17 The Making of “La Cage Aux Folles”

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Hi, this is Paul Lazarus. In the 1980s, I produced and hosted a radio series called Anything Goes, a celebration of the American musical theater. Now, the Broadway Podcast Network is bringing back these shows. Today, the making of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, featuring creators Harvey Fierstein, Jerry Herman, Arthur Laurents and star, George Hearn. This program was originally broadcast in 1985.

This is ANYTHING GOES, a Celebration of the American Musical Theater--past present and future. I’m your host, Paul Lazarus. Today, THE MAKING OF LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, the enormously successful collaboration of three great talents, Arthur Laurents, Harvey Fierstein, and Jerry Herman.

“PRELUDE” (Original Broadway Cast)

Director Arthur Laurents.

Laurents: It’s the happiest experience I’ve ever had in theater. The three of us got along absolutely marvelously. Harvey always refers to us as the collaborationists. We never really had a disagreement.

Book writer Harvey Fierstein.

American Theater Wing Seminar
Fierstein: I came in one day and we had our work to do for that day, and I said, I had the most fabulous idea but just in case today we don’t come up with great things, I’m gonna save it for the end, I’m gonna hit you both with it and you’re gonna die. And Jerry said, “well I have some thoughts too, but I’ll save it for the end.” Arthur said, “good, because I have something I want to say right now. I have this idea.” His idea was my idea which was his idea.

Composer-lyricist Jerry Herman.

Herman: I feel like I’ve written a musical with three heads. This is the first time I’ve ever felt this way. I don’t feel that I have just written music and lyrics and someone else has written book and someone else has directed. I truly feel like one mind has put this together.

At an American Theater Wing Seminar, the three collaborationists of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES talked about how they began work on the show with a common goal.

Fierstein: The first thing was that we wanted to write an old-fashioned musical. We set out specifically to write an old-fashioned musical. We wanted a plot, we wanted songs that had melodies, we wanted real emotions in it, we wanted big sets and costumes. And then under Arthur’s tutelage – tutelage? That’s the right word? See how he teaches me? I learned how to service this man.

Herman: The first day we had our first meeting I remember very vividly, Harvey coming to the two of us and saying, ‘I don’t know how to write a musical, help!’ And Arthur and I said, ‘you’re with two old war horses, what are you worried about?’ And of course two days later he was telling us.

Laurents: I’d like to say something about a phrase Harvey used: “old-fashioned musical,” which I think has a pejorative connotation, and it shouldn’t. I feel all this talk about new, innovative musicals and the influence they’ve had. I’d like to know what that influence is. When we used to do these auditions, I’d say two things at the beginning. One was, that what I felt was long missing from Broadway musicals were songs that people could sing and wanted to sing. And the other thing was emotion. Character. And what I felt and what I do feel is that most Broadway musicals are all icing and very little cake. And here, thanks to Harvey and Jerry, we have cake with human ingredients. And I think there’s been too high a premium put on cleverness rather than on touching the heart and illuminating the mind with ideas. I don’t think that’s old-fashioned, I think that’s theatre.

“WE ARE WHAT WE ARE” (Original Broadway Cast)

According to Harvey Fierstein, director Arthur Laurents had a unique way of letting the writers know when he was dissatisfied with their work.

Fierstein: Arthur has a certain lovely quality of honesty. You bring him a scene, you read him the entire scene and he looks at you and says, “A dog! Out!” when all he really wants is two words changed. Jerry would sing a song and he would say, “A dog! Out!” and he wanted a lyric changed, a single lyric changed. And the two of us, until Jerry and I got used to that, until we got used to that, I would watch Jerry’s face go like that. I left many meetings in tears. I mean, as soon as I got outside I let the tears go.

Laurents: Did you really?

Fierstein: And then we hit it that one day where I finally put down my pen on the table – we were in Jerry’s dining room – and you gotta remember, no matter what the difference was, this is constant, three people working together, not fighting. I just said, “Arthur, you have a certain idea, a certain sensibility of some way you want this show to go, I don’t think that you’re listening to what I’m writing, and I don’t think you understand where I want to go, and I think that you’re right that you know how to write a musical and I don’t, and I think you should take over and do it from now on.” And sort of put it down. It was that day, it wasn’t even a couple meetings later when he said, “well at least read over what you wrote before you walk out because I’m not writing this show. Believe me, I’m not writing this show, I’m not that crazy.” And I read the scene, and I forget what line it was, I think it was, “Oh well, you should’ve seen the look on Georges face when he heard Jean-Michel was marrying a woman – I mean, a white woman.” And I think it was that line, he went, “that’s crazy.” I said, yeah. He said, “oh…” And then all of a sudden was the click.


The fact that you all came together so well makes your work so cohesive. “Song On The Sand” is another moment where the staging, the scene preceding, and the song are woven together so well.

Herman: I wanted to have a romantic theme that went through the show. That would end the show, that would be a statement that we’d hear several times during the show that would be Albin and Georges’ theme, because first and foremost, this is a love story, and to be honest to the material, I had to write a romantic song. So that was the second thing I wrote. I simply presented it to Harvey and they threaded it through the show.

Fierstein: So, here’s the real collaboration, so then I write the scene that leads up to it. What always had to be done with my scenes is I would always write into the song too far and we’d chop back to where the song would actually start singing. And then I wrote this little thing afterwards, “Oh Georges, you play my heart like a concertina,” because I knew that for the people that were nervous, they’d need a little laugh. Arthur, was one of his, “A dog! Out!” he hated the crash of the waves and said, “at least make it splash of the waves,” so right into the scene it went, and became the “I’m not so sure about the crash of the waves” this being the Mediterranean. But, in essence you are correct, and away it went!

Laurents: What Harvey actually wrote was an oblique love scene, which is why I like it so much, and why it’s fun for the actors. Because slightly often there’s an undercurrent of trouble too. And then you get into the song and I had said to Jerry, I know exactly how I’m going to stage that song. I want those two men to sit at the table and NOT move. Too often there is too much movement during a song. And if the song is good, and particularly as with Jerry’s songs, if they have an emotional content, you act them. And you don’t have to flail around and do a lot of fancy dancing and a lot of stuff going on. Rely on the material. And that moment is dynamite for the audience, and all you have is two actors sitting at a table, acting what happens to be a scene and a song.

“SONG ON THE SAND” (Gene Barry)

Fierstein: What was interesting was, when we first opened, you gotta remember when you’re out of town, the word of mouth just starts. So, nobody really knew what to expect of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES. Our second preview was a benefit that had a large gay audience, it was our AIDS Benefit. And we had this large, gay audience come in, which was the first time we could watch the gay reaction to it – or I could watch that. And when the love song started, the gay men – who nobody had told them it was a good show yet, you gotta remember, they don’t know what it’s gonna be – they start singing a love song to each other, and I watch the audience sink down into their chairs in embarrassment. And as the song went on and the dignity of that song and the dignity of the way those two men played that scene, they started sitting up in their chairs with such pride to see two men singing this beautiful love song to each other. And the scene ended and the place – y’know, they were tearing the chairs out at the love scene. We hadn’t even hit the climax of the first act yet, that’s like the center of the first act. They were tearing the chairs out of the theater. It was an incredible moment of pride.

Laurents: But you get with a straight audience, they don’t get pride but they get total identification.

Fierstein: Oh yeah.


From his dressing room at the Palace Theater, Tony-Award-winner George Hearn recalls his audition for the role Zaza, the leading lady of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES

Hearn: I didn’t even know it was being done as a musical. My agent called me and told me they wanted me to audition for it and would I, if they furnished the wigs and the makeup and the dress, would I come in and do a drag thing. And I went to a month and a half of soul searching, in and out of whether I wanted to do that or not. In my macho moments with a few drinks, I didn’t want to do it at all. And then I would talk with various friends, and among the thoughts I had was, if I don’t do it, Kevin Kline will and he’ll walk away with incredible reviews. Because I knew it was the part of a lifetime and then when I heard Jerry’s score and read the book, which was real good – it’s funny seeing early stages of musicals and the book, immediately I knew it was right. And then I went in.

Paul: And you did the whole number in the audition room?

Hearn: Well they did for me and Teddy Azar did all the make-up and there was a rather, by my standards, now ill-fitting dress there, and some kind of ballet slippers.

Paul: Do you recall what you sang for audition?

Hearn: I sang “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” (sings) Da-da-da-da.

Paul: Did you sort of do it a la Mary Martin?

Hearn: I did it in a total flop sweat panic. I just sang it rather straightforward, a little goofy, a little campy I guess. And, I remember the walk from the proscenium arch to that piano in the middle of the – I think it was the Belasco – stage was the longest walk of my life.

Paul: Were you conscious of trying to be feminine as you walked?

Hearn: No, not at all. As a matter of fact, later, all of them said to me that was one of the things that won them right over. Was the – Arthur said, “I was overcome by your sense of dignity.” And he said, “that’s what matters in this part.” And immediately afterwards, he came up and said, “well as far as I’m concerned, as far as all the rest of them are concerned, the part is cast.”

“LA CAGE AUX FOLLES” (George Hearn)

AD BREAK TRT 16:05:17

This is ANYTHING GOES with Paul Lazarus. You’re listening to an interview with Jerry Herman, Harvey Fierstein, and Arthur Laurents. Herman had difficulty writing one of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES’s most moving songs, a ballad called “Look Over There.”

