Christopher Sieber on the secret to theatrical comedy, Miss Trunchbull’s villainy, and new Broadway-bound musical The Prom

Christopher Sieber will soon don Miss Agatha Trunchbull’s warts, unibrow, and yellowed teeth for the last time after two years with the role. It was recently announced that Sieber will be joining the cast of the new Broadway-bound musical The Prom where, unlike his character in Matilda, he will be portraying an aspiring do-gooder. The musical comedy, which will also star Brooks Ashmanskas and Beth Leavel, is sure to showcase Sieber’s natural aptitude for theatrical humor.

Sieber took the time to talk to Stage Door Dish about portraying the bad guy, why he would never play Shrek‘s Lord Farquaad again, and a few of his own onstage mishaps.

You’ve been in Matilda for almost two years now. What’s it like to play such a physically demanding role for that amount of time?

It does take its toll, I will say that. It’s one of those roles where you really have to pay attention to what you’re eating and what you’re drinking and how tired you are because it is athletic. But like any Broadway show, the more you do it, the more it gets in your body. I can’t say it becomes easier, but if I take a vacation and come back a week later, I’m exhausted doing the part. You go back into doing the show and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, I do this eight times a week? Oh my God!’ I’m kind of known for doing physically demanding parts and this is just one of those parts that I do. Especially after two years, you kind of break down each scene. You say, ‘Okay, just have to get through this one, just have to get through this.’ You don’t think about the big picture, otherwise you get overwhelmed and start freaking yourself out. It’s like anything; you just get up there and do it.

Having been in the show for a couple years, you’ve had a few different sets of Matildas. What’s it like to get used to performing opposite four different Matildas and then having them rotate out every few months?

When I first got into the show it was just a little strange but now it’s so normal to me. The good thing about having someone new every single performance is that it keeps you on your toes. They all have their different personalities and different ways of doing the part, so you can adjust yourself. It actually keeps you and the other actors fresh because they have to adjust to them as well. That’s one of the successes of the show. It’s a good thing to have four Matildas for an eight-show week because it’s never the same show. It keeps the energy alive because you can never ever just go on autopilot with this show. Ever. Not that I ever go on autopilot, but there are times when it’s just so ‘the same’ all the time that it sometimes becomes kind of routine and this way it’s never routine. It is always fresh every single night.

What would you say is the difference between the kind of comedy in a show like Matilda and the kind of comedy in a show like Spamalot?

They’re similar in a way. Eric Idle, who wrote Spamalot, explained it to everybody this way: Monty Python comedy is very hard to do. People don’t really realize how hard it is because you can’t try to be funny. You either are or you aren’t. If you try being funny with the material, you’re going to fail miserably. The best thing you can do is just say it and really mean it. It’s interesting because, as Eric explained it, you’re a very serious person doing very silly things. You just have to believe that what you’re saying is right and correct even though it’s absurd. That’s the comedy of Monty Python.

With Matilda, Roald Dahl wrote a very, very good story. The comedy that comes from Agatha Trunchbull is a departure for me because she’s not a funny character. If you just read the script, you wouldn’t laugh. The only reason I know she’s funny is because she’s so mean and so horrible that it’s funny. Her reactions to the slightest little thing make her blow up and it’s like, ‘What is wrong with you, lady?’ That’s where the comedy comes from. It’s not playing it for laughs at all. I do not play this part for laughs. I play it very real and very like, ‘I’m going to kill somebody.’ That’s why it works and people sit back and go, ‘What is wrong with this woman? She’s crazy!’ And that’s why it’s funny. To Agatha, absolutely everything is a competition. Her competitiveness to be the best and make sure everybody knows it is what’s funny. She’s not even aware of it.

You played a couple other comedic villains prior to this: Lord Farquaad in Shrek and Gaston in Beauty and the Beast. Could you explain the dynamic of playing someone who’s supposed to be evil but at the same time is making the audience laugh?

It depends on the part. As I said with Agatha Trunchbull, she’s not funny. It’s her behavior that’s funny. With Farquaad in Shrek, I made the decision, because I was the guy who helped create it with David Lindsay-Abaire and Jeanine Tesori, that I was going to make sure that Farquaad completely knew he was an evil jerk. He loved being evil; he really thought that was the best thing in the world, being as mean and unfair as he could possibly be. He really got off on it and he was completely aware that he was being an absolute dick.

There’s a moment in Shrek where he just destroys the most perfect, beautiful moment between Shrek and Fiona. It’s right after Shrek sings her this beautiful, heartfelt ballad and he says to Fiona, ‘I want to share my life with you.’ Before the audience can even applaud, I made the choice to scream, ‘BOOOOO!’ and just basically take a dump on his beautiful moment. Farquaad loves that.

Gaston was just too stupid to know any better. As far as comedy, I think that’s where Gaston gets his, being the evil person. The only thing he’s aware of is how he looks and what people think of him, but he’s not really the brightest bulb in the box by any means. Gaston was actually kind of easy to play. It was physical beyond belief, you’re jumping and running and screaming – kind of like what I’m doing now. I was a lot younger then.

Speaking of Shrek, you must have so many stories from that experience. Are there any particularly hilarious or unforgettable memories that you have from your time in that show?

I mean we worked so hard on that show. When we were out of town in Seattle, DreamWorks really worked us hard because it was their first show on Broadway. They really wanted the show to be great. So when we were out in Seattle we didn’t have that much time off. We went overtime a lot. We would wake up in the morning and see the sun and that was the last time we ever saw it till the next morning. It was like 10 a.m., which doesn’t seem much for a normal human being. But it is when you’re in theatre and you’re working till 11:30 at night, then turning around and coming right back at 10 or 11 in the morning without any sleep, and you’ve been working so hard.

But a funny thing that happened was one of my puppet legs, in what we called ‘the rig’, the thing I kneeled in to make Farquaad short, completely fell off right before the big number ‘What’s Up, Duloc?’ There was no way I could do the number because it wouldn’t make any sense. My leg would not be there. So I had to stop the show. I yelled at the stage manager when I was up in the set piece, ‘Stop the show, I broke my leg!’ Everybody on stage freaked out. They stopped the show and brought me down with this elevator I was in. I walked out with my broken puppet leg, but they thought I had broken my actual leg. The crew and everybody was freaking out, they were close to calling 911, and I said, ‘Guys, it’s my puppet leg! C’mon, knock it off.’ But we had another rig and we fixed it up, and about ten minutes later I was back in and the show resumed. The fun part about doing Farquaad was trying to make Sutton Foster and Brian d’Arcy James laugh. There were some times when it was really good to get them.

You have such excellent comedic timing and skill. Could you talk a little bit about your approach to humor onstage?

You always hear people tell you that comedy is hard, and comedy is hard. But you don’t know what’s hard about it until you do it in front of an audience. If you’re doing comedy and they’re not laughing, then you’re doing it wrong. The rules are if they can’t hear you and they don’t understand what you’re saying, they’re not going to laugh. So if you’re trying to tell a joke, make sure you tell it so they can understand it. Comedy is all truth. It always comes from truth, so if you’re telling the truth in a very funny way, that’s comedy.

But if they can’t understand what you’re saying – if you’re saying it too fast, if you’re not stressing a certain word or a certain vowel or consonant, if you’re just not making sense – people aren’t going to understand what the heck you’re saying. When I’m working on a script, I’m always looking at what’s going to make people laugh. But taking your time is the biggest thing. Take your time, set it up, and make sure people hear it. I learned a lot about that in Spamalot. That was a good teaching show. If they don’t understand what you’re saying, you’re not going to get the laugh. But also if you try too hard, if you’re like, ‘Look at me, look at me! I’m funny,’ people aren’t going to buy that. That’s why I said the truth matters. But if you play it real, they will laugh, especially if you’re saying something silly.

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Christopher Sieber as Agatha Trunchbull in Matilda

What’s the funniest or most embarrassing thing that’s happened in your time as the Trunchbull?

Since I’ve come here, nothing really terrible has happened to me. There’s really been only one incident during the patter song in ‘The Smell of Rebellion’ where it’s really fast. There’s only been one time where I completely lost my way and didn’t even know what I was saying. I started yelling, ‘Discipline! Discipline! Discipline! Discipline!’ over and over. The last line is kids yelling, ‘Discipline!’ so it kind of made sense. But the kids are doing all these backflips and running all over the place and it became a little stupid.

In a long-running show when something like that goes on, you hear the show in the background but you don’t really pay attention to it, until something is just slightly different. That’s when everybody came into the wings and said, ‘He’s lost it!’ But this is such a tightly written show that you really have to pay attention. That’s what I was saying about all the Matildas; it keeps it fresh. You never really get in a rut with the show. It’s always new. There’s always a challenge. But you’re always there and you’re always present. That was one of those weird times where I think it was just a long week because we have holiday schedules that tend to be eternal. So I think that’s what happened.

Would you ever agree to do another role as physically taxing as Lord Farquaad or Miss Trunchbull?

Farquaad, no. Never again. That was my monster; I created my own monster because I said yes to it and I also helped with the idea of doing it on my knees. To this day I still get emails from people who are doing it regionally and they say, ‘How did you do this?’ And I say, ‘Okay, here’s the deal,’ and I walk them through it and I talk to them about it, ask them what they’re doing, and tell them to make sure they stretch and work on their core. Yeah, that was a nightmare. It took me about a year and a half to recover fully from that. The Trunchbull isn’t terrible at all. It’s just the fat suit and the wig, and it’s really not that bad. It’s just really physical. You have days where you just don’t want to do it. But you said yes, so you have to do it. Ultimately, it’s fun and I’m still having a good time. That’s the good thing.

You’re about to star in the brand-new musical The Prom. Can you tell us a little bit about your character?

There’s Beth Leavel, Brooks Ashmanskas, and myself. We play some big-name Broadway stars that are kind of archetypes of Broadway stars that you would know. But we’re our own characters. We’re all in these shows that have our names above the title and we’re the reason the show is running, but the shows that we’re in are terrible. So we go to a bar after our shows and we’re sulking and we’re saying, ‘We got into business because we wanted to make a difference. We wanted to change the world with theatre, and now we’re doing these crappy shows.’ People are paying to see us but we’re not happy with it, so we decide to make a difference. We try to find a cause, and we find one.

We go to this small town where a girl wants to take her girlfriend to the prom but the PTA just canceled the prom because they don’t want lesbians at the prom. So we decide right then that we’re going to leave our shows for the week and head over to this small town. Basically, there’s ‘New York’ famous, where in an eight-block radius I’m really well-known, so we think we have that anywhere we go which is not true. We go to this little town and we burst into this PTA meeting and we try to save the world with musical theatre songs. It’s a nightmare. They think we’re just a bunch of crazy people because they don’t know who we are.

Trent Oliver, my character, is one of those famous actors who started off by doing plays by Tennessee Williams and things like that, and then his career turned into doing these bad, bad musicals. And he talks too much, because he thinks everybody wants to listen to him when in fact that’s not true at all.

So eventually, we just make things worse and hilarity ensues. But this is an original idea; it’s not a book and it’s not based on a movie. It’s an original idea, which is really exciting because Broadway needs that right now. So that’s really cool. 

The Prom makes its world premiere at The Alliance Theatre, in Atlanta, Georgia, from August 18 to September 25; Matilda is set to close on Broadway on January 1, 2017.

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"Don't wait for people to tell you who you are. Show them." - Laura Benanti

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