Robin De Jesus: La Cage Interview

By Jeff Walsh

When we last caught up with Robin De Jesus, he was nominated for a Tony for the role of Sonny in In The Heights. He didn't win, but the show did win Best New Musical. De Jesus ended up performing that role on Broadway for two full years. Then, with just a two week break, he went to the new revival of the La Cage Aux Folles musical.

(If you want to read our earlier interviews first, we first chatted with him the day In The Heights was first opening Off-Broadway, and then nearly a year and a half later, when the show was on Broadway, and De Jesus was nominated for a Tony Award)

You may know La Cage Aux Folles better as The Birdcage, the movie with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane as a long-time gay couple who run a nightclub with a nightly drag show. There's a lot of twists and turns in the plot that I won't go into (but, if you're so inclined, they're detailed on Wikipedia). The main differences are that this is the musical version with a book by one of my heroes, Harvey Fierstein, and music by Jerry Herman. And, in this revival, the Robin Williams role is played by Kelsey Grammer, aka Frasier.

De Jesus plays Jacob, the supposed maid to the couple who desperately wants to prove to Zaza (the Nathan Lane role), that he's ready to be in the drag show. As you can see from the photo, De Jesus does a good amount of drag in the show. Not that he's a stranger to drag, as he performed as Angel in Rent on Broadway before.

And, to stick with tradition, De Jesus is once again Tony-nominated for his role in La Cage, and I'll certainly be rooting for him on June 13. He is always such a generous, positive spirit, it's always great to catch up with him.

Here's what we said:

So, it seems like our pattern is we're going to talk every two years when you're up for a Tony, if that works for you...

(laughs) Uhh... I'm not mad if that happens.

And every time I interview you, I'll have yet to see the show that you're in. That will be our other pattern.

(laughs) It's all good.

Maybe this is just how it seemed to me, but did you only have two weeks off between leaving In The Heights and starting in La Cage?

That was exactly what happened. Two weeks off. That was exactly what happened. I remember I was going to actually try to get out of my contract early, but I had a bunch of friends who were coming in to my last show, and people were flying in, and I knew that if I changed my last day that it would suck for everyone else, so it was just 'Two weeks is going to have to do...' And it did. It was good. I went to Mexico, came back in the middle of a snowstorm... it was horrible getting back here, but it all worked out.

That just seems to be such a short period of time to go from one major role in a Broadway show to another.

I think most actors would hope that it would happen this way. But when you're living a life where the extraordinary already is the ordinary, I was just like 'Really?! C'mon now, people, c'mon... I just want a bit more of a break.' If I had had a month, it would have been perfect, but that's not what happened. So, it's all good, and there's a reason and purpose behind that, I'm sure.

So, you're back in a dress on Broadway...

(laughs) Yes. Back in several dresses, and several wigs.

Like a lot of people, my perception of La Cage is The Birdcage, since I've yet to see La Cage proper onstage. So, is it pretty much the same thing, aside from it being a musical?

Well, there's the original French play La Cage Aux Folles, and there's the movie La Cage Aux Folles based off the play, and Birdcage is based off of the French movie, anyway... the main difference, I would say, is that The Birdcage is set in Miami, where La Cage Aux Folles is in Saint- Tropez in the French Riviera.

So, geographically it's very different, which changes the essence. It has a bit of a European feel to it. The story's pretty much the same, except at the end of The Birdcage the mother is a character, but there's no mother in the musical. But we have an added character, Jacqueline, and she owns a local restaurant. So, she kind of takes the place of the mother in the show.

There are other differences. Jacob traditionally, the role that I play, is played by a black male, and Hank Azaria played him in the movie. In this version, they made him Hispanic clearly because they cast me, but he's not from Miami. I sort of made him a Bronx Puerto Rican, so it's different in that way, too.

And this production is also very different from other La Cage Aux Folles in that, usually, it's a very extravagant nightclub where the show takes place, and there's all these amazing, beautiful drag queens with these elegant, expensive costumes, and Zaza is this big, elegant star, whereas in our production, it's very stripped down. Our director said he went to a lot of the drag clubs and they were these tiny bars, these hole-in-the-walls, and they were really small, and he was interested in having the show feel like that, just have it be a little dump. So, it's a little tattered and everyone thinks they're living these grandiose drag queen lives, but it's kind of tragic because they really aren't, and they're not the most talented performers. So, that's a huge difference, too.

How does this compare to In The Heights for you? Is this more of a workout?

Hmm... well, I will say I've been getting in more shape doing this show. I have a lot of quick changes in the first act, so from the opening to the fourth or fifth scene, I'm running around like crazy with quick changes and whatever. But once that's done, I can kind of coast a little, and then the second act gets a little crazy again. With Heights, it wasn't necessarily crazy, but I was almost always onstage, whereas with La Cage I'm in and out.

But, physically, because I have a dance number in this piece, and I'm not typically a dancer, I'm always trying to protect myself, so I'm always strengthening and stretching my legs, just to make sure, probably out of neuroses. But I've actually gotten in shape because of that, to protect myself. So, it's a bit of a workout in that sense, too.