Last night we took the kids to see La Cage aux Folles at North Shore Music Theater. As a gay teenager in the early 90s, I knew that I was supposed to have some sort of deep reverence for the show. I hadn’t seen a production of it by the time I graduated high school, and I found the music interesting but forgettable. I remember in college reading that it beat out Sunday in the Park with George for the 1984 Best Musical Tony Award, and my esoteric musical theater egotism swelled, thinking that simple-minded Jerry Herman couldn’t possible conquer the intricate musical stylings of Sondheim (this is similar to the feeling everyone has when the realize that The Music Man bested West Side Story in the same way nearly two decades prior…I’m sure there’s some sports metaphor equivalent I can make, but I’m not aware of it). My journey to understanding La Cage aux Folles though started with my early life in the theater.
My first performance on a legit stage was in the fourth grade when I was double-cast as the dormouse in a production of Alice in Wonderland. After that soporific triumph, I took a three-year hiatus from the stage until I auditioned for Bye, Bye Birdie in seventh grade. I was cast as Karl, a name that only appears in the script. I’m pretty sure they cut Karl out of several numbers he was originally supposed to be in because of my inability to match pitch unless someone was singing directly in my ear, but I still had a great time, and made my return to the middle school stage as Sasha the following year in Fiddler on the Roof. (Sasha is a Russian chorus boy in the show. I believe playing a Russian in Fiddler is the equivalent of being a bench warmer in sports, but again, I had a great time.)
In opposition to the demands of my adoring public, I didn’t audition for Carousel my freshman year of high school, but I did go out for Kiss Me, Kate the next year, and made my return to the third row of the chorus amidst fifty or so dramatic teens. Junior year I played some sort of Canadian forest ranger (aka: chorus boy) in Little Mary Sunshine, and that summer I let some friends talk me into auditioning at the local community theater. The first show of their season was Guys & Dolls, and as is the endless problem of many a community theater, there weren’t so many guys as dolls doing lip trills in the waiting room for the auditions. I was cast on the spot as a chorus boy, and my theatrical ego began to swell as I found myself doing theater beyond my high school while still in high school, which is the equivalent of making a shot in basketball from one of those white lines near the middle of the court, or so I’m told. (I’m trying to make this relatable for you sports types!)
Not only had I been cast in this community theater production of Guys & Dolls, but I was the only high school kid in the show. The guys dancing alongside me in this production were older men, many of whom were gay. These men became my first real glimpses into “gay life,” which essentially boiled down to “life just about like anyone else.” Some of these guys had high powered jobs and just loved doing theater, and some of them had low-end 9 to 5 jobs and theater allowed them to suffer the toils of their workdays. Nearly all of these older gay men adored La Cage aux Folles. As I tried to fit in with these older gay men–even though I wasn’t quite “out” to myself or to them yet–I really tried to like La Cage, but it always left me feeling somewhat cold, never exciting me the way that other shows like A Chorus Line or the new revival of Damn Yankees did.
When I started dating my now husband, he spoke of La Cage with the same kind of esteemed respect that I knew I was supposed to have, and he even sang “I Am What I Am” during his senior year recital as a vocal major in college. I pretended to love the show because I knew that I loved this man and he obviously wouldn’t love me back if I didn’t like the same things as him. I met his mentors and role models, men who seemed to love the show as much as I knew I was supposed to. I started to think I was some kind of trader. Was I failing the gay test by not being totally in love with La Cage aux Folles?
I think at that point I had never actually seen an entire production of the show. I’d seen Jerry Herman’s snarky comments upon his win at the Tony Awards that year, and I’d seen a number or two on television or on YouTube, but I’d never sat through the entire show. A few years ago, my husband and I went to see the touring production of the 2010 Tony Award-winning revival, and it started to grow on me. That production starred a distractingly old George Hamilton, and while I enjoyed certain aspects, I honestly couldn’t stop thinking about Hamilton keeling over on stage. I came away from the show understanding how amazing this must have been to a gay man in 1984, inspiring so many to fight so hard to provide my families the opportunities we have today nearly thirty years later. I enjoyed that historical impact of the show, but I still wasn’t going gaga over it.
Last night, years later, I think I finally passed the La Cage gay test. We had given the kids a brief overview of the plot, and our daughter picked up pretty quickly that the family at the center of the show is one with two dads just like hers. She was sitting between me and my husband, and when the two dads sing their first love song, she grabbed my hand and pulled it into her lap where she placed it in my husband’s hand. She smiled at me and placed her hands on top of mine and turned her attentions back to the show. Then at intermission my husband took our son to stretch his legs in the lobby, and I explained to our daughter that the son was nervous about telling the woman he loved he had two dads. She asked why, and I explained to her that some people don’t like that some families look like ours. She said that was stupid, and she hoped that the boy in the show would tell the truth. (We also had some great conversation about how some people like to wear clothes that most people say are for people of the other gender, and all of that is totally okay and there’s nothing scary about it. There were lots of teachable moments last night.)
Halfway through the show, the son hits his peak of selfishness in the show, claiming that his fathers owe him something because of all that he had endured having two dads growing up, all the teasing at school, the countless times he was was left alone to defend his parents. While the character is petulant and cold, I know there is truth there. We all go through the stage of feeling our parents owe us something due to the embarrassment we suffer at their very existence, even those of us with a heterosexual mom and dad at home, and kids with non-nuclear families feel even more entitled to feelings of fairness. So when the character sings a reprise of “Look Over There” and reveals that he understands the sacrifices his parents made for him and the ways in which they made him the man he has become, I got a little teary-eyed.
There will be times when our kids scream horrible things at us (I’m imagining something along the lines of “If I had a mother she’d let me do it!”), and I know that’s really all part of growing up. I remember the first time (of not many) that I screamed, “I hate you!” at my mother. She was so upset, and I quickly realized that it was a weapon far too powerful to be wielded by my adolescent hands, and of course it simply wasn’t a true statement. Our son has already experimented with that dangerous arsenal; he’s prone to heightened fits when he doesn’t get his way, and there was a period of time he was saying things like, “I want to leave this family.” He was always very contrite afterward and assured us that it wasn’t something that he really believed. A friend of ours who works with the psychology of young children suggests that in those moments of anger his mind has simply been hijacked, which helps make us feel a little better. In those moments when our children focus their infuriated ire at us, I can hum this little ditty in my head, thinking that at some point someone will ask them, “How often is someone concerned / With the tiniest thread of your life? / Concerned with whatever you feel / And whatever you touch?” and they’ll nod our way and say, “Look over there.”