Monday, March 16, 2009

Graham Norton Made Me Cry

La Cage aux Folles was the second "Broadway" production I ever saw, or rather Broadway by way of a touring company to downtown Phoenix, in 1985. (The first had been 42nd Street starring a blowzy