"It has always had a kind of magic for me," Jerry Herman says. "Because it was something I thought I had lost, and then I had the wonderful chance to do it."
Herman is talking about La Cage aux Folles, which opened on Broadway 21 years ago, won six Tony Awards — including Best Musical — and ran for 1,761 performances. The famed 71-year-old composer and lyricist is reminiscing because La Cage is back, at the Marquis Theatre, and the stirring sounds of "I Am What I Am" and "The Best of Times" are again reverberating from the rafters of a Broadway stage. The new production stars Daniel Davis and Gary Beach, is directed by Jerry Zaks and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell.
Herman is the only Broadway composer-lyricist to have had three shows each run more than 1,500 performances (the other two are Hello, Dolly! and Mame). But what he is recalling is how La Cage aux Folles almost didn't happen — at least not as La Cage aux Folles, and not with Jerry Herman.
He had seen the 1970's French movie version, based on the play by Jean Poiret, about two middle-aged gay men who run a drag nightclub in St. Tropez, "and I just went crazy. I made my mind up this would be my next musical. But then I called my agent and got the sad news — other people were already doing it." For six months he turned down every other project after he compared them with "what I knew I could do with La Cage. Then I suddenly got a call from the producers. They said they were starting all over again and asked, 'How would you like to do La Cage?' So it felt fated to happen."
That abandoned attempt, which was to have been directed by Mike Nichols and choreographed by Tommy Tune, was called The Queen of Basin Street and had a book by Jay Presson Allen and music and lyrics by Maury Yeston. Herman's version was directed by Arthur Laurents, had a book by Harvey Fierstein and starred Gene Barry and George Hearn as Georges and Albin, the two gay men whose lives are turned around when the son they have raised announces he is marrying and brings his fiancée and her parents to dinner. (Mike Nichols later returned to the material in his hit 1996 movie version "The Birdcage," starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane.) As soon as Herman got the job, he looked for a librettist. "I had heard about Harvey Fierstein and his play Torch Song Trilogy, and I went downtown to see it. I went into Harvey's dressing room and knew right away that I had found the right person."
La Cage's theme of accepting gay life struck many chords, especially for Herman. "It was very satisfying for me, as a gay male," he says. "But I didn't write this as a militant piece. I'm not that kind of thinker. My job is to entertain. We were just doing a musical. That's what I love doing. But the fact that it has changed some people's ideas about gays, some prejudices about homosexuality, is a real plus."
The show's best-known songs are "I Am What I Am" and "The Best of Times." But Herman says his favorite number is "Look Over There," a forceful affirmation of Georges' commitment to Albin — "How often is someone concerned / With the tiniest thread of your life? / Concerned with whatever you feel / And whatever you touch? / Look over there."
"It's about respect," Herman says, "respecting a person who has devoted his or her life to bringing up this child and turning him into a wonderful young man. It's about accepting people for who they are. That's the show's theme. 'I Am What I Am' is the major song, but 'Look Over There' is the show's heart."
Fierstein recalls that with the original production, there was concern that the subject matter would "make an audience nervous, or that the audience wasn't ready for this story. You heard of couples who had been together for 20 or 30 years, but people didn't talk about them. That was not the gay culture. Mainstream culture saw only the flamboyance. Gays were still not seen as real people."
That concern, he said, "turned out to be utter nonsense. Audiences around the world embraced the show. It did better in the Bible Belt than in San Francisco." Because of those original doubts, he says, in preparing for the new production, "I thought I would have to bring it up to date. But there was nothing to bring up to date." In fact, he says, with the controversy over gay marriage and states passing laws banning it, La Cage "is more current than ever. And more needed than ever."
Jerry Zaks, a four-time Tony winner — for Guys and Dolls, Six Degrees of Separation, Lend Me a Tenor and The House of Blue Leaves — says that when he was asked to direct the new production, he had never seen La Cage: "So I read it and listened to it, and it felt as if it had been written yesterday. I had a basic, visceral response. I laughed out loud and I wept shamelessly. It was so moving. And I thought, 'I want to work on this.'"
There are a few new lyrics and some new writing, says Zaks, but "no one felt we had to reinvent it in any significant way. It's an extraordinarily compelling story of a 20-year-old marriage threatened by a son's thoughtlessness. It's universal. Any parent can understand it. These parents happen to be gay."
Jerry Mitchell, the show's choreographer and a three-time Tony nominee, promises, though, that there will be a few surprises. "The show was first done 21 years ago, and being gay myself I believe we have come a long way in what audiences might expect from a show that takes place in the most famous club where men dress up as women. The ability to push the envelope appealed to me. I felt that the first production lacked a sense of danger, and I wanted to bring that danger, a sensuality, to the dancers, the Cagelles."
In the first image the Cagelles present, Mitchell says, "we are very mysterious, with a real flavor of sexuality. I wanted to challenge the audience — are the 12 dancers men or women? For me, the biggest challenge is how does a man's body tell you it's a female's body? When you first see the Cagelles, they are in silhouette and they have nothing on — they're absolutely bare. Then they wrap themselves in fur and begin singing in high heels — the fur just happens to cover the spots you're not supposed to see."
For Herman, the revival of La Cage is "a great thrill. Just knowing that the work will go on — that's what you dream about if you're in this business. That it won't be disposable. That it will come back again. And again."
This article was originally published in December 2004.