La Cage Aux Folles: Pat Buchanan's Favorite Musical?
Flashback to August of 1992: I'm sitting in my little Upper West Side apartment watching Pat Buchanan delivering this speech at the Republican National Convention. (It's the one that Don Imus later quipped "sounded better in the original German.") After warning the country that "Bill Clinton and Al Gore represent the most pro-lesbian and pro-gay ticket in history", he declared his support for President Bush, proclaiming "we stand with him against the amoral idea that gay and lesbian couples should have the same standing in law as married men and women."
At the speech's conclusion, I'm watching Buchanan working his way through the crowd, shaking hands and waving to his supporters, when suddenly I burst into laughter. His exit music playing in the background is Jerry Herman's "The Best of Times Is Now".
You know, it's always been a dream of mine to live to see the day when "Deep Throat"'s identity is revealed. Aside from that, I'd like to find out if the the person who selected that music knew it was written by an openly gay man for the show La Cage Aux Folles, a musical about the legitimacy of gay marriage and parenthood.
It's very easy to miss the politics in Jerry Herman's exceptional score. Although the songs are well-interpolated into Harvey Fierstein's book about a straight son who is embarrassed to introduce his future father-in-law, a homophobic political figure, to his gay father's life partner, a female impersonator who raised him like a son when his biological mother skipped out, you have to dig deep to find any references to being gay. "I Am What I Am", often used as a gay rights anthem, may have one line referring to feathers and spangles, but the uninformed would have a difficult time concluding that it was written to be sung by a gay man. The same character's "A Little More Mascara" could easily be sung by a woman who relishes the pick-me-up she gets from dressing snazzy. (Another "Put On Your Sunday Clothes", if you will.) "Song on the Sand" is not specifically a gay love song and even "Look Over There", the song meant to defend a gay man's parental rights, could be sung in many different contexts.
Clever gent, that Mr. Herman, musicalizing a civil rights story in a manner so universal that even homophobes can find positive messages in his and Mr. Fierstein's domestic comedy about the harmless normalcy of two people in love living in commitment and raising a child. In August Wilson's newest offering, Gem of the Ocean, a woman once enslaved shuns the need for laws saying she needed a piece of paper to tell her she's a free woman. Likewise, the leading characters in La Cage don't see the need for a piece of paper to tell them they're a family.
The 1983 premiere of La Cage Aux Folles was a lovely and lavish night of romantic musical comedy, but although the new Jerry Zaks directed revival matches it for loveliness, lavishness and romance, there's a bit of an edge this time around that may not be apparent without having seen the original. Very few adjustments have been made to the text, but perhaps the 20+ years of progress have allowed La Cage to become more of the show it was intended to be.
The original Les Cagelles, that notorious ensemble of singing and dancing female impersonators that nearly steal the show, included two women. It's all guys now, and the key to their opening "We Are What We Are" seems to have been lowered to emphasize the contrast of the feminine visual with the masculine audio. Their costumes (William Ivey Long) are skimpier and more teasing, being nearly nude when they first appear, and contain a bit of inside humor. (I loved the salute to Chita Rivera!) Their dances are a lot more sexual, especially one particularly naughty can-can move, and the nightclub where they perform, all of St. Tropez in fact, has more of an adult mystique to it, thanks to Scott Pask's sets and Donald Holder's lights. Pinks and lavenders still dominate the color scheme, but the pretty pastels of 1983 have been replaced by darker, more sensual hues.
A very subtle, but significant change occurs when young Jean-Michel (Gavin Creel) sings "With Anne On My Arm", a classic Jerry Herman hummable tune with a simple, but bouncy lyric. Gone is the dance break, where Anne magically appears and twirls with her beau, and instead we hear a counter-melody by Georges (Daniel Davis) where he considers if his son is ready for marriage. Not only does this emphasize the parent/child relationship, which is the main thrust of this production, but it eliminates the musical's only depiction of heterosexual romance.
(SIDE NOTE: Speaking of Gavin Creel, I suppose I must address the controversy of the pony tail he sports for this show, which seems to be the target of more negative reviews than Prymate. I see it this way. In his big song, the guy has to sing "Who else can make me feel like I'm handsome and tall?" Now, Gavin Creel is a good-looking fellow of above average height. They needed to do something to make him look a little dorky! Oh yes, there are those who say the character should cut off his pony tail in act two if he's so concerned about offending his conservative father-in-law to be. But I don't think that would really be an issue. I mean, the man may be a pompous, homophobic buffoon but he's still French!)
But the most striking difference, the one that really changes the dynamic of the show, is in the casting of the two leads. In the original, George Hearn's Albin, the female impersonator and rejected parent, was the aggressive focus of the story. Even when demur, he was loud and often growling. Gene Barry, as Georges, was more of a mellow charmer. As a result, Albin's Act I closer, "I Am What I Am", was the climax of the evening, leaving Act II a bit wanting for an emotional arc.
Today we have Gary Beach as a sweeter Albin, more soft-spoken and tender, matched with Daniel Davis, whose classical acting style provides us with a commanding Georges who is gracious, yet firm. Both are wonderful, but the piece has become stronger with a more dominant Georges. "I Am What I Am" is still tear-inducing, but it's no longer the main climax. That now comes later in Act II when Georges sings "Look Over There" to his son, demanding that he give Albin the parental respect he deserves.
Perhaps that's what makes this revival more of a La Cage for 2004. Twenty years ago the greater issue at hand was the homosexual right to exist. To be what you are. Although we're far from total acceptance today, things have improved. But now we're more aware of large hunk of the population who believes that gay rights are fine, just as long as they don't include marriage and parental rights. And as the public attitude shifts, so does the focus of a Broadway musical.
Photos by Carol Rosegg
Top: Gary Beach and Les Cagelles in "A Little More Mascara"
Center: Les Cagelles in "We Are What We Are"
Bottom: (principles in front, l-r) Linda Balgord (tan suit), Daniel Davis, Ruth Williamson, Gavin Creel, Angela Gaylor and Gary Beach in "The Best of Times"