The Happiest Corpse I've Ever Seen
The Last Twenty-Five Years of the Broadway Musical
By Ethan Mordden
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2004 Ethan Mordden
All rights reserved.
The Great Tradition
They knew how to write a musical comedy in the 1920s. There was the Cinderella show, usually set in New York and often Irish in flavor. There was the legacy-with-a-catch plot left over from the 1910s: heroine must keep her temper for a year, hero must marry mysterious stranger, and so on. There was the rustic-conquers-the-city premise; also its converse, the slicker-among-the-peasantry tale.
Most dependable of all was the engagement-threatened-by-a-snag setup, with farcical plot development involving mistaken identity, jokes about marriage and politics, out-of-story gags such as byplay with the orchestra (who by logic's rights are not part of the narrative reality), the sudden appearance of dancers who don't even bother to check into the plot before launching their act, and other extraneous fun.
This describes many a twenties title, but especially one of the most successful of the kind. Of course, it had a touch of novelty. Shows had to, with so much monotony of genre. Kid Boots (1923) had golf. The Cocoanuts (1925) had Florida real-estate scamming. A Connecticut Yankee (1927) had time travel. And this show had a homosexual romance bonding its two leading men. I'm thinking of the last of the twenties musicals, La Cage aux Folles (1983).
This was not the first musical to include a gay couple. The little-known Sextet (1974) presented a party hosted by two male lovers, and some three months before La Cage aux Folles opened, Dance a Little Closer offered a pair of airline stewards who actually asked a clergyman to marry them, leading to a full-scale musical scene on this matter a generation before gay marriage became even a controversy.
But La Cage aux Folles unprecedentedly starred its gay lovers, George Hearn and Gene Barry. Moreover, they played not merely sweethearts but a couple of twenty years' standing who have raised a son (John Weiner). It is the son's engagement that rests in jeopardy in Harvey Fierstein's script, drawn from Jean Poiret's play of the same name. The title translates as The House of Crazies and refers to the Saint-Tropez cabaret that Barry runs and over which drag artiste Hearn presides.
One can only guess how the show might have gone over if key producer Allan Carr had hired not these two straights for the leads but, say, Noël Coward and Liberace. The production, directed by Arthur Laurents and choreographed by Scott Salmon, was conservative generally — traditional, let us say — with a heavy scene plot necessitating old-fashioned blackouts and motorized set changes over orchestral distraction. And Jerry Herman, who defines mainstream simply by showing up, wrote the score.
Still. Two gay guys dominating the evening in domesticated security and no one calls the cops? Herman even provisioned the cabaret's drag-queen chorus with the merrily unapologetic "We Are What We Are." The engagement's snag is that son Weiner loves the daughter (Leslie Stevens) of a homophobic politician, and thus Hearn finds himself excrescent in his own family. This inspires the defiantly unapologetic "I Am What I Am," capped by Hearn's throwing his wig at Barry and storming up the theatre aisle to end Act One. And this of course becomes a revolutionary gay anthem in real life, as Herman, Carr, Fierstein, and Laurents must have known it would.
A bold twenties musical comedy! There weren't many others, though the American theatre's inclination toward tolerance of minorities and unique opinions roots La Cage in history. Indeed, of all the cast, only the homophobic politician (Jay Garner) and, to an extent, his wife (Merle Louise) see anything unusual in gay. The people of Saint-Tropez can't even be called "accepting": they don't notice it. Garner's daughter, too, can't be roused to hatred. When Garner demands that she accompany her parents as they stomp out of Sodom, she refuses.
In fact, the one genuine snag in the love plot is not the bigoted politician but rather the son, because he wants to accommodate bigotry. Like Patrick, the adopted son in another Jerry Herman show, Mame (1966), who repudiates governess Agnes Gooch because her single-mother pregnancy will offend his in-laws-to-be, Hearn's son wants Hearn out of sight when the bigots show up. This prompts "Look Over There," Barry's gentle rebuke of the young man's monumental disloyalty. It is one of Herman's more emotional numbers, but understated, even repressed: so embarrassed to have to be sung at all that its waltz melody rides on a wave of angry broken chords. We see what patient, loving parents Barry and Hearn have been, and Weiner sees it, too. Humiliated, he runs offstage during the song, leaving Barry to finish it as a valentine to Hearn.
Nothing so subtly intense could have graced a twenties musical comedy in the 1920s. Not, at least, before Show Boat, near decade's end. But then La Cage returns to its generical roots, for Hearn both leaves and stays, turning himself into a drag Mother, complete with prim maroon suit, white print blouse, and sensible slingbacks. The masquerade was a staple of twenties shows, in Two Little Girls in Blue (1921), Just Because (1922), Lady, Be Good! (1924), China Rose (1925), Tell Me More (1925), The Five O'Clock Girl (1927), Fifty Million Frenchmen (1929), and literally scores of others. It was how musical comedy saw the world: a place of games.
