Digging into the archives, we unearth the original articles printed in the Playbills of yesteryear.
The original Broadway production of Jerry Herman’s Tony Award-winning musical La Cage aux Folles opened on Broadway August 21, 1983. The production would go on to win six 1984 Tony Awards, including Best Score (Herman), Best Book (Harvey Fierstein), Best Direction (Laurents), and Best Musical.
In the following interview, George Hearn and Gene Barry, who starred in the central roles of Albin (Zsa Zsa) and Georges—a middle-aged gay couple whose love story was the heart of this unconventional new musical—discuss the decision to take on the roles in an era when playing gay characters on stage was still a risky move.
From all outward appearances, here were two leading roles in a flashy, $5 million Broadway musical (opening in New York at the Palace Theatre on August 21, 1983) for which most acting pros would kill!
There was the diva, Zsa Zsa, a showy part, a character who possessed not only heart, but also a dazzling, bugle-beaded wardrobe plus at least two show-stopping musical numbers crafted by composer/lyricist, Jerry (Hello, Dolly!, Mame) Herman.
And there was Georges, the solid role of Zsa Zsa’s attentive and patient lover and mentor, a character of charm and warmth who also could count at least two heartfelt, show-stopping love ballads as his.
The whole package looked like a first class opportunity for success, with Arthur Laurents (West Side Story, Gypsy) directing, Harvey Fierstein (Torch Song Trilogy) writing the book, Jerry Herman handling the music, and Theoni V. Aldredge (Dreamgirls) creating the costumes.
But Gene Barry and George Hearn, the two actors earmarked for the lead roles, had qualms!
La Cage aux Folles, the Broadway musical based on the French stage play which became the hit movie, is, after all, a blatantly heartfelt love story about two aging homosexuals. And there were no two ways about it. Both actors were going to have to play it gay.
Ultimately, the two succumbed to the lure of the touching, dignified book, the strong hummable score, and the commitment by all those involved to create a moving, if somewhat unconventional musical love story. Each actor overcame his personal obstacles.
“It’s funny, but I never thought twice about playing a cold-blooded murderer like Sweeney Todd,” says George Hearn, who acted the demon barber of Fleet Street in the critically acclaimed Harold Prince/Stephen Sondheim musical.
“But this gave me pause.” Hearn is seated backstage in his dressing room, a regular Joe in his trousers and white, long-sleeved shirt, open at the neck. But surrounding him are an assortment of primary-colored gowns with sequins and beads, hung one next to the other, and a shelf filled with matching high-heeled shoes. They are his costumes, the wardrobe in which he parades onstage, convincing us of the reality of Zaza, drag queen extraordinaire, and the alter ego of Albin, the domestically inclined partner of a gay household.
“I had seen the movie,” Hearn recalls, “and I thought that if you got the right people together, it could be a romp. Then it left my mind . . . until I got a call to put on a dress and a wig and pair of high heels, and come out and audition.
“I had to think about that,” Hearn says. “I mean, even Tootsie doesn’t do this.
“In that film, Dustin Hoffman impersonates a woman as a means to an end. But in La Cage, it’s really dressing up in drag!”
Hearn’s friend, actress Colleen Dewhurst, finally convinced him to audition. “She said, ‘Don’t be a fool. You’ll have a great time.’ And so I went and auditioned in a bright red gown and heels. I was a bundle of conflicting emotions, but I did it. I sang ‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy.’”
Everybody loved him and Hearn softened to the idea of playing Albin. “Arthur Laurents asked me, ‘Really, what are you afraid of?’ I said, ‘I suppose I’m afraid of exposing a female side of myself and of looking foolish.’ But Arthur reassured me.” Laurents, in fact, said he was “overpowered” by George Hearn’s “sense of dignity,” in the audition.
Even though the character which Gene Barry was going to portray did not require “dress up” in gowns and high heels, the territory seemed just as perilous for the actor whose decidedly masculine projections, in starring roles for television’s “Bat Masterson” series and “Burke’s Law,” became something of a trademark.
“My two boys said, ‘Go on, have fun.’ My 16-year-old daughter even suggested I try for the other role,” Barry recalls with amusement. He auditioned for producers Allan Carr and Fritz Holt in Los Angeles. “I did it with a little ‘flavor,’” he says. “I sang ‘What Kind of Fool Am I’ and interjected a little of ‘Yesterday, When I was Young.’ By the time I had finished auditioning I had made up my mind. I had to play the role. And then I went to Jerry Herman’s house in New York to hear the music at one of the last backers’ auditions, and I was absolutely enthralled. I felt so moved by the size and impact of the music.”
Barry, who began his career in the musical theatre, was ready to make a Broadway comeback. And La Cage aux Folles was going to be his vehicle.
Rehearsals brought new trepidations from the actors about their roles. Director Laurents comforted them. “It’s the characters the audience will be interested in, not their private lives.
“I refused to acknowledge the gayness as a problem,” Laurents continues. “And they had to trust me. This was not going to be any camp show. We really wanted to go for ‘heart’ in La Cage. I always felt the thing to go for was emotion. These two people care for each other.
They’ve been together 20 years. Ultimately, I wanted Albin and Georges to be two characters anybody in the audience could and would accept. The show certainly has political importance, because it says ‘whoever you are, whatever you are, be it!’ But we never hit anybody over the head with it.”
“When I walked into rehearsals, there was a muslin dress and a pair of high heels for me to use. I was still nervous,” George Hearn admits. “And Arthur said, ‘Listen, I don’t want to have anyone feel pressured. You can wear the dress and the shoes when you want, when you feel comfortable about them. But use them.’ And I did,” says Hearn.
The company had an extended rehearsal period of two months. “We really grew to love the characters, and we adored the script and the music,” says Hearn. What everyone began to realize, during rehearsals, was the universality of the show. “It’s about middle-aged love.
There’s nothing prurient about it. And I was impressed watching Arthur and Jerry and Harvey and Allan work together. It was a totally ego-less seaming. It’s as if everyone knew there was something really precious in hand, something that had to be cared for and protected.”
The show opened in Boston without much anticipation, and then everything went wild. Critics loved La Cage aux Folles. Audiences, eight performances a week, rose to their feet to roar their approval at the curtain calls.
“I have never been in something that’s had this kind of acceptance,” says Gene Barry. “Heterosexual couples see themselves in Georges and Albin. So does everybody in the audience. It’s an amazing transference. What a beautiful gift this play is. To us, the actors, and to the audiences.
“One of my favorite lines in the show is when the son Georges conceived in a moment of abandon, the son Georges and Albin then raised from infancy, brings home his fiancée, and she’s asked about us. ‘Did you know about them?’ And her answer is, ‘No. But now that I do, it doesn’t matter. I like them.’”
“Well,” says George Hearn, “that’s how the audiences feel when they’ve shared this story.” And then he talks about a woman who came to see him after a performance to say thank you. “You gave us the best time,’ she said. And then she said, . . . ‘and I have a beautiful gay son.’” Hearn pauses a moment, his eyes filling with emotion. “I love that,” he says, softly.
“Besides, I think there’s something important here. This show is going to change attitudes in subtle ways, and to be a part of anything that attacks bigotry is something of which to be proud.”