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“I Am What I Am” …Behind the Make-Up

“I Am What I Am” …Behind the Make-Up

Above: John Partridge in make-up for Albin/Zaza. Photo: Courtesy of TargetLive

In March we were indeed fortunate to sit down with ex-EastEnders star and musical theatre king, John Partridge, as the first-ever UK tour of La Cage aux Folles swept through the leafy corner of south west London via New Wimbledon Theatre.

If ever actor and role were in perfect harmony then this is it! In a show-stealing performance as Albin (and alter-ego, Zaza), Partridge undeniably owns the entire La Cage stage as well as making the show’s big number I Am What I Am his own.

Beneath all the satin, sequins and feathers, Paul Johnson found the performer in a philosophical and reflective mood…

You’re just over two months into the first ever UK tour of La Cage Aux Folles – is it living up to expectations?
“I would say, ‘Yes!’ but you would probably have to ask the audience, ha, ha! I can say that with every single performance we’ve had a standing ovation. Now I’ve been doing this for a very long time – over thirty years – and that is quite rare. I think having the opportunity to tour a show like La Cage aux Folles at this time during the current political climate with the rise of Trump and possibly Marie Le Pen in France there seems to be, as far as the LGBT community goes, a kind of squashing, condensing and compressing of our rights and our freedoms. After all, La Cage is a musical that deals with a hard-won freedom in the face of conservatism, therefore, to be able to tour the show at this time of our political history is incredibly important.

“It feels, for somebody like me, who is openly gay and has lived life like that really without any conscience for the last thirty years, to sing I Am What I Am and share that moment with the audience, is very empowering for somebody like me – and also quite life-affirming. But to come back to my original point, I think the fact that we have this standing ovation every night – and it is every night without question no matter where we’ve been in the country, from Edinburgh to Wimbledon – shows that people stand up for the heart of the show and for the essence of what the show means. We are all different. We must celebrate our differences. Acknowledge our differences. But ultimately, it’s about what we can do together, achieve together, if we allow each other to be the person they want to be.”

It must be so satisfying to connect with, and get that affirmation from, the audience?
“Yes, but we have to remember that this show is not just for an LGBT community. A song like I Am What I Am is universal; it is not reserved. We cannot as a community claim that for ourselves. There are women’s marches around the globe where, at the majority, I Am What I Am is played, so a song like that has a huge resonance with a lot of people – from political events for equality and diversity, or sporting events. It means so many things for so many people. I wonder, when Jerry Herman wrote that iconic song, if he realised what a life that would go on to have outside of this. Also, the essence of the show really is: what does it mean to be a normal family? What does it mean to be a mother? So I also think that I Am What I Am resonates as much with the female population as it does with the LGBT community. It contains a huge message for a wide range of issues, and I think that’s what the show deals with. It’s not just about a gay couple, it’s about any family, any individual, any person who feels that for some reason he or she is persecuted for being the person they wish to be. That reaches out and touches so many people in so many different ways. That’s why it’s exciting to take this show out on the road, right now, at this time.”

Have you seen hundreds of productions of La cage over the years?
“I saw the show originally in 1987 at the London Palladium, then the Jerry Mitchell production in 2005 in the States, here in 2010, and I’ve also seen it in Australia. So I’ve seen many productions of La Cage aux Folles, with many different actors and many different directors, and I had quite a large knowledge of the show going into it. That’s obviously all been very helpful for me in a way – and not in other ways. As with any iconic role, any role that has been played by legends, before you, when you take on a role you have to leave all that aside in some way in order to find your own part. As much as I have appreciated all of those performances, I’m afraid you have to discard a lot of that to be able to walk on the stage yourself and bring your own truth, your own essence to a role like this.

“That’s what I’ve tried to do. I think my Albin, my Zaza, are probably different from anybody else in that way, but also I am quite different to others who have played this role. You have to approach it with fresh eyes in a way, and that’s what I’ve tried to do.”

You really get to work the full triple threat (acting, singing and dancing) in the show, with a lot more acting than in many musicals – so is This your dream role?
“The book for this piece is exceptional and probably quite unique; there isn’t a word out of place. The score is also a gift of a role. I don’t want to say ‘no acting required’ – or I’ll probably be putting myself down in some way – but the text, the lyrics and the melody are absolutely world class, which is why this is a multi-award-winning show. With that, though, comes a great responsibility and it is a great honour to go on the stage and deliver those songs and really become part of the La Cage family. We’ve had a lot of the original cast members coming to see the show and have had a lot of love and support from them. In some ways we’re just caretakers.

