Gene Barry / George Hearn / Jerry Herman

La Cage aux Folles

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For songwriter Jerry Herman, the challenge of a new Broadway musical is to find a fresh way to frame his admittedly old-fashioned, show biz approach to creating traditional entertainment. Through three consecutive flops, Dear World (1969), Mack & Mabel (1974), and The Grand Tour (1979), after his two massive hits Hello, Dolly! (1964) and Mame (1966), Herman failed in that endeavor, meanwhile watching rivals Stephen Sondheim perfect the "concept" musical and Andrew Lloyd Webber the rock musical. But with La Cage aux Folles, Herman became newly current and even politically courageous, to some extent because of events taking place outside the theater. When the French-Italian film adaptation of Jean Poiret's play became a big box office hit in the late ‘70s, it was a conventional farce with a typically Gallic twist, the old son-of-bohemian-parents-brings-his-fiance-and-her-straitlaced-parents-to-visit story, in this case with the bohemian parents being a gay couple who run a nightclub for female impersonators in St. Tropez. What happened in the years between the film's success and the opening of the musical on August 21, 1983, however, was the AIDS crisis, with the consequent galvanizing of the gay community, especially in New York. Thus, the show became not just a musical comedy, but also a statement of gay pride, with a script by up-and-coming gay playwright Harvey Fierstein and a score by Herman that, even if it was typically tame musically, was full of the same subtext, as, for instance, Albin (George Hearn) defiantly sang the anthem "I Am What I Am," speaking not just for female impersonators on the French Riviera, but for gay people everywhere. And if "The Best of Times" was another of Herman's catchy, yet sing-songy production numbers, its line, "As for tomorrow, well, who knows?," spoke to listeners fearful of imminent death from an untreatable illness. All of which is to say that Herman found that fresh context for his usual shtick, even if it was a dark one. But the context added weight, making La Cage aux Folles the musical more substantial than the play or film. And it helped that Hearn could be both giddy and assertive, while his partner, the TV actor Gene Barry, surprisingly could sing. The result was Herman's biggest hit in years. The 2008 reissue of the cast album contains a bonus track in which the songwriter recalls how he came to work on the show and to write "I Am What I Am."

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