Was Jerry Herman subtly trying to tell us something in La Cage aux Folles?
Note that he saved “The Best of Times (Is Now)” as his eleven o’clock number. No one knew it at the time, but it would be the last new Herman song that would ever be heard on Broadway. Given that Herman was only fifty-two in 1983, we certainly expected more scores, ones that would enhance shows that might run as long as his Mame (1,508 performances) or even his Hello, Dolly! (2,844 performances).
La Cage would fit in between those, with a 1,761-performance run that began thirty years ago this week. Frankly, it would have run even longer if the Palace Theatre wasn’t forced to close because of construction on the hotel next door. Still, even if the planned move to the then-active Mark Hellinger Theatre had occurred, this week would still mark the beginning of our fourth decade without a new Jerry Herman show on Broadway.
Oh, there was that 1996 TV special Mrs. Santa Claus, in which his Mame and Countess Aurelia (from Dear World) – one Angela Lansbury – starred. The song “Avenue A” proved that Herman still had it.
At the turn of the new century, Herman was working on a Las Vegas show called Miss Spectacular that was to play the Mirage Hotel. But then the building was sold and the new owners said, “So Long, Dearie” to the project.
Miss Spectacular showed that Herman could still write his famous take-home, tap-your-troubles-away tunes. However, those who fell in love with “Vegas” (count me among them) were chagrined to later learn that Herman actually wrote the melody for a 1966 pilot, The Carol Channing Show, starring you-know-who. Nevertheless, Herman’s lyrics were new, and great fun when celebrating the town: “There’s nothing sad or sordid or seedy. You’ll find adventure and Steve and Eydie.”
Yes, that last word of the lyric does remind us how “time tumbles by,” as Albin sings in La Cage. He’s being serious in his off-stage persona, which will never be confused with his on-stage alter (big) ego: Zaza, the female impersonator who headlines the St. Tropez nightspot La Cage aux Folles.
For decades, Albin has been “the wife” to Georges, who runs the club’s day-to-day operations. They have a son — the result of Georges’ one-night-stand with a woman “just to see what it was like.” Otherwise, Georges has been exclusively gay from puberty right now through late middle-age.
But that one night of heterosexual love produced a son, Jean-Michel, who just got himself engaged to Anne, a lovely young miss. She’s certainly lovelier than her father: Mr. Dindon (French for “turkey,” by the way), the deputy general of the Tradition, Family and Morality Party. He’s going to be furious when he discovers the family into which his daughter is marrying.
Dindon won’t be as furious, however, as Albin. Hell hath no fury like a woman impersonator scorned. But here’s where the film and Harvey Fierstein’s libretto went off in a surprising direction: Jean-Michel and we realize that Albin has been the boy’s real mother, and we wind up rooting for him to be appreciated.
La Cage was based, of course, on that 1978 French film of the same name that turned out to be the top grosser of any foreign-language film to play America. That it opened on Broadway a scant five years later seems remarkable, but the achievement is even more astonishing given that other august parties had been working on it before Fierstein and Herman started adapting.
In 1980, the announcement was made that La Cage would be a musical with its locale moved to equally sexually free New Orleans. The Queen of Basin Street would have a book by Jay Presson Allen (who had adapted The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie into a much-admired play). The score would be by Maury Yeston and the choreography by Tommy Tune, both of whom had created the Tony-winning Nine. If that doesn’t sound enticing enough, how about Mike Nichols as director?
But,” says my buddy Jon Maas, “they weren’t even the first to try to adapt it. David Merrick optioned it first and commissioned a non-musical version by Hugh Wheeler that was called The Queen’s Cage that was intended for Zero Mostel.” Maas, who once worked fro Merrick, adds that “I found the script in the files one day, but alas never read it and forgot to take it home.”
Both never happened, and no one was happier than Herman, who had seen the movie, sought the rights but was told he was too late. When word got back to Herman that The Queen of Basin Street had endured an early beheading, he realized the best of time was indeed now to start work on what would be his final Broadway musical.