“When we decided to take this show on the road we made the conscious decision to make it ‘our’ particular take on it so we, as a company, have gelled very well. We’re still trying to be as respectful as we can to both the text and the score.”

‘No acting required’, is a disservice indeed, especially when this show requires mastering MANY comedic elements and then balancing them with the more touching and dramatic scenes?
“I think sometimes you need to remember that it’s all there on the page and the choices that I make are not difficult due to the fact that it’s so beautifully crafted, even if I do bounce from one to the other. I’m not having to make some huge emotional u-turn because it is like a perfect melody. It rises and falls in exactly the places it needs to. I don’t need to make those decisions, I don’t have to decide when to put my foot on the pedal and go, or pull it back, because it’s all written down for me. That’s what I mean by ‘no acting required.’ All I have to do is fully step into the character and be genuine as soon as I walk out on to that stage; the journey is there before me, it’s like cruising down the river – the sun comes out, you’re going to hit those rapids, and all you’ve got to do is ride it. That’s how I feel; I just have to ride the show. As long as I can navigate through that and don’t veer off course I’ll be fine. It really is the Hamlet of musical theatre, for a man.

“It’s exciting one minute to be able to experience your soul being ripped out and, in the next, flip that and feel so uplifted. But really that’s a sort of metaphor for our own lives isn’t it; that’s what you have to do in your own life. In the most devastating situations, you sometimes have to find the beauty in everything, even when it is so incredibly painful. That’s a lesson for us all and, as I get older, life tends to throw more of these curved balls the longer we live.

“These things happen to us eventually anyway. It’s a wonderful experience really, having a show at this point in my life. Normally your professional life might be great only for your personal life not to be so good, or the other way around. But I seem to be in a place right now where we all seem to be swimming in the same direction. That’s not to say that everything is rosy in the garden and I don’t have some difficulties but, right now, my professional life, my political life and my personal life are all heading in the same direction. It feels like all these elements have really led me to this moment; it’s a very rare time for me and one that I’m extremely grateful for, and humbled by all at the same time.”

You’re obviously passionate in everything you’re involved in. Is it possible to compare theatre with shows like EastEnders?
“It’s all about growth. I am not an artistic snob, and I’m very easily pleased. I think you can learn as much from a reality television show as you can from a season at the National. It’s about your own personal growth, your own personal development, and like I say, sometimes that comes from your life, sometimes from your art, sometimes from making wrong decisions and choices – it’s about how you apply those. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve made some astoundingly terrible decisions, both professionally and personally, but I am forty-six right now and when I went into Cats I was only sixteen. And I’m still here, still working, still lucky enough to do a bit of television, a bit of reality, and of course theatre. I’m a jobbing actor and I try to learn from all of it.

“This is an amazing experience I’m having right now in this show, and all I can say is that I’m ready for where I am right now. A lot of the time we’re not. I’ve had jobs before when I didn’t have a clue at what I was doing and had to learn really rapidly on the gig. Sometimes that’s been good, and at others, not so good. But theatre is about objection isn’t it; what is going to please you is not going to please other people. But you can’t live your life by other people’s opinions; you have to do what feels right to you, and this is what I try to do. I make choices about my career, my life and about what I need, what my family may need at that time. Sometimes they’re great choices for me and sometimes they’re not. But the point is I’m able to make them. And I’m very proud of the fact that I came into this business at sixteen, and right now I’m sat on the front waiting to go out and do my sound check, talking to you about being in this incredible show thirty-one years later. That’s what it’s all about, growth, development and learning.

“It’s so easy to be inspired by other things – a piece of music, a show, a drama on television or a book. To self-inspire is so difficult. In this business, in the industry, when you’ve been to endless auditions and been told ‘no’, or you get horrendous reviews when people don’t like what you’re doing, that’s when you really have to self-inspire. The only way you can do that is by learning and continuing to develop your craft, your art, whatever it may be, from wherever you can. It’s moving and growing and dealing with the situation that you’re in. That’s the hard bit, and the bit that gets even more difficult the longer you stay – or try to stay – in this business. You’ve just got to find that self-belief somewhere. Luckily for me right now, I’m in a job where it’s made it all a little bit easier. That for me is what it’s all about and it’s why I’m most grateful right now.

“To deliver these amazing songs and beautiful lyrics is lucky for me if it touches you but it really does touch me, and that’s what’s so exciting for me. I do have to take things very carefully with this show, especially when there are two performances a day – so I’m living like a nun, which isn’t very Zaza is it, ha ha! – but I’m certainly appreciating every moment.”

La Cage aux Folles is currently touring the UK until Aug. For more information and tickets visit: