La Cage Aux Folles

Playhouse Theatre in London

 

“We face life though it’s sometimes sweet and sometimes bitter. Face life with a little guts and lots of glitter.”

A gay couple’s relationship is tested when their son tries to hide his parent’s sexuality from the ultra-conservative parents of his fiancée. Same plot as the hilarious but unfortunately non-musical film The Birdcage.

One night, in an attempt to achieve some form of domestic bliss, I watched Better Homes And Gardens. In this episode they were demonstrating how easily you can turn your old records into fabulous clocks to hang on the wall of any child’s bedroom. The record in question that they used for this demonstration was an original Australian Cast recording of La Cage Aux Folles. I have never forgiven them. Such is my love of La Cage Aux Folles that I gave up all my hopes of domestic bliss, refusing to watch the show and considered who I could complain to about this blatant disregard for Australian Musical Theatre displayed on Channel Seven. La Cage really is one of those special musicals.

Musical comedies, however well-written, are often considered frivolous and out of touch with modern audiences. Serious musicals such as West Side Story and Cabaret are thought of with an air of sophistication because of their socio-political commentary, the kind of commentary that the humble comedy is thought to lack. La Cage Aux Folles centers on an openly gay couple who have happily raised a child together. While fairly tame by today’s standards, the show opened in 1983 as the world was still struggling through the AIDS epidemic. It is a testament to the team behind La Cage (composer Jerry Herman and book writer Harvey Fierstein) that the musical could still manage to be hugely successful despite the negative connotations that people at that time felt about gay men like the characters (and cast) of the show.

 I personally admire the way the book has been beautifully crafted so that audiences who aren’t so fabulously inclined are able to accept, if not understand, the relationship on-stage. The first romantic song (‘With Anne On My Arm’) is a straight one, sung by son Jean-Michel about his girlfriend. This tune that portrayed a traditional romance is then reprised as ‘With You On My Arm’, a song between two gay men. The couples use the same song because it is the same feelings of love and romance being portrayed. Love is analogous and if you can understand the romance between Jean-Michel and Anne then you can understand the romance between Albain and Georges.

Similarly impressive is the song ‘Look Over There.’ Jean-Michel’s biological father Georges sings it to his son as a reminder that Albain is, for all intents and purposes, Jean-Michel’s mother. While this could have been an opportunity for a politically charged soapbox speech, that just isn’t the style of La Cage. Instead we get a touching description of the many things a parent has done for their child with sentiments so universal that the audience is convinced of Albain’s right as a parent to Jean-Michel.

While there are numbers that rejoice in the campiness of the gay night club setting (complete with drag queens, flashy elaborate costumes, outrageous dancing and witty humour that only gay men can write), the heart of the show is carried by this loving family. When informed that his step-son wishes to hide him from the prospective in-laws, Albain is visibly crushed but says nothing. Seeing the usual drama/drag queen so utterly defeated shows more internal pain that if he were to cry hysterically. Being told to hide himself away like this drives him to sing the musical’s most contentious and most celebrated number ‘I Am What I Am.’

I saw the show in London with Denis Lawson as Georges and Douglas Hodge as Albain. I was very surprised a few years later when Hodge was re-cast as Albain on Broadway, not because he wasn’t brilliant in the role, but because it was a very British interpretation. The characters are all French but in almost every West End show, no one bothers to disguise their awful English accents. Hodge in particular accentuated his until he sounded like British gay comedian Alan Carr. He also added humour by doing impressions of the likes of Marlene Dietrich during the ‘La Cage Aux Folles’ number which I’m not sure if American’s would get. Hodge’s less masculine voice doesn’t make as bold a statement as George Hearn or Anthony Warlow singing ‘I Am What I Am’ but that would contradict with his delightfully playful ‘A Little More Mascarra.’

