La Cage aux Folles was always the Aids-age musical that hit all the right Broadway buttons. In its study of a long-term relationship between a nightclub owner and his transvestite star, it laid down rules of affection and loyalty in a scenario of standing up for who you are, or “I am what I am,” despite what the authorities say.

In this contagious mood of defiance, I conducted a three-way conversation with the show’s lyricist and composer Jerry Herman in Bel Air, Los Angeles, and the librettist Harvey Fierstein (pictured) on his farm in Connecticut. They are both out-gay Broadway superstars, responsible in Jerry’s case for Hello, Dolly! and Mame, the definitive sock-it-to-me super-stardom shows; and in Harvey’s, the ultimate confessional epic Torch Song Trilogy and iconic appearances as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray and, perhaps more curiously and controversially, Tevye the milkman in Fiddler on the Roof.

Coming out

This year on Broadway, Fierstein wrote the book for a new musical, A Catered Affair, based on a 1955 television play by Paddy Chayevsky and the subsequent movie by Gore Vidal, in which he played “a confused bachelor” character, an uncle who never owns up in public to his sexuality and talks about his “business partner” or “gentleman friend”. Isn’t his whole career to do with coming out as a gay man, whether it’s as the drag diva in Torch Song or the socially buffeted cabaret artiste in La Cage?

“Let’s be clear about this,” says Fierstein, who has no qualms about putting me straight on the gay issue. “The characters in La Cage are living their lives out loud and having a wonderful time. They are respected in their community. That is still not the case for many people today, and there are still politicians and religious leaders who make a living out of preaching hellfire on this, and as long as that is the case, La Cage has a role to play in the world. This show is very special to me. We lost half the cast of the first production to Aids, and the whole Broadway Fights Aids campaign was originated in that period of the show.”

How did this unholy alliance between such contrasting Broadway babies come about? In his autobiography, Herman says that he saw the brilliant French movie and decided he had to write a musical. Fierstein says that he was involved on the project first (“I was attached to the show before Jerry”). Herman says, “We were not out to change the world and wipe out bigotry overnight. We were just doing a musical.” Fierstein says the message remains one of being true to yourself: “It does everything a show should do. I’ve seen great productions and terrible productions, and it always, always works. Society has changed around the show, but not sufficiently to render it any less meaningful than it was. And it’s about love, which helps.”

Standing ovations

I think it’s all to do with standing ovations. These are routine matter-of-fact affairs in New York these days. But in 1982, when I saw Fierstein in Torch Song Trilogy on Broadway – he’d been peddling this extraordinary domestic flare-up on the Off-Broadway circuit since 1979 – the punters went bonkers. Same thing at La Cage aux Folles, when an out-of-town audience at a mid-week matinee I attended in March 1984 literally could not be restrained. Admittedly the ticket price had just outstripped the then $45 top whack for Cats; it was $47.50, and folks felt they had to prove they were getting their money’s worth.

But, more importantly, La Cage was all to do with standing up for who you are, as opposed to sitting down for who you aren’t. Some critics thought that Herman and Fierstein were having it both ways, and they were right: the brilliance of La Cage on Broadway, where it ran for five years, was that it spotlighted a private social milieu and blew it open into a general discussion about free relationships, fathers and daughters, lovers and partners. But it knew its own limitations. The director Arthur Laurents said that if those two guys had actually kissed, half the audience would have walked out. This was a show about family affections with a running gag of sexual identity – and a chorus line of drag queens.

Fierstein is a bit niggly about this total acceptability of the show, and does not necessarily agree that the roles of Albin and Georges are best occupied by heterosexuals. “I never wrote down to the audience, even if Arthur may have directed down to them. I fought to cast homosexuals in the roles – if you stand up and sing ‘I Am What I Am’ without feeling your sexuality and your persecution right down to your painted toenails, it’s never going to be quite the same thing – and I got my way eventually when Keane Curtis took over as Albin in New York.”

