(A version of this story was first published April 12, 2010.)
Jerry Herman has made a career out of creating shows that have you swishing down the stairs and singing a song as you exit the theatre. Herman's musicals include Mack and Mabel, Mame and Hello, Dolly!, and they've always got an "11 o'clock number," the song that sends you out into the night singing — even if that number isn't necessarily sung at the very end of the show, when it's near 11 o'clock. This usually involves a big lady in a big hat singing a big song on a big staircase, even if — as in the case of La Cage aux Folles, now at Broadway's Longacre Theatre — she is a he.
This is the show that boasts not one but two 11 o'clock numbers — "I Am What I Am" and "The Best of Times" — and a whole bunch of what could be termed "10 o'clock numbers" to go along with them. But it isn't just Jerry Herman's score that made such a popular musical; it is also Harvey Fierstein's funny and poignant book (based on a French play and movie) and the subject — a longtime, devoted marriage shaken by a son's choice of fiancée. It's not giving anything away to say that the marriage is between Albin — alias Zaza, a drag queen — and Georges, who had a one-night stand with a woman that resulted in the birth of the son to whom the men are both passionately devoted. Now their son is in love with a nice girl whose father happens to be a local functionary hell-bent on closing down Georges' nightclub and silencing his star, the drag queen Zaza.
In 1983 there were those who thought that Broadway might not be prepared to welcome a "fathers of the bridegroom" love story. As it turned out, the exuberant La Cage was received with rapture by critics and audiences, and ran for four years before an equally enthusiastic transfer to London's West End.
Now the transfer is in the other direction. The Menier Chocolate Factory has already sent productions of Sunday in the Park with George and A Little Night Music (currently playing with Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones) to New York with great success. Now, La Cage aux Folles completes the hat trick.
The new production, like its Menier predecessors, has a transatlantic cast. Albin is played here, as in London, by classical actor Douglas Hodge, making his Broadway debut. Famous in Britain for his serious theatrical roles in Shakespeare and Pinter, he won an Olivier Award as Best Actor in a Musical for playing Albin. Over a cup of tea in a London hotel, he talked about his upcoming debut. As he sat down, there was buzz among the other guests. (This doesn't happen to him in New York. Yet.)
Why come to Broadway with a musical? "To be an Englishman abroad in an American musical, in the heart and home of musicals, is thrilling," he says. "La Cage is as physically and emotionally demanding as Titus Andronicus. It's the swan thing: People tell me I look as though I'm having a wonderful time, and I am. But they can't see how hard I'm paddling just below the surface."
"Never played Titus," says Kelsey Grammer later, over the phone, "but my last Broadway outing was Macbeth."
Grammer is playing Georges. (He'll take over as Albin after six months, he has said.) It helps that both he and Hodge are in thrall to La Cage. "I fell in love with the original film in 1980," Grammer says. "The fact that they're gay and one dresses as a woman is simply nice window dressing. What it's really about is what every relationship is about — muddling through, behaving badly, just loving each other until the problems get worked out."
Hodge agrees: "On one level it's pure farce. On another, it's fantastically moving. It's about the vicissitudes of love, marriage, parenthood and family values. The fact that it's two men is almost irrelevant. Something happens where it becomes utterly universal. I've spent most of my life looking at women and obsessing about women, and now I'm one of them. I don't believe Zaza thinks of himself as a gay man or a drag queen; no, I'm sure he thinks he's a woman, he thinks he's Audrey Hepburn."
What's it like to be in a longtime marriage with someone you've just met? Grammer laughs. "It's a wonderful experience. It's a blessing of the work, and in this case, we fell in love. Doug's giving an amazing performance."
Hodge on Grammer is no less admiring: "He's fantastically funny, his rhythm is fast, he's stern and macho, he's exciting and he has a beautiful baritone voice. I can't wait to be Kelsey's bitch."