Interview: Alex Michaels Talks La Cage, Drag Race, and Sondheim’s Witch

Michaels takes on the role of Albin/Zaza this month in the Berkshires.

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Alex Michaels stars as Albin in the Barrington Stage Company production of La Cage Aux Folles.
(© Jeremy Daniels)

A graduate of one the country’s most prestigious musical-theater programs (at the University of Michigan), Alexander Michaels has fulfilled his performing dreams in both traditional and nontraditional ways. Indeed, he is best known as celebrated drag performer Alexis Michelle, who first came to prominence on RuPaul’s Drag Race and is now a star of TLC’s transformational makeover television series Dragnificent!

This summer, though, Michaels is fulfilling his greatest dream of all: taking on the dual roles of domestic partner Albin, and his alter ego, Zaza, a celebrated drag performer, in the Barrington Stage Company production of the beloved musical La Cage aux Folles.

TheaterMania recently spoke to Michaels about becoming Alexis Michelle, the authenticity he brings to these legendary roles in La Cage, how Drag Race made him a better stage performer, and his next big dream role.

Alex Michaels stars in the Barrington Stage Company production of La Cage Aux Folles.
(© Jeremy Daniels)

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You were trained in traditional musical theater. When did you decide to focus on your drag persona?

The angle of drag has always been part of my self-expression, even when I was a child, but it was originally strictly performative. But I came to a point in the road sometime after college where I realized that drag could be used to create actual performance, and that for me, it went beyond playing dress-up. It was something on the sidelines that had been waiting in the wings for me to show the world. So eventually, even though I didn’t know if it was a good idea, I came out of the closet again. Now, I’ve been doing drag full time for about 15 years. By the time I got on RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2017, Alexis was the much more forward-facing part of me. But both parts of my personality have always been walking side by side, and I was hoping they would intersect at some point.

Does that mean Albin/Zaza has always been the bucket list role?

I’ve been waiting to do this part for 20 years. I learned “I Am What I Am” from Gloria Gaynor’s disco version and it was my first big lip-sync. Within the following two years, I saw the Broadway revival of “La Cage” at the Marquis with the late great Gary Beach as Albin/Zaza and I just knew someday I had to play this role.

So many great performers have played Albin/Zaza. Are you intimidated by any of them?

No. The only two I saw live were Gary and Douglas Hodge, and I found them both to be inspirational. I am so sad I did not see Harvey Fierstein onstage, but I have seen snippets of Harvey online just to see the master do this role. I know Harvey has casting approval on any Zaza and he is aware of this production. I feel like I have been invited to join the sisterhood.

Alex Michaels plays Albin, and Tom Story plays Georges in the Barrington Stage Company production of La Cage Aux Folles.
(© Jeremy Daniels)

What do you think you can bring to the part others can’t?

You always look for the role that best fits your voice and your soul, and this one does. And we talk so much about authenticity in casting these days. I have spent my education and life doing musical theater and doing drag. I have literally walked the walk, and it’s rare to see a major production of this show where the main performer has done both things. Most importantly, La Cage feels like a story that could be mine. Relationships — both romantic and maternal — are something that I feel organically. I may not have a son or stepson, but I feel parental to my dog, my friends, my niece and nephew. I’ve never gotten to play something this honest. I dream of telling more stories that feel this authentic.

There’s another level of authenticity going on with this production, isn’t there?

Yes. I wear a lot of my own costumes, many of which I made with my own hands. I don’t think anyone else who has played these parts has been able to say that.

How do you think your time on Drag Race made you a better stage performer?

I don’t know if it did that. Actually, being an experienced stage performer made me better at Drag Race. You have to be ready and on time on that show, and theater taught me how to be on time. People are always impressed I’m ready to go on stage when I am supposed to, since drag performers can be punctually challenged. But I take pride in always being ready, rehearsed, and professional.

Do you have a goal or game plan for your next stage role?

I saw the original Into the Woods when I was kid, and that’s when I fell in love with music and magic and Sondheim. And now, from a queer perspective, I am always attracted to complicated characters with some darkness, like the Witch, because I see them as misrepresented and misunderstood. Like many queer people, she suffered abuse, hurt, and hardened into who she is. But the genius of Sondheim is then you see her humanity. But I would do any part in any production of that show. l would even be the ghost light or the broomstick.

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La Cage aux Folles

Closed: July 6, 2024