FROM THE ARCHIVES: Inside the Risky, First Out-of-Town Preview of La Cage aux Folles That Put a Gay Love Story Center Stage

Playbill Pride   FROM THE ARCHIVES: Inside the Risky, First Out-of-Town Preview of La Cage aux Folles That Put a Gay Love Story Center Stage
 
Were audiences in 1983 ready to see two gay men openly express physical affection onstage? Read director Arthur Laurents’ firsthand account of the nervous energy at the first public performance.
George Hearn and Gene Barry with the cast of La Cage aux Folles.
George Hearn and Gene Barry with the cast of La Cage aux Folles. Martha Swope / The New York Public Library

Digging into the archives, we unearth the original articles printed in the Playbills of yesteryear. As part of Playbill Pride, we take a look back at La Cage aux Folles.

In 1983, composer-lyricist Jerry Herman, playwright Harvey Fierstein, and director Arthur Laurents set out to adapt Jean Poiret’s French play (and subsequent film) La Cage aux Folles into a new Broadway musical.

La Cage aux Folles Playbill - Aug 1983
La Cage aux Folles Playbill - Aug 1983

Set within and around a St. Tropez nightclub known for its drag performers, the musical’s protagonists are a committed, middle-aged gay couple.

La Cage is an old-fashioned musical comedy charmer: melodic and heartfelt, filled with show-stopping dance numbers, lavish costumes, and romance. Most importantly, its themes are universal.

Like many shows, the Boston out-of-town tryout of La Cage was fraught with technical “disasters,” as Laurents recalls. But getting La Cage ready for the public was only half the battle. The bigger question remained: Was the public ready for La Cage?

Would audiences accept the story of two men in love? The entire success of the $5 million Broadway-bound production hinged on the answer to this question.

Below, Laurents recalls the terror and hope of the first out-of-town preview performance of La Cage aux Folles at Boston's Colonial Theatre.

<i>La Cage Aux Folles</i> opened August 21, 1983
La Cage Aux Folles opened August 21, 1983 Martha Swope

Eight o’clock. The Colonial Theatre, Boston. A lovely evening in early summer, and I am more frightened than I have ever been in my theatrical life. Everyone connected with this musical La Cage aux Folles is frightened, even—especially—the stage managers and crew who poured in as much love as the rest of us supposedly fancier types. But love—I hate the cynics for being right—is not enough: The show is a technical disaster. David’s beautiful scenery has put us on a Lusitania. Too much of it is badly built, and even though we keep tossing pieces into the alley, we had to cancel the first preview last night and have never gotten through a dress rehearsal of both acts.

The exhausted performers are doubly frightened. Because no audience has ever seen this show. And how, how are these good Bostonians going to react to an American musical which begins with drag queens and ends with two male lovers walking off into a metaphorical sunset, arms around each other? How—oh, God!—there is a curtain and now it rises! (This is an old-fashioned musical.)

La_Cage_Aux_Folles_Broadway_Production_Photo_HR
Gene Barry Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts

The first scenic move—minor, simplified, bumpy—works. It has never come near working before and I lose a buck to Marvin Krauss (a bet made to ward off the gremlins). Now the Cagelles in the most dazzling, imaginative fantasies Theoni Aldredge has ever spun. Applause; laughter; then cheers, then shouts, then yells! They are thrilling, these 12 kids. The audience is mad for them, but I love them. Across the aisle, Scott [Salmon, the choreographer], grave-white, is smiling at last. (When the Can-Can blows out of the back walls later, tears run into his big grin.)

Now the first big scenic move: a moviesque wipe from the Club stage to its backstage and a dissolve into the apartment. It won’t work, I know it won’t, it never has. But it does, it has, it is almost over. I am literally shaking. And now we are into the scene that is the test of the whole play.

Against a misty backdrop of the St. Tropez harbor at night (which Jules Fisher, never given time, has somehow managed to light with the essence of romance), a love scene between George Hearn and Gene Barry. Open; expressed; physical contact. Nervous titters; it’s dicey, but those two men play as though they are alone with their love. And then Gene sings, so simply, so true; and when he is finished, the audience applauds as I have never heard an audience applaud a ballad before. I begin pounding Harvey [Fierstein, the author] who sits in front of me, saying over and over: “It works, it works!” He is sobbing so loudly that Barry [Brown, executive producer], sitting next to him, shoves his hand in Harvey’s mouth. I stop pounding: I don’t want him to throw up, not here.

Then heart-stopping silence. The end of the first act, and wonderful George playing the most dramatic moment, singing the most powerful song—dressed as a woman. No; truthfully, dressed as a drag queen. If George is scared, George doesn’t know it. He is Albin and sings his guts out so that we’re not the only ones in tears, the whole damn theatre is in tears but that doesn’t stop a roar that rips the roof off, leaving that exploding audience no cover except a sky full of shooting stars.

Up the aisle, and there’s Jerry [Herman, composer], turned into the wall, his whole body shaking. He should be a veteran so should I, but who can be on this night? We grab and hold on. Then backstage (no, this is not like an old movie musical because this is real; and in real life, real people, alive people are unafraid of emotions), backstage, Freddie and Mike and the crew are awash but grinning so proudly. I grab Jim, and then Fritz and hug Fritz [Holt, executive producer] and say, “You are a bloody damn genius!” One more word and he’ll go, we both will, so he yells at me: “Don’t you dare tell anyone they’re wonderful! We’ve got another act to get through!”

We got through it. It bumped, but it rolled. When the Cagelles took their wildly theatrical curtain call, it was as though there was a cattle prod on every seat, even in the second balcony. And when George and Gene took their bows—bedlam. The damn thing worked—essentially because all the love we all had put into it was up there on that stage. That was why the audience responded as no audience I had ever seen before in my life. You can’t get love from a computer.

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