Sunday, June 24, 2012

Still Love La Cage

In the 80s (when I was still a teenager), my amazingly perceptive younger (heterosexual) brother gave me a very special Xmas gift – the cast recording of La Cage aux Folles! That musical has been in my life ever since.

Beyond listening to the sound track (and imagining myself playing Albin on stage) a few thousand times, I managed to have other joyous encounters with La Cage. I found the film version of the French play and watched it a few times. The film, like the play, is in French but fortunately there were subtitles. Then in 1996 there was the American remake of the French Film with its English title, The Bird Cage. There were liberties taken, as so often is the case with American films, but the essence remained and I was able to strengthen my La Cage connection.

Then in 2004 the gods smiled upon me and I was able to take the subway from my upper west side Manhattan apartment to the Marquis Theatre to see the revival of La Cage aux Folles. The show opened in December but was in previews throughout November and I was able to see a Wednesday matinee during the preview period. It was an important moment in my life.

I didn’t make it to see the 2010 Broadway revival ( I do, however, have the cast album), but was thrilled to learn that the production would tour beginning the Fall of 2011. Well, I was thrilled until I heard the tour would be featuring George Hamilton. After listening for decades to George Hearn as Albin, seeing Nathan Lane on film as Albert (the Albin character), and seeing Gary Beach (The Producers in another gay role) as Albin and Daniel Davis[1] (The Nanny) as Georges, the thought of the star of the 70s comedies Love at First Bite and Zorro the Gay Blade who has since come to be known for his tanning addiction playing Georges just didn’t inspire confidence in me.

As always happens, though, my rush to judgment proved myopic. Thank whatever stars that guide the theatre world for not allowing me to stubbornly miss the touring production.  On June 23, 2012, in Fort Lauderdale, I saw the show at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts.    

As it turns out, Hamilton was competent. His singing voice was adequate. His movements were graceful. His character, believable. Actually, my expectations were so low, I wound up being impressed. I was especially pleased with how comfortable he was dancing with and kissing another man. Was it acting skill or just a remarkable lack of homophobia? In any case, George Hamilton gave a performance with which he can be pleased.

The actor giving body and voice to Albin was Christopher Sieber. I remember Sieber from the short-lived TV sitcom “It’s All Relative.” That program was ground-breaking in that it portrayed gay male parents of a young woman dating someone from a different class background, and both actors playing the gay couple (Sieber being one of them) were themselves gay, and the program was a prime-time, major network television show. But, perhaps it was ahead of its time because in spite of good ratings, it was cancelled after only one season.

Sieber is an accomplished theatre actor who played Georges opposite Harvey Fierstein’s Albin on Broadway before beginning the national tour for which he plays Albin. He was perfect in the role!

The Cagelles (the chorus basically) were a smaller group than I remembered from the 2004 production (but were as athletic with their dancing and acrobatics as the first revival Cagelles had been), and the tour had a pre-show, interactive monologue given by a female impersonator (also new since 2004). And the “orchestra” was really a very small band. But scaling it down (for the tour or was the 2010 revival just leaner from the start?) didn’t hurt the quality of the show at all. In fact, I liked having fewer bodies on stage where each performance was able to shine.

La Cage aux Folles is French play from 1973 that was later made into a French film. The Broadway debut of the musical La Cage aux Folles was an adaptation of the play with book by Harvey Fierstein , music by Jerry Herman, and it was directed by Arthur Laurents (gay, gay, and gay). The musical won multiple Tony awards including Best Musical. There was a 1986 run in London that lasted only 31 performances. In 2004 Beach and Davis starred in the Broadway revival which won a Tony for Best Revival of a Musical. A London production was mounted again in 2008, this time proving to be very successful, winning the Olivier Award for Best Musical. And the 2010 Broadway revival with Kelsey Grammar and Douglas Hodge also won Best Revival of a Musical. La Cage, to my knowledge, is the only Broadway musical to win Best Musical (or Best Revival) every time it has been staged on Broadway!

The story of a drag performer and his life-partner and their night club, their son and ultra-conservative future in-laws is a compelling story set to brilliant music; book and music by gay men, and original Broadway production directed by a gay man. And the closing number for Act 1, “I Am What I Am” is a powerfully, dramatic moment in this musical comedy and it became the Gay National Anthem for the 1980s.

The show brought gay people, on stage and behind the scenes to the forefront of social consciousness and proved that a positive story about Queer people could be both critically and commercially successful. La Cage has racked up Tony, Drama Desk, and Olivier Awards over the last 29 years. Two cast albums and a national tour are now also part of its legacy. And whether listening to the cast album, seeing it on Broadway, or enjoying it coming to a theatre near you, it remains a life-affirming piece of powerful theatre. For three decades and counting, I love La Cage!

[1] Native Arkansasan from a small town called Gurdon

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