Although there have been three wildly successful revivals since, this American musical theatre masterpiece was originally produced in 1983. But like She Loves Me, the other musical to hit our stage this season, it has a long lineage. Originally a French play by Jean Poiret, La Cage was adapted into the great French-Italian film of the same name in 1978. And of course, it became the Robin Williams/Nathan Lane film The Birdcage in 1996. Oft-told stories seem to have something in common—the universal theme of the lengths to which parents will go to promote their offspring’s happiness.
La Cage Aux Folles hits a triple bullseye on our mission at San Francisco Playhouse. To uplift our spirits, there is no better recipe than La Cage, with the catchy tunes of Jerry Herman and the wicked book of Harvey Fierstein, to install a permanent grin on our faces. The young and the middle-aged love songs are surefire heartstring-tuggers. And a story of how far a “mother” will go to support her son is sure to ennoble us all. Powered by four great production numbers, La Cage will have all but the stone-hearted tapping toes and clapping hands.
But La Cage digs deeper than the smile on our faces. It challenges us to fulfill part two of our mission, to deepen self-awareness. Watching rehearsal after rehearsal of La Cage, I find myself unable to avoid all the ways in which I don’t always live up to the song, “I Am What I Am.” Life is a perpetual struggle to live by the heart’s yearning. We know deep inside of us who we are capable of being, but we look the other way as we struggle for survival, power, wealth, and fame; while our heart urges us to look inside to what our truth speaks and begs us to have the courage to live up to our convictions. We are challenged by these “birds of a feather’, who “will” be themselves, despite persecution and marginalization.
And of course, this summer, perhaps more than many summers before, our American culture is challenged to protect our constitutional guarantees against rampant racism and prejudice against those with differing sexual and gender identities. All around us are those who would roll back progress and impose restrictions on who may immigrate, who may adopt, who may use which bathroom. And the number of hate crimes has exploded, creating a nightmarish vision of horrors past. Now more than ever, to nurture compassionate community, we need to honor all humans’ rights to sing, “We are what we are,” and “I am what I am” with pride.