Theater archives

Why the Caged Bird Sings


La Cage aux Folles began life as an adorable anachronism, out of date even in its own time. All the spangled wigs in the world couldn’t conceal its roots in a classically predictable one-set boulevard comedy, by Jean Poiret, the film version of which had been a runaway hit over here, despite its visibly stage-bound shape, thanks to three things: the brio of its acting; its light treatment of a subject that, in America, has more often been treated with heavy breast-beating, and the tourist kinkiness of its drag-club ambience. Like the original French play and the movie, the musical version retained both the male-female role stereotyping of its central gay couple, and the even more passé double stereotype of its black “maid.” Jerry Herman filled the score with take-home tunes in the traditional Broadway manner; if the title song recalled a tune that had been taken home decades before, that only enhanced the show’s air of being, for all its ostensible outrageousness, comfortably familiar. And its homeyness only underscored Herman’s and book writer Harvey Fierstein’s skill at working new variants on the old patterns: Over the decades since, both the show’s wisecracks and its tunes have acquired their own comforting patina of familiarity; today it would be hard to imagine the theatergoer over 12 who doesn’t go into a performance of La Cage knowing exactly what to expect.

If anything, the changed world that the revival of La Cage faces today is one in which the values it asserts need reaffirming more urgently than ever. The lunatic right, newly emboldened by its mythical “mandate,” is pressing ever more urgently to make gay marriage a legal impossibility. Under the circumstances, a traditional, nonthreatening work like La Cage, in an easy-access popular art form, is an excellent thing to have around. However much the show may reinforce the misguided notion that every gay male couple consists of a “husband” and a “wife,” it also conveys, to a wide audience perhaps less knowing in these matters, that a gay male couple can sustain a loving relationship for decades, that the pairing doesn’t exclude the idea of siring children, and that a child raised by such a couple can be both stable and heterosexual. And by making Georges and Albin the eccentrically particularized couple they are, the show sensibly presents their relationship simply as a possible example, not as a piously idealized role model for gay unions: Even those few American adolescents who imagine gay as the height of glamour are probably never going to yearn to run a drag nightclub on the Riviera.

As to the quality of Jerry Zaks’s La Cage revival, it has a fresher feeling than most such enterprises have had recently. If it also has a bumpy unevenness of quality, the original wasn’t immune to that feeling either. The new chorus of “Cagelles” is far less sexily ambiguous than the original, but their acrobatic choreography, by Jerry Mitchell, is both more demanding and more exciting. The original designers went for glamorous excess and at some moments got garishness instead; the current design (sets by Scott Pask, costumes by William Ivey Long) starts with a more reserved and better unified sensibility, impishly tippy-toeing its way up toward excess. The cast is, on balance, about equal to the original, with a little more realism and a little less flair, except for Michael Benjamin Washington, whose amusingly outrageous servant has cornered the flair market. But all of the show’s important material rests in the hands of the two leads, the middle-aged gay couple Georges and Albin, owner and star attraction respectively of the titular Saint-Tropez nightclub where the action is set, who find themselves obliged to entertain the homophobic right-wing politician with whose daughter Georges’s son, Jean-Michel, has fallen desperately in love. Georges initially tries to solve the situation, at Jean-Michel’s behest, by erasing all connection to homosexuality from their apartment above the club. This includes his connection to Albin, who, in the traditional manner of wronged wives, does not take the rejection calmly. Fortunately, Jean-Michel’s biological mother, as selfish as she is promiscuous, fails to show up to complete the illusion of respectability, so that Albin has to come to the rescue, teaching Jean-Michel that sometimes a boy’s best friend is his father’s spouse equivalent.

In the original, the focus of interest was George Hearn’s passionate, preening Fury of an Albin; his Georges, Gene Barry, gray in both aura and voice, seemed to provide no more than touchingly earnest support. The revival, intriguingly, reverses this dynamic. The new Georges, Daniel Davis, is the show’s center of charm and conflict as well as stability, singing in a pleasant, offhand manner and very much having the look of an old song-and-dance man turned showbiz entrepreneur. In contrast, Gary Beach, though much more attuned than Hearn was to the presentational demands of musicals, brings the same comic flamboyance to his domestic scenes as to his numbers onstage in the club. His comic capering is wonderful, but the emotional grit that underlay Hearn’s performance is gone: This Albin, one feels, needs Georges as a reality anchor rather than a soul mate. This shift slightly lowers the show’s electrical charge, but doesn’t alter the innocent, good feeling it provokes with its vision of injustice righted and intolerance routed—sentiments that predate every version of La Cage, and that, as any Victorian playwright could tell you, always work.