Changing social resonance

Herman on the other hand tells me that he never intended La Cage aux Folles to be a militant statement of any kind, but that he fell in love with the story of a man who was a mother to a boy. “When I saw the French movie I knew I had to do a musical; at first I thought I was working on something of limited appeal. The minute I wrote ‘I Am What I Am’ changed all that, though I never thought it would take its place as an anthem; I wrote it for a character at a specific moment.”

But the social resonance of La Cage aux Folles has inevitably changed. The show was a complete blast in its day on Broadway; nothing like it had ever been seen, linking Hair with Tennessee Williams for the bridge and tunnel crowd. It opened before Rock Hudson died of Aids. It pre-echoed civil partnerships and it stuck up two big fingers to the à la mode crowd in Greenwich Village who had been dabbling intensely but ineffectively in sexual politics for ten years. This show brought gay friendship into the open.

The London Palladium production in 1986 was a flop. Perhaps we were all Aids-ed out by then. And somehow the Broadway significance of the show, its anthemic power and local application, didn’t transfer too well. But this Menier version has restored the social ambience of a louche, San Tropez club, battered down the setting to an intimate scale of frolic and friendship and revealed a show that must surely now take its place alongside Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam and Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story as one of the great socio-political musicals of our era.

A different kind of spectacle

“The show was always a big spectacular,” says Herman, “lovely to look at, but that’s not really what a drag club looks like: there are holes in the walls! So we thought that it might be fun to see the show taking place in one of the downbeat dressing rooms, like a backstage bolthole ... we wanted to see it in a different way, and to bring in more of the heart behind it.”

Terry Johnson’s production also reveals the way songs like “With Anne on My Arm” and the “Cocktails Counterpoint” have a complex dramatic function alongside the big stand-and-deliver numbers. A similar rescue job for London audiences was wrought on the recent revival of Herman’s Mack and Mabel, a 1974 flop which, although it won critical recognition and the affection of aficionados on its London bow in 1994, never fully flowered as an insidiously melodic, fully integrated celebration of private romance and the silent movies until John Doyle’s Watermill, Newbury, tightened-up, pared down version hit town two years ago, starring David Soul and Janie Dee.

Fierstein has never appeared in London, but Herman holds the city in special affection. “I love London audiences,” he says, brimming over with enthusiasm. “London is the reason why Mack and Mabel is now a cult musical and is still going strong. In America, if a show is not a success, they don’t want to go back to it. That’s the not the case with you: you will always give a show a second try. So it’s marvellous that we have a new production that is so different from the Palladium premiere.”

Broadway survivors

La Cage dates from the same Broadway season as Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park With George, another big Menier Chocolate Factory hit. In accepting the 1984 Tony Award for Best Musical, Herman’s remarks about a place still remaining for the simple, melodic musical were taken as an indirect attack on his fellow composer, but he meant no such thing. He says now: “I consider Steve to be a total genius. But as writers our goals are entirely different. We aim at different targets and usually hit our marks. And look at Follies, anyway, all that magic and melody!”

Herman is 76 now, and as big a survivor as his grande dame favourites Carol Channing and Ethel Merman. He’s come through a period of being HIV positive, as well as triple heart bypass surgery. When his partner Marty Finkelstein died, he moved back to California for good in the early 1990s, happy by his swimming pool with the sun shining every day. “I’m a very lucky man. I love my work and I love my life just as much.”

Fierstein, now 56, trained as a painter at the Pratt Institute, and is aiming to get back to his easel one day. He’s less concerned about keeping any kind of show on the road: “I don’t work too much because life is too short for bullshit and most of what gets done is bullshit.” So he cultivates his little rural area and keeps company with his two mongrel puppies and two rescued cats (one called Elvis was found in a garbage pail).

They come from different places, these two remarkable musical theatre men, but are linked forever on a show that has possibly meant more to each of them than any other of their separate enterprises: “I am what I am, I don’t want praise, I don’t want pity; I bang my own drum, some think it’s noise, I think it’s pretty.”


La Cage aux Folles opens at the West End’s Playhouse Theatre on 30 October 2008 (previews from 20 October). Directed by Terry Johnson, it stars Douglas Hodge as Albin and Denis Lawson as Georges.