Herman: In this song in particular, I was faced with the biggest problem I had in writing the score because I did not want to write another ballad. I did not want to write a dreary statement that was sentimental and heart-rending because there is great passion in that moment. He’s really berating his son, he’s really saying, “look what you’ve done, you’ve made me go against this man that’s taken care of us for twenty years.” And there’s a fist clenched, and I could not just sit down and write a ballad. And so, I put the three rhythm underneath it. And I gave it that tension and that passion and then against that I used the chromatic simplicity of the melody. And I think the combination has given me not only an unusual song, but a very honest moment that I’m terribly pleased with.

Laurents: I think it’s the best song in the score.

“LOOK OVER THERE” (Gene Berry)

Herman: I would rather have somebody hum on the way out of the theater than get paid. And I mean that, and Arthur knows I mean that with all my heart. That’s my reward. And to hear those audiences in Boston leave the theater singing, well I mean, there is no review, there is no award that I could ever receive that is a greater thrill for me.

“LOOK OVER THERE” (Gene Barry)

Herman: I would rather have somebody hum on their way out of a theatre than get paid. I mean that and Arthur knows I mean that with all my heart. That’s my reward. And to hear those audiences in Boston leave the theatre singing – there is no review, there is no reward that I could ever receive that is a greater thrill for me than that.

“LOOK OVER THERE” (Gene Barry)

Herman: I would like to tell you one little story about how this collaboration has worked. Harvey came in with a scene that ended act one, and it had the words in the scene, “I am what I am.” I think they were in a line of dialogue at that time. And I ran to the piano when the two of them left my home, and I wrote the song, “I Am What I Am.” Terribly excited, the next day played it for Harvey and Arthur, they were both very excited, but Arthur said, “I think this would be better if it came from a piece of entertainment, another number that these people did in the play rather than just a statement that comes out at the end of the act.” And I saw what he was aiming at, and that’s what made me write “We Are What We Are,” which is the opening number. So, it was done backwards, but it was done because the three of us worked as one mind. And I took the idea from Harvey and the wonderful gimmick of using the strong statement, “I Am What I Am,” coming from a piece of entertainment that these people do in this club every night, from Arthur. And that’s collaboration in the theater, and the success of that moment is not my success, it is our success.

“I AM WHAT I AM” (George Hearn)

Paul: What is this show about for each of you? Do you share and have differences about what the show’s about?

Herman: I don’t think basically we have differences about what it’s about. I think we would certainly say, which is almost becoming a cliché now, that it’s all about love. Because it certainly is. I think the three of us were trying to do an entertainment. None of the three of us are ashamed of that word. This is an entertainment. And Arthur always says, “every trick in the book that I know how to do, I’m gonna do in this show. I’m gonna pull every beaded curtain and every—” and of course he has.

Laurents: If they’re not applauding, make them applaud!

Herman: If the show says something on top of that, I’m thrilled and delighted. But we did not set out to do a message musical.

Laurents: And we have done one.

Herman: But because we didn’t set out to do that, the message is much stronger and much more subtle and much more beautiful.

Fierstein: And much gentler. I mean, somebody asked me to sum up LA CAGE AUX FOLLES in one sentence, if you had one sentence and one sentence only. And I said: how to honor thy father and thy mother. I said that’s the theme, you wanna know the message of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES? That’s what it is.

Laurents: Yes but I think any work that’s good, and I think this is a very good work indeed – and I’m not speaking as an author now, I’m complimenting these two – is about several things, and I think this piece is about several things on several levels. But I think the real triumph is, what a lot of people either don’t understand or don’t want to acknowledge is that most of the people who are in your audience are against what this show is saying. And by the time it is over, they are standing on their feet and cheering it. And I think that’s a hell of an accomplishment.

“THE BEST OF TIMES” (Original Broadway Cast)

You’ve been listening to the making of the Tony Award-winning show, LA CAGE AUX FOLLES. Sound mixing by David Rapkin. Associate producer Jeff Lunden. Anything Goes – Backstage with Broadway’s Best – is produced and hosted by Paul Lazarus. For more information, visit AnythingGoesPL.com. If you enjoyed this episode, be sure to rate and follow us. Thanks for listening.

A look at the making of the 1984 Tony Award-winning musical, LA CAGE AUX FOLLES based on the movie of the same name. Creators Harvey Fierstein, Jerry Herman, Arthur Laurents, and star George Hearn all discuss their involvement in the show. They discuss their collaboration and the challenges of bringing this now classic show to the Broadway stage.

Featured songs: “Prelude,” “We Are What We Are,” “Song On The Sand,” “La Cage Aux Folles,” “Look Over There,” “I Am What I Am,” and “The Best Of Times.”

Originally produced and broadcast in 1986. For more information go to AnythingGoesPL.com or BPN.FM/AnythingGoes. Theme music arranged by Bruce Coughlin. Sound mixing by David Rapkin. Associate producer Jeff Lunden. Anything Goes – Backstage with Broadway’s Best – is produced and hosted by Paul Lazarus.

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