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LA CAGE AUX BOSTON By Peter Filichia

“Thank you, Boston!”

So read the small round sticker that adorned the cover of some LA CAGE AUX FOLLES original cast albums.

Given that hundreds of musicals had met with rapturous success in New England’s best theater town – SOUTH PACIFIC, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, MAME, CABARET and PROMISES, PROMISES among dozens of others – that sticker could have been pressed onto any of those record jackets.

But LA CAGE was the musical that wanted to show how deep was its love for Boston after the sensational reception that its critics and audiences gave it 40 years ago this week at the Colonial Theatre.

Arthur Laurents, the show’s original director, staunchly believed in this love story about two men and their grown son who’s engaged to a woman whose father is adamantly homophobic. But Laurents worried about Boston, a city famous for banning books and censoring plays and musicals. Sheldon Harnick even made note of this conservatism in his “Boston Beguine,” one of the highlights of NEW FACES OF ‘52.

LA CAGE did have less to worry about than many other gay-centric shows, for it was based on what had become one of the highest-grossing foreign films in American cinema history. In the five years since its 1978 release, plenty of Bostonians had seen the successful LA CAGE AUX FOLLES film, thus paving the way for an equally successful – or even more successful – musical version.

But you know those theatrical worrywarts. Laurents told me during a 2001 interview that he never feared as much about any of his projects than he did on that June night in 1983. It wasn’t just the subject matter; the first preview had to be canceled because of problems with the set. With time constraints sabotaging him, Laurents wasn’t even able to get through both acts of the dress rehearsal.

Those first-nighters at the Colonial apparently didn’t notice the glitches. Better still, they didn’t frown on the relationship between the butch Georges and the, um, less-butch Albin, whose alter ego was nightclub star Zaza. Once the curtain came down on that first Boston performance, Laurents recalled, “I never in my entire life as a regular theatergoer or professional had seen an audience respond like this.”

(Don’t forget that Laurents had experienced audiences’ reactions to the much-revered WEST SIDE STORY and GYPSY, for which he’d written the books. He also was the director who saw Barbra Streisand’s “Miss Marmelstein” stop the show in I CAN GET IT FOR YOU WHOLESALE.)

When you get a review that says one of your songs “is, quite simply, one of the great moments in the American musical theatre” (as Kevin Kelly insisted in the Boston Globe), no wonder you’re ordering stickers for your albums.

I was there the second night, only hours after the raves surfaced, and wasn’t surprised that LA CAGE would be a smash hit. It ran upwards of four years, and would have run longer than 1,761 performances if it hadn’t been forced to leave the Palace to allow construction workers to build a new hotel (one that’s already been razed). LA CAGE was to move to the Mark Hellinger with Lee Roy Reams as Albin/Zaza and Mace Barrett as Georges until the producers realized that moving the show would be too costly.

Four decades later, LA CAGE is right now enjoying a production in Conroe, Texas, which may well be more conservative than Boston. The reason that troupes all over the country keep staging it could be because bookwriter Harvey Fierstein and songwriter Jerry Herman tread very carefully on a road that could have led to a dead end. 

Much advance publicity helped on another issue: The Cagelles, the resident dancing company at the nightclub known as La Cage aux Folles, didn’t solely consist of men in drag; two cisgender women were ringers. Thus the audience that was in the know could have fun wondering which two didn’t need to pretend to be something they weren’t. Theatergoers would eventually learn who was who during the curtain calls, when each Cagelle stripped to the point where, to paraphrase an ANNIE GET YOUR GUN lyric, audiences could tell one sex from the other; all they had to do was look.

The Cagelles opened the show by insisting “We Are What We Are.” The number started off modestly but built to a Big Finish. It would also be a melody that we would hear again.

(But more on that later.)

Not present in the number was Zaza. Fierstein saved her so she’d have an entrance that would allow for applause. Albin was in a snit for the same reason that Felix Unger was furious with Oscar Madison: he didn’t arrive home in time for dinner and didn’t make a phone call. What will “literally give myself a lift” is Albin’s changing into his “highest drag” when putting “A Little More Mascara” on.

Many musical theater fans routinely complain when any musical is made from a movie. The criterion should be whether or not the writers improved the source material. With “A Little More Mascara,” Herman did. The film has no such scene where “Albin is tucked away and Zaza is here!” In a film, watching a man feminize himself would be a long and silent scene; in a musical, we accept the lyrics we’re hearing as inner thoughts. Score one for the musical.

Jean-Michel, the young man that was the result of a heterosexual one-night stand that Georges had experienced with a woman, comes home to announce his engagement. He sings that it’s thrilling “With Anne on My Arm.” It’s a fine musical theater charm song, but its true importance is setting up a very smart reprise for both Georges and Albin.

What e-a-s-e-d theatergoers into the romantic aspects of a gay relationship was having a melody we’d already heard, albeit with new lyrics. But even those weren’t overly romantic: Herman chose such sentiments as “Life is a celebration with you on my arm.” If Georges had sung “Your lips, your eyes, your cheeks, your hair are in a class beyond compare; you’re the loveliest man that one could see,” many in the theater would have been turned off by the blatant terms of endearment. Notice, too, that the part of the body Herman chose to put in the song is not particularly regarded as an erotic one.

Herman would then reveal another smart move that he had up his musical sleeve. “Song of the Sand” is a love song that the two of them had heard while courting. Although Georges recalls the melody, he’s less secure about the lyrics; as a result, he fills them in with many “la-da-da-das.”

Here too if Georges had sung (and Albin had answered with) “Yes, you’re lovely, with your smile so warm and your cheeks so soft; there is nothing for me but to love you and the way you look tonight,” some rigidly heterosexual couples might have grabbed their coats and rushed up the aisle faster than Albin would.

That, in fact, is exactly what George Hearn’s Zaza did at the end of the first act, once he’s told that he won’t be allowed to meet Anne’s father. Both Georges and Jean-Michael know that at dinner, the out-there Albin would soon reveal himself to be gay, be it consciously or unconsciously. As a result, they feel that they must banish him for a night.

Here’s where “We Are What We Are” becomes, with much more pungent lyrics and a more militant tempo, “I Am What I Am.” Kelly in the Globe predicted that it would be sung in every gay bar in America, and while no statistics can validate that for sure, few would be surprised if the critic turned out to be correct.

Herman had one more showstopper to give, which, alas, would be his last for Broadway. “The Best of Times (Is Now)” was such unbridled fun that the audience clapped in rhythm without some cast member rushing to the footlights, putting his hands over his head and clapping loudly in 4/4 time while nodding his head as an indication (if not an outright command) that the attendees should follow suit. No, the Bostonians instinctively showed their appreciation.

Although the creators would soon agree to “Thank you, Boston,” for their cast albums, Boston was already thanking Harvey Fierstein, Jerry Herman and Arthur Laurents for a complete triumph.

Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on His new book – THE BOOK OF BROADWAY MUSICAL DEBATES, DISPUTES, AND DISAGREEMENTS – is now available on Amazon.