La Cage aux Folles

"We are what we are,
And what we are
Is an illusion."

That's the first lyric in La Cage aux Folles, and though on the surface, it's talking about drag, it's saying way more than that. Just like the show it introduces. Those few lines encapsulate the entire story and all its themes.

Nobody realizes that the first time they hear it, but it's all there.

It introduces us to two ideas that will permeate every moment of the show. First, "we are what we are" -- in other words, we accept and embrace ourselves for who we are, without judgment or regret, without wanting to be someone or something else, and we're not changing. It's such a declarative statement. Particularly as sung by performers in drag, it's a statement of defiance and dignity. And that dignity will be greatly challenged throughout this story.

But the second phrase tells something just as important -- "what we are is an illusion." That's literally true of the men singing (St. Louis male actors playing French male performers playing female characters), but it's universally true for all of us. We all wear masks of various kinds in our lives; we all "perform" various roles, just like the characters in our story. This whole show is a deceptively serious story about identity and masks, reality and illusion.

Albin is living as a man, performing onstage as a woman, husband to Georges, "mother" to Jean-Michel, tragic diva to Jacob. When Albin shows up at the dinner party in drag, it's funny to us because we know he's about to cause all kinds of chaos, but we also register (maybe subconsciously) that this mask is "true." Albin is "disguised" as Jean-Michael's mother, but Albin is Jean-Michel's mother, in a very real way. So is it a deception?

Yes and no, both.

Like the whole show.

Like all of our lives.

When Albin takes his wig off at the end of "The Best of Times" in Act II, it's a plot device, but it's also such a compelling moment because the act of removing the wig after a drag performance is how Albin "tells the truth." He loves, even needs the mask, the safety of performance, but he never loses touch with reality. He can live successfully in both worlds.

As crazy as it is, Geroges and Albin's world has an equilibrium as our story begins. Yes, we witness Albin in full breakdown in the first dialogue scene, but we can tell from Georges' reactions that this is standard fare, part of their daily ritual. They both know the parts they play in this ritual, their lines, etc., and they both know by the end of the ritual, Zaza will go on.

This is a world of craziness and chaos, but it's also a world of family and ritual and commitment and a weird kind of stability.

People translate the title of La Cage aux Folles in various ways, but the one that seems most right to me is "The Mad Cage." The word folles is French for crazy or wild, and if you speak French, you'll notice that it's the feminine form of the word. So a literal translation might be "The Cage of Madwomen." But on top of that, folles is also French slang for effeminate gay men! When you know all that, the name of the show -- which is the name of the club above which the whole story takes place -- is a slyly subversive, multi-layered joke.

And what most people don't notice is that in the climax of the show, when all our characters are trapped in Georges and Albin's apartment, it becomes literally a "cage" of crazy people, une cage aux folles. The title tells us how our story will end.

But let's pause for a second, to note again that the slang word for effeminate gay men is a word that means crazy. That's pretty chilling. But also note that, just as gay Americans took back the word queer as a word of defiance and empowerment, so too Georges has taken back that word folles in an act of subtle, even comic, defiance.

Maybe they're crazy, but you'll pay to see them... so who's really crazy?

I first saw La Cage aux Folles in 1983 with my mom, on Broadway. It was wonderful, a big-scale, old-fashioned musical comedy that seemed gentle, but as timely as today's headlines. And even though I hadn't yet told my mom I was gay, and she didn't know any openly gay people, still at the end of the show she was deeply moved, and she said to me, "They really were in love, weren't they?"

The power of theatre.

But as much as I loved the show, it wasn't something I wanted to work on. Too big, too old-fashioned. Then I saw the 2010 revival on Broadway and all my preconceptions about this show were turned upside-down.

Ben Brantley's New York Times review of the revival cracked me up. He spent much of his review talking about how great the show is, except how bad the material is. It seems he couldn't imagine that maybe he didn't like the show in the past because other productions hadn't found everything that's there, and this latest production did. In Brantley's mind, it had to be that this production was good in spite of the material, not because of it. That was so funny to me.

I wrote a blog post about the revival the night I saw it, and I think I really got at what made it so different from the original...
I had been told that it was way darker (which we all know I love) and that in this version, the club in the show was much seedier. But that's not entirely true. What was so different may just be a product of changing expectations from the musical theatre audience. The biggest difference was the acting. So real, so honest, so truthful. They didn't play it as musical comedy; they approached the characters, relationships, etc. the way they would in a serious play. So though it's a funny story, there was no layer of irony distancing us from the emotions of these characters and events.

As much as I loved George Hearn as Albin, his was a musical-comedy Albin. But in 2010, Douglas Hodge gave us a powerful real, honest Albin, just a weary middle-aged man in a middle-aged marriage, who was also a very talented (though aging) nightclub performer. It was so much more emotional this way.
But the real highlight of the show was Douglas Hodge as Albin. His performance was nothing short of pure genius. Funny, honest, painful, subtle, joyful, and most of all, incredibly real. The kind of guy you'd love to have for a friend. Again, this was no musical comedy performance; this is an actor at the height of his power. Sometimes a naughty little boy, sometimes a weary middle-aged man, sometimes just a charismatic, lifelong entertainer who knows how to connect with an audience. His songs, "A Little More Mascara" and "I Am What I Am," both start out very quiet, very small, and that little detail made it so real, so emotional. He wasn't entertaining us with these songs; they were soliloquies from a man who isn't as sure or as strong as Albin usually is.

As I've said to a lot of people lately, the revival taught me that this show isn't really a musical comedy at heart -- the emotions and the stakes are too serious for that. There is genuine cruelty at the center of the story. No, this is a family drama, which happens to be populated by lots of colorful, larger-than-life, real people. After seeing the revival, I knew La Cage was a New Line show after all.
It's one of those productions that makes me see the material from an entirely different angle, much like the 1990s revivals of Carousel and The King and I. What I always thought of as a very sweet, fun musical comedy is now something much, much more. And what a joy it is to witness real artists of the theatre find that greater depth and subtlety in a show that isn't known for those things. It must've been there all along, hiding, waiting for actors and a director like this.

This is what I wrote about the revival's impact on me.
By the end of the cheering standing ovation, I was so overwhelmed with emotion, I could barely speak. I was supposed to meet a friend after the show, and I thought I wasn't going to be able to talk without bursting into tears. It was that powerful for me.

I can only hope that we bring that kind of honesty and resonance and power to this wonderful piece of theatre. I recently saw some footage of the original French (non-musical) play. It was very funny, but it could turn on a dime and break your fucking heart.

What could be more fun, or more satisfying to work on than that? Another wild and wonderful adventure begins! You have to see this one.

Long Live the Musical!

To order tickets to La Cage aux Folles, click here.