However, La Cage treats serious issues, if in its own unserious way, and Hearn's disguise is a kind of pun on the strict construction of gender meaning. Hearn's a better parent — a better person — than the more conventional parents Garner and Louise. And this disguise also brings about a conclusion to Weiner's conflict, when he addresses Garner:
WEINER: I apologize for what happened tonight. I made a terrible mistake, but ... I hope, one day, I'll receive forgiveness for being stupid and thoughtless.
GARNER: I do not accept your apology.
WEINER: It wasn't to you I was apologizing. It was to my parents.
Weiner even celebrates the moment with a reprise of "Look Over There," showing how well he has absorbed Barry's lesson.
In a way, La Cage aux Folles is about a happy family confronting an unhappy family because of a technicality. It's a classic premise for farce, perhaps most classically stated in Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's You Can't Take It With You (1936). Still, La Cage stands out from other shows for the riotous nature of its drag-club setting, with its "notorious and dangerous Cagelles." So Barry calls them in the show's first moments, following a spectacular decorative effect in which the buildings around a square in Saint-Tropez seem to move toward us and then turn, as if indicating the way to the club itself, to honesty and liberation — to independence from bigots, a thematic preoccupation for the musical since the 1920s, in the Cinderella titles, a few of the operettas, and Show Boat.
Of course, the musical's aesthetic preoccupation is zany song and dance, and a backstager set in and around a drag club has that built in. Choreographer Salmon enjoyed the opportunity to bring costume changes into La Cage 's first number, "We Are What We Are." The twelve Cagelles appeared posed in elaborate gowns, then doffed the outer layer to tap in their pastel pajamas as the abandoned finery soared up on rigging into the flies. Salmon then created yet another change, to tunics and short skirts, using attire to invent a visual crescendo with which to build the number.
"A Little More Mascara" offered another surprise, beginning as George Hearn's character solo as he made up in his dressing room but then moving "onstage" to turn into a performance number for him and the Cagelles. The comic title song, extolling "the magic and the mood" while advising customers to "avoid the hustlers, and the men's room, and the food," presented Salmon with yet another great opportunity. The vamp preceding the verse tastes of taboo on the interval of a second in the minor — it has the sound of Oscar Wilde cruising Peter Pan — and the refrain eventually explodes in a crazed cancan for the Cagelles.
This was the kind of dance theatre that the musical used to excel in — not Dream Ballets or violence but sheer joy, getting more out of rhythm than the lyrics and music can by themselves. Yet the ensemble's neatest surprise lay not in a dance but during the Cagelles' curtain call. As a little white dumpster traveled from stage right to left, the twelve dancers discarded their wigs and dresses, dropped them into the bin, turned to face us: and, lo, two of them really were women, Linda Haberman and Deborah Phelan.
A high-powered entertainment that acceded to the spiraling capitalization costs of the big musical with a production of spendthrift command, La Cage came in at summer's end as a guaranteed hit. Its same-sex romance, complete with sentimental fadeout to reprise of love song in moonlit square, utterly failed to offend. Was it because its dangerous content was set into such old-fashioned packaging? At a time when hit musicals wore the New Look, Company -tight and Chicago -spare, La Cage was reassuringly old-hat.
Along with those hoary blackouts and the scene-change gallop music was an antique observance of autonomous comic shtick, the kind that perverts character for a laugh. Thus, sneaking past a news reporters' pile-on by joining the drag show in full kit, Jay Garner and Merle Louise presented not mortification but enthusiasm. Garner in particular betrayed his character's wary asceticism. So thoroughly "dragged" that he looked like Marie Dressler, he should have made a hasty exit. No: director Laurents had him enjoying himself and putting on a show. This is not how a homophobic hypocrite politician behaves when escaping from journalists in woman's attire. Even the show's technical shocker was old wave: when the club's stage was cinematically "moved" to the right to show action in the wings. This had already been pulled off in Me and Juliet (1953).
Nevertheless. La Cage had been playing so well in its Boston tryout that RCA Victor taped the album two and a half weeks before the New York opening, and the show held the Palace Theatre for 1,761 performances and became an international attraction, just as the French film based on Poiret's play had been. A disappointment in England and Australia, the musical attained repertory status in Germany and Austria, and played South America, Italy, and Hungary, among other places.
