really pleased,” he joked.
The star, who claimed in his autobiography that he couldn’t sing, has been taking singing lessons to prepare for the role, which involves a rendition of the famous gay anthem I Am What I Am. “That song, when you are 20 or 21, speaks to you so much. I think it’s very hard to do.” Vocal coach Zoe Tyler, who worked with Norton on How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? has offered him some advice on how to reach the top notes: “She told me to clench my buttocks”.
This stage outing is unlikely to mark a permanent change in career direction for Norton: “I have no ambitions in musical theatre, apart from this. I wanted to do this,” he said.
Also joining the cast on 19 January is Steven Pacey, who replaces current Georges, Denis Lawson. Pacey’s many London stage credits include Moonlight And Magnolias, The Old Masters, The Constant Wife, The Birthday Party and the musical By Jeeves.
Also in the cast are Stuart Neal as Jean-Michel, Tracie Bennett, Alicia Davies, Jason Pennycooke, Iain Mitchell and Paula Wilcox.
The Terry Johnson-directed production began life at the Menier Chocolate Factory last Christmas, before transferring to the Playhouse on 30 October. It had been booking to 10 January but now extends its run to 25 April.