Tuesday, March 3, 2020

We Are What We Are

As Albin/Zaza, with James Patterson as Georges
La Cage Aux Folles can be enjoyed purely as a frothy farce, a glamorous spectacle, a bubble of a musical comedy.  And it is all of these things.  But if we look beyond the laughs and the glitter, there are deeper messages for us and our time--which is why the piece is a timeless classic.

On the surface, we are greeted with all the elements of classic farce: a flamboyant, openly gay couple run a drag club on the fringe of the Mediterranean resort town they live in. Their son announces his betrothal to the daughter of a homophobic politician determined to shut down all the gay clubs in St. Tropez.  Hilarity ensues.  But, in the hands of Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman, this story of worlds colliding takes on greater dimensions, inviting us to open our minds and hearts to a story of acceptance, self empowerment and love.

In 1983, when the show premiered on Broadway, I was a freshman in college. I had not come out yet as a gay man, and the times were not hospitable. A rising tide of conservatism had overtaken the country; the Religious Right was cutting its teeth, and gay people were a prime target of their venom.  Famous people were being outed, their careers destroyed.  AIDS had just begun to decimate the gay community and our government was doing nothing to stem the tide of what would become a global pandemic.  In response, LGBT people activated, and groups like Act Up and Queer Nation demanded equality and action to save the lives of those affected by HIV/AIDS.  It was a time of great fear but also of great empowerment.... and I came out in the midst of it all.  Taking a stand for how I love and live despite these pressures--good preparation for one day playing Albin!

The original cast of "La Cage Aux Folles"
La Cage Aux Folles was a bold and risky choice for that season on Broadway--chorus dancers in full drag, a central love story of two men raising a child together, and a repudiation of the kind of bigoted politicking that was taking root in our culture.  And yet, it was a massive hit.

Fast forward nearly 40 years, to the America we live in today. A rising tide of conservatism has again taken hold in our government and our culture.  Loud voices of bigotry and discrimination abound.  It's a time of division and fear.  And here comes La Cage Aux Folles again, with its exuberant celebration of gay culture, its glitter and glamour, and its message of inclusion, tolerance and empowerment--all encapsulated in the show's timeless anthem, "I Am What I Am."

As we've been rehearsing here at Riverside Theatre these past couple weeks, another dangerous virus has started spreading throughout the world--the Coronavirus--threatening to become a deadly pandemic.  I've watched officials trying to stem the panic, and people worldwide scrambling to keep themselves safe from this highly infectious disease.  It is in such moments that we are reminded that regardless of race, color, creed, gender or orientation, we are all human: we are all vulnerable, we are all mortal.

As I prepare to play Albin--a man who, even by today's standards, is living outside what most consider "normal"--who has to plead with his loved ones and his world to accept him as he is... I remember that human beings in times of crisis, when existential threats begin to close in, reach beyond their differences. They find common ground in the name of survival.  I was in New York City during 9/11 and I remember, in the wake of that horror, the way communities reached out to each other to help, to comfort, to commune and to carry on.

After all, we are what we are, and what we are is a human family.  It shouldn't take a terrorist attack or a deadly pandemic to remind us that at our core, we all are human beings; we all want the same things--love, acceptance, a family, a future, and the freedom to live a happy, healthy life.  La Cage Aux Folles isn't a "gay story," it's a human story.  The message we are left with as we brush the glitter off our sleeves and walk out into the world smiling and humming Herman's fabulous tunes, is that we are not so different, we humans.  We all want to be happy, safe, loved.  We want to make this time The Best of Times, and live and love as hard as we know how.  Join us March 10-29 at beautiful Riverside Theatre, and feel the love.