Mine Have Naked People

Midway through Act II of La Cage aux Folles we get the number "Cocktail Counterpoint." It doesn't really feel like the other songs in the show. I used to think it was just filler because they felt like they needed a song there.

I was really wrong.

This is a deceptively complex piece that delivers so much information. On the surface, it feels like just an Irving Berlin style stunt, introducing several independent melodies, then combining them into counterpoint. But it's more than that. Berlin did it for the stunt; Jerry Herman does it to further the storytelling.

In terms of structure, what does this music tell us? These people all may be singing at the same time, but they're not singing together. No one is singing the same thing as anyone else. For the most part, they're not even singing to each other. Everyone is at odds with everyone, even in terms of musical styles. And yet the fact that this chaos actually makes harmonic sense represents the civilized facades they each present, despite the deep contradictions underneath. The fact that they all sing different things at once, no one listening to each other, stands as a great metaphor for the story's central conflict.

Form becomes content!!

It's also worth noting that the song builds, in its second counterpoint section, to a climax that gets interrupted by Albin's entrance ("Here's Mother!"). The music finishes, but the vocals never do. Nothing has been resolved yet. All these tensions remain.

Significantly, in the scene after this one, at Jacqueline's, they will finally all sing together in "The Best of Times," not just the same words at the same time, but in harmony, and with choreography! Excepting M. Dindon, these people will be literally in harmony with each other.

The magic of musicals.

But the lyric for "Cocktail Counterpoint" is even more interesting than its music. There's so much important information here. Each lyric tells us so much about the point-of-view of that character, and why that point-of-view is a problem. Notably, each family thinks the other is weird. Eye of the beholder, and all...

Geroges is the first one to sing. There's a double joke in his lyric. First, he's so nervous meeting these people and trying to maintain the lie, that he's mixed up Jean-Michel's lie (that Georges is with the French Foreign Service, i.e., a diplomat), with the symbols of hyper-masculinity he earlier tortured Albin with, at the cafe, so the original lie weirdly morphs into the French Foreign Legion (i.,e., the army). And not just the French Foreign Legion, but a particularly gay point-of-view of the Legion...
I joined the Foreign Legion
With a sabre in my hand,
And crawled across the desert
With my belly in the sand;
With men who loved their camels,
And their brandy, and I swear,
Nobody dished, nobody swished,
When I was a Foreign Legionnaire.

Wait, what? The first four lines tick off the Beau Geste movie cliches, and then... WTF? Georges gets lost again in his outsiders' view of conventional masculinity. Read it close -- he's saying the Legionnaires may have been drunks and camel fuckers, but nobody was gay! And by comic extension, Georges is offering up camel fucking and drunkenness as obvious markers of masculinity -- even more than that, as proof of his masculinity, because he himself was a Legionnaire. Except he wasn't.

What does this tell us about Georges? He's a terrible, though admittedly enthusiastic, liar. He's terrible at being someone he's not. Exactly.

And then Jean-Michel passes out hors d'oeuvre plates, not stopping to think about what's on these plates he's been using for years. Madame Dindon sees two Greek boys having anal sex, but she's so sheltered, so brainwashed, she's can't even conceive that this might be exactly what it looks like. She does her best to find an alternate explanation...
Oh, what lovely dishes;
They're so delicate and frail.
Mine have naked people,
I believe they're only male.
Oops, I think they're playing
Some exotic little game...

And Jean-Michel snatches the plate away and finishes her rhyme for her: "Oops, I think that leapfrog is its name." A lie she is eager to accept. But look at her lyric closely. She takes in all the details. First, she sees the overall beauty of the plate, then she notices there are naked people in the middle of the plate, then she notices they're both boys, and just as she's working out what they're doing in that position, Jean-Michel rescues her, poor thing. She is not equipped to handle the complexities of the real world, which she's been sheltered from, for so long.

Then we hear from her oppressor, M. Dindon, and notice that, like most conservatives, everything comes down to fear.
This is even worse than I feared;
The son is strange, the father is weird.
To meet the wife, I’m actually afraid.
I prefer that Anne remain an old maid!

He came into this situation in fear, fear of the Other, fear of freedom, fear of difference, fear of loss of control, fear of what he perceives to be chaos. But also notice that his only complaints are really vague. He has no actual issues with them; he just doesn't like them viscerally. And his conditioned reaction is to withdraw from the world, to turn his daughter into Miss Havisham, rather than be tainted -- or worse, seduced -- by the Chaos. How many home-schooling Evangelicals today feel the same way?

In a delicious bit of narrative subversion, the cross-dressing, norm-busting, gender-fluid Jacob returns to get the last verse himself, to pass the final judgment.
It's appalling to confess
Our new in-laws are a mess!
She's a prude!
He's a prig!
She's a pill!
He's a pig!
So zis ... zis ... zis for you papa!

Jacob is the truth-teller. The Dindons are acting like Albin, Georges, and Jean-Michel are the Others, but here in this world, the Dindon are the Others. Here's it's their behavior which is inappropriate. When Albin takes them all to Jacqueline's for dinner, this process will be finished, and the Dindons will be the ultimate Others -- that is, until Marie and Anne cross over...

This song "Cocktail Counterpoint," this moment in the story, is what a writing teacher of mine called The Obligatory Moment, the moment without which the story doesn't exist. Everything before it leads to it, and everything after it leads from it. The whole first act is about the impending collision of these two very different families. This is that collision. And this writing is so good, it's a musical collision as well as a textual and thematic collision. And the rest of the show is the fallout from that collision.

What's cool is how this collision begins entirely inside their minds -- these are all "internal monologues" -- and Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein create wonderful tension by not letting the inevitable bomb go off quite yet. We know what's coming, even if we don't know exactly how it will play out, and throughout the scene at Jacqueline's, we keep waiting for the explosion...

And then Herman totally distracts us with one of the greatest of all earworms, "The Best of Times," and we forget for a minute about that explosion we were waiting for... And then...

Well, I wouldn't want to spoil it if you haven't seen the show yet...

It has been such a joy working on this amazing show, and the overwhelmingly positive response from audiences and critics has been so wonderful. But really, all we've done is take the material seriously. I still don't get why everybody doesn't do that.

We run through March 23! Come see us!

Long Live the Musical!