A smash: and any decent cast can play it. Masculine Georges and effeminate Albin are star parts, yet the hoardings have featured also-rans and understudies. Walter Charles and Keith Michell headed one national tour, and Keene Curtis and Peter Marshall the other: a fine serving of talent, with Michell in particular a dazzling Georges, shockingly conclusive on the line "And I'm young and in love" that closes "Song on the Sand." Michell shared his Georges also with his native Australia and Broadway, following Jamie Ross, who followed Gene Barry. Yet the secondary players can be anybody.
Indeed, the two kids, though representing the traditional Boy Gets Girl, have little to do. The girl does not even enter the story till halfway through the second act. However, this does not stop her from dancing out into the middle of the first act, summoned by the boy for a dance duet after the vocal on "With Anne On My Arm." She is not physically present in any real sense, just in that twenties-musical-comedy sense that similarly welcomed the Astaires to get up and strut: because they could. The lights were turned down on the rest of the stage, and Gene Barry, who had been listening to his son at the number's start, now turned stone-still, pretending that he was as invisible as the set. The girl whirled in, choreographer Salmon gave her and the boy an effervescent minute together, she vanished, the lights came back up, and the show had got away with a stunt so Jurassic it was almost avant-garde.
That song was also given to Hearn and Barry. As "With You On My Arm," it went a bit vaudevillian when Barry invited and Hearn declined and then gave in, with spoken interjections between the lines. Is this Herman's observation that gay coupling is "equal" to hetero coupling, as comfortably interchangeable as a song lyric? Certainly, Herman did not aggrandize the kids' romance with a big ballad. That spot goes to Albin and Georges, in "Song on the Sand." A spoof of love-song clichés, it conjures them up yet does not actually utter them, letting the melody — and Georges' feelings for Albin — supply the content. It's a cute way to write a traditional honeybunch number without honeybunching. But it's also a subversion of status quo, because it's exactly the sort of tune that the two kids might sing thirty years after the curtain call. In effect, the love that dare not speak its name doesn't need to: there is only one kind of love.
Some day we may get a true-gay revival of La Cage, with, say, English rootytoot Rupert Everett and pornmeister Jeff Stryker as Albin and Georges. (And, like Georges, Jeff actually has a son from a heterosexual fling, so he could bring Tony-baiting verisimilitude to his character portrait.) On the other hand, we are unlikely to see a revival of the aforementioned Dance a Little Closer, and not because of its handling of the gay couple. Here was a real bomb, with book, lyrics, and direction by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Charles Strouse, based on Robert E. Sherwood's play Idiot's Delight (1936).
This is the sort of show favored in the 1940s and 1950s, the musical play based on a more or less serious antecedent usually but not necessarily from the 1920s or 1930s — Rain, They Knew What They Wanted, Street Scene, Green Grow the Lilacs, The Little Foxes, O'Neill, Pagnol, Molnár. The form sometimes tilts toward opera, but more often it balances book and score with the Higher Dance, featuring where possible a Dream Ballet in which dancers temporarily take over the lead actors' roles. Originated in Oklahoma!, this genre reforms the musical, for instance in lyric writing that explores characters' individual voices. Then, too, happy-go-lucky fun is banned. The girl's energizing irruption into La Cage aux Folles' "With Anne On My Arm" is unthinkable in the musical play: characters can appear only where they actually are. (Apparitions are permitted. Rodgers and Hammerstein's Allegro , a musical play without an adaptational source, fairly revels in them; and another original, Follies , is thoroughly haunted. But these figures appear for a dramatic purpose, not because the boy wants to dance with the girl.)
Dance a Little Closer had a premise problem. "Let's do a musical with the Lunts" is an intriguing notion till one realizes that the musical has no Lunts. Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were exponentially glamorous stars during the Golden Age of American Drama (roughly 1919–59) and the only ones to combine a masterly grasp of the contemporary thespian virtues of style, surprise, and wit in one mated package. There had been great duos before, but never a duo like this. They jumped from Chekhof to Shakespeare to boulevard comedy, and they spent their youthful prime working for the Theatre Guild, which gave them (and their public) snob prestige. They liked "trick" roles, wherein Alfred could change his looks in some violent makeup job and Lynn could fool the playwright himself with an enigmatic smile for a sly twist ending.
Idiot's Delight gave them their trickiest roles ever. The setting is a hotel in the Italian Alps, where a diverse group of people anxiously awaits the outbreak of the next war. The well-made layout allows Sherwood to pass the first act introducing his characters — a French munitions tycoon, a German scientist, a hotheaded leftist, a honeymooning English couple, hotel staff, Italian soldiers. The second act develops them to a suspense climax, and the third act works it out, as war does come, in a spectacular air raid during which Sherwood drops his curtain. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Happiest Corpse I've Ever Seen by Ethan Mordden. Copyright © 2004 Ethan Mordden. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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