Getting into character (and dresses)

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Wednesday July 5, 2017
Share this Post:

There's the challenge of a role, and then there's the challenge of where that role will be performed. "I have performed in dresses and makeup and heels before, but this is the first time I've played a fully formed character who transforms nightly into a drag performer," John Treacy Egan said. "Let's face it, I'm in San Francisco. I feel the pressure of actually being pretty good at it."

The Broadway veteran was two weeks into rehearsals as he talked about his first encounter with the fabulous Zaza, the star at the Saint-Tropez nightclub that gives the musical its name. "La Cage aux Folles" is San Francisco Playhouse's big summer attraction, with previews beginning next week before a July 19 opening. Although it meant uprooting himself from his home in New York with his new husband (but partner of 13 years), Egan didn't hesitate when director Bill English offered him the role after a casting session in New York. "This is a real treat for me," Egan said, "to be able to spend the summer in San Francisco and play this fantastic part. I can't imagine ever saying no to this. I even got to ride in the Pride parade as part of the San Francisco Playhouse's contingent. Amazing."

John Treacy Egan created the role of Chef Louis in Disney's Broadway adaptation of "The Little Mermaid." Photo: Joan Marcus

Egan's Broadway credits include "Jekyll & Hyde," "Sister Act," "The Little Mermaid," and more than a year as Nathan Lane's final replacement in "The Producers." But his dresses-makeup-heels experiences are part of his early off-Broadway days, most notably as part of the original cast of "Howard Crabtree's When Pigs Fly," in which one scene had him playing a plus-size showgirl who belts out "Bigger Is Better." When he asked his mother what she thought of her first encounter with him in a cross-dressing role, she said, "You looked beautiful. You looked just like me."

Ex-Nazi and Broadway wannabe Franz Liebkind is one of three major roles John Treacy Egan played during the Broadway run of "The Producers." Photo: Billy Bustamente

For "La Cage aux Folles," Egan again looked to his mother on which to model Albin, Zaza's offstage persona who shares his life with the more traditionally masculine Georges in an apartment above their nightclub, where they raised Georges' now-grown son conceived from a brief heterosexual lapse. "My mother had a lot of poise and grace, and I model Albin after her a little bit. He's also a little bit spoiled. He has a wonderful man in his life who treats him a little bit like a princess. And in my own life with my husband, I'm always referring to myself as the princess, as in, 'The princess would do this,' or, 'The princess would do that.' So my Albin will be a little bit of a princess."

The comic complications that ensue in Harvey Fierstein's libretto, itself based on the 1978 French movie, come when Jean-Michel, the boy that Albin and Georges raised together, has become engaged, and his future father-in-law is insisting on meeting the groom's family. He's a high-profile conservative politician, and Albin is asked to play straight during the family dinner, which he does badly until he decides to emerge in drag as Jean-Michel's absent mother for further comic complications.

"I don't want it to ever look like I'm making fun of someone," Egan said. "I'm paying a lot of attention to that because I want it to come from a real place. I'm not doing it for you to laugh at me. I'm doing it so you see how hard it is when you're asked not to be yourself."

Which, of course, is how "I Am What I Am," the showstopper in Jerry Herman's score for the 1983 musical, gets its context as Albin, in his Zaza guise, belts out a defiant anthem to being true to yourself. "I've never sung that piece before, and never even thought about singing it, but I'm really enjoying it," Egan said. "I think in this day and age it takes on a little bit of new meaning, when people almost have to hide who they are."

Two weeks into the rehearsal process, Egan was finding it more challenging getting a handle on Zaza than Albin. "Not having worn any of the costumes yet, I don't know what I'm going to look like," he said. "Drag queens can be demure and they can be brassy, and I'm not sure what kind of drag queen Zaza is yet. But I'm certainly a performer. I know how to stand on a stage and belt out a tune."

However his character turns out, it will be a plus-size interpretation. "It's something I've struggled with my whole life," Egan said of his girth. "I've accepted it to a degree, and I work on it off and on. Right now, I'm trying to go to the gym, trying to lose a little bit of weight, and work on core strength, because I'll be walking on high heels and going up and down stairs."

His size has been both a help and hindrance in getting roles, but it was youthful energy that actually was the hurdle in landing his biggest role yet in "The Producers." Rather than waiting for his agent to line up an audition for the hit show, Egan just signed himself up for open-call chorus auditions for its touring company. But rather than putting him on the road, creator Mel Brooks and director Susan Stroman kept him in New York to stand by for, and eventually take over, the roles of "Springtime for Hitler" playwright Franz Liebkind, "Keep It Gay" director Roger De Bris, and Nathan Lane's role as shady Broadway producer Max Bialystock.

"Susan Stroman told me that I had the energy of a 15-year-old boy, and she said, 'You have to keep your feet on the ground and don't leap around.' And she said, 'We have to do something about your hair,' because I have red hair, so they would paint my hair each night with temporary tattoo ink. I would walk out the stage door and people would go, oh, you're so young without that fat suit and makeup. And I would go, yeah, but no suit and no makeup. Just a bad hair day."


"La Cage aux Folles" will run through Sept. 16 at San Francisco Playhouse. Tickets are available at (415) 677-9596 or go to