At least he wrote an exciting score. Only thirty-two seconds into the overture, we’ve already heard three numbers – “The Best of Times,” “Song of the Sand” and the title song. It’s as if Herman knows he’s come up with so many winners that he can’t wait for you to hear them. And if anyone doubts that this is an old-fashioned overture in the best sense of the word, note that an all-too-rare xylophone chimes in before a harp swirls us from one melody to the next.
When Georges (Gene Barry) introduces us to the Cagelles – the chorus at the club — we get a happy-go-lucky number, “We Are What We Are.” Note the precision tapping midway through. The recording shows that choreographer Scott Salmon did a good job.
“We Are What We Are” will later come back in a very different context. Once Albin discovers that both Georges and Jean-Michel don’t want him around to meet the future in-laws, he snarls an anthem of dignity and assurance: “I don’t want praise, I don’t want pity.” Well, George Hearn certainly got none of the latter, because he was in for a good deal of the former; he won the Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards for Best Leading Performance in a Musical.
And yet, a case can be made that Gene Barry had the more difficult role. Female impersonation has had a long and august theatrical history. The Tonys had rewarded Ray Bolger with a medallion for Where’s Charley? in 1949 and later gave Raul Julia a nomination for the same part in the 1974 revival. Robert Morse, playing the Jack Lemmon role from Some Like It Hot in Sugar, was nominated in 1973.
Even featured actors have got into the act. For A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum Jack Gilford was nominated in 1963 and Larry Blyden won in 1972 for playing Hysterium, who spends some time dressed as a woman. Donning drag for one scene was winner Myron McCormick as Luther Billis in South Pacific. And if Cyril Ritchard’s Captain Hook wasn’t technically in drag, he was damn close to it in a performance that was campier than any of the above.
But male butch homosexuals in a musical? Barry had to invent the genre. He had to be the rock in the relationship. What’s more, he was the one who had to start both songs of love and seem sincere and not at all ill-at-ease. And he did just that.
The audience certainly wasn’t used to seeing him display this sexual preference. His last big role had been a rugged detective in the TV series Burke’s Law, so portraying a homosexual – even if he were the “man” of the family – was dicey. Granted, he was most famous for playing the dapper Western lawman Bat Masterson on TV for 108 episodes, but there the character’s heterosexuality was often stressed.
Barry did get help from Herman, who had Jean-Michel sing a happy song, “With Anne on My Arm.” No sooner was he done that we’d get a reprise – with Barry expressing his love for Albin. How smart of Herman to use a melody that we heard before, for that eased us into what was being said. And for once, it wasn’t the femme guy who was willing to put his affection on the line, but the butch one. What had been a charm song for the kid now became a razz-ma-tazz celebration for the adults.
Herman was equally smart when writing “Song of the Sand,” in which George starts reminiscing about when they met. He doesn’t remember the words of “their song,” but he can hum it. All those “la la la las” were easier for a straight audience to take than if Georges sang lyrics about “your lips, your eyes, your cheeks, your hair are in a class beyond compare; you’re the loveliest” etc.
For “Masculinity,” in which Georges tries to teach Albin to butch it up (which is just about as likely as Ed Wood winning a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Tony), Herman chose wisely as well. What’s more masculine-sounding than a march? And when Georges rebukes Jean-Michel for not appreciating his “mother,” Herman provided a melody not just with broken chords, but with heartbroken chords.
Arguably best of all, Herman found a musical scene that has no parallel in the film. In “A Little More Mascara,” we see a man transform into drag queen. (“Albin is tucked away,” Herman writes, “and Zaza is here!”) Making the transition in a toe-tapping song made it easy even for the dragged-along husbands in the house to go along with the ride.
“I Am What I Am” also proclaimed that “There’s one life and there’s no return.” That hasn’t turned out to be true of La Cage. It is the only musical in history to make claim to a Tony triple crown. Its original production won Best Musical; each of its two subsequent productions (in 2004-05 and 2009-10) won a Best Revival of a Musical Tony. Herman went out with a show that’s provided him and us with the best of times.