Sadly the story will always be relevant (thanks for that Tony Abbott) but the recent Broadway revival seems to have figured that as New Yorkers are more progressive, the score could be altered. The effect of the two love songs is ruined by added commentary by Georges in ‘With Anne On My Arm’ and the new words highlight Georges homosexuality for no obvious purpose than to sell Frasier as a gay man.

La Cage obviously means more to me because it deals with a subject close to my heart but this is musical theatre. These audiences are comprised mainly of gay men and fat girls who are friends with gay men. I’m sure many others would feel my seething rage at seeing felt numbers being glued around the edge of a La Cage Aux Folles record, even if they weren’t particularly interested in gay rights, just because they appreciate how fabulous a show it is.

The Top 7 Movies Abut Theatre Life

7. The Band Wagon  (Minnelli 1953)

the band wagon

While countless movie musicals have a plot that can be condensed into the simple ‘let’s put on a show’, The Band Wagon is one of the best and exclusively discusses theatre instead of film (Singin’ in the Rain) or putting on a show in a barn (Babes in Arms). Of course, being a musical comedy, the show will turn out to be a massive hit but there are some troubles along the way. All the off-stage drama comes second only to Vincent Minnelli’s beautiful dance sequences, especially those with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse.

6. The Red Shoes (Powell and Pressburger 1948)

the red shoes

A young woman is torn between the man she loves and a ballet master who can realise her burning ambition to be a prima ballerina, as symbolised by the red shoes she wears. Dancers in real life find the film relatable and it is even referenced in A Chorus Line as inspirational for many of the auditionees growing up. Of course I have to mention that the splendid ballet sequences are choreographed by Australian national treasure: Robert Helpmann.

5. 42nd Street  (Bacon 1933)

42nd street

The greatest elements of the backstage musical take the lead from this Busby Berkley film. The sweet rising star, the creative director who believes in her, the bitchy lead actress who feels threatened by the new-comer and the hard-up producer attempting once last hit show: these characters became classic tropes after this musical. And of course it created the iconic line “You’re going out there a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!”

4. The Producers  (Brooks 1967) and (Stroman 2005)

the producers

Whether you’re a fan of the original Mel Brooks film or the musical remake, it’s the zany escapades of these characters putting together a Broadway show that produces such a fit of giggles. After discovering a way to make more money with a flop than with a hit, Broadway producer Max Bialystock romances little old ladies for investment money to help make the worst play ever written. Though Max’s business technique provides many laughs, other theatrical characters including playwrights, actors and directors are also hilariously mocked.

3. Black Swan  (Aronofsky 2010)

the black swan

Black Swan takes elements from 42nd Street, The Red Shoes and All About Eve, but the effect is completely different. The film is a psychological thriller, following the usually timid Nina (Natalie Portman) who finds her dark side after taking on the role of Odile (the black swan). Again the ballet scenes are beautiful and correspond with perfectly with Nina’s mindset. Though it tends to be a film you either love or hate, if you’re part of the theatre world you can understand the toil of performing as portrayed in this film.

2. Amadeus  (Forman 1984)

amadeus

This fictionalised story of rivalry between composers Salieri and Mozart makes for truly great cinema. Though it deals with opera in 18th Century Austria, the desire to create unforgettable art resonates with all forms of theatre and surely all composers have felt that mix of awe and jealous anger at seeing a rival’s masterpiece. The film also gives insight into Mozart’s influences, namely the relationship with his father. Both lead actors ( F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce) received Oscar nods for their performances but sound and costume design also won awards, largely due to the amazing opera scenes.

1. All About Eve (Mankiewiczs 1950)

all about eve

Established theatre actress Margo channing (Bette Davis in her most renown role) begins to feel threatened by her young ingénue Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). Though the film’s moral about the dangerous ambitions could apply to any career, it’s the characters of the theatre world that bring all the wit and humour to this film. George Sanders makes a wonderful theatre critic full of spiteful remarks but Margo has the best dialogue, including the film’s most iconic line: ‘Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!’ demonstrating her theatrical off-stage life.