Page last updated at 14:48 GMT, Thursday, 27 November 2008

Norton to star in drag in musical

Graham Norton and the Cagelles
Graham Norton was unveiled alongside the dancing "Cagelles"

By Liam Allen
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

TV presenter Graham Norton says he is bracing himself for "harsh reviews" when he stars as drag artist Zaza in West End musical La Cage aux Folles.

The 45-year-old star, unveiled in drag at a press conference at the Playhouse Theatre, joked he was "a late Christmas present for theatre critics".

Norton is due to appear on stage from 19 January to 25 April.

He is best known for fronting Saturday night BBC programmes to find new stars for West End shows.

Graham Norton
Norton said he would find it difficult to stick to the script

Norton wore a shiny red sequinned dress, blonde wig and full make-up, as he descended stairs on stage for his first ever appearance as Zaza.

After eight co-stars, also in drag, sang the gay anthem We Are What We Are, Norton - looking slightly uncomfortable in his new outfit - posed for pictures.

After changing back into his own clothes, Norton - who admits to having very little theatre experience - said he would "brace myself for, I would imagine, some quite harsh reviews".

"There will be a lot of people who will be like, 'alright, show us then' and the reason I'm doing it is because I really love the show and really want to play this part," he said.

"In the end, it won't be reviews of the show, they'll be reviews of my television show and my television persona," he added.

He will take over from actor Douglas Hodge as Zaza - whose big solo number I Am What I Am is a highlight of the show - in the successful West End production.

The musical, which tells the story of a gay St Tropez nightclub owner and his transvestite partner, started out life as a play in 1973.

Graham Norton and Andrew Lloyd Webber
Andrew's left me to it
Norton on advice from Andrew Lloyd Webber

A film version, based on Jean Poiret's French play, was nominated for three Oscars in 1980, for best director, adapted screenplay and costume design.

The musical version opened on Broadway in New York in 1983 and won six Tony Awards.

Asked what advice Andrew Lloyd Webber - his co-star on their BBC Saturday night theatre talent shows - had given to him, Norton joked: "Andrew's left me to it".

Vocal coach Zoe Tyler - a judge on How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? and Any Dream Will Do - had told him the secret to singing properly was to "clench my buttocks", he added.

Norton, who has "only just started" rehearsing for the role, is taking singing lessons to prepare for the role.

He has just a fortnight before his first big test - a La Cage Aux Folles appearance at the Royal Variety Performance on 11 December, which will be shown on BBC One a week later.

'Curse you'

He said the last time he had dressed as a woman was when he used to perform stand-up under the name of Mother Theresa of Calcutta.

His stand-up skills were in evidence at Thursday's press conference producing many laughs from the assembled journalists.

"Curse you for reading my book," he told one after she had quoted a passage from his autobiography about not being able to sing.

But he said his talent for improvisatory comedy - central to the success of his chat shows including current BBC Two programme The Graham Norton Show - could be a hindrance.

"There's a scene at one point of the show where I'm actually talking to the audience, talking to people off the stage and currently I'm told it's really important that I stick to the script and that I mustn't change it.

"So that will be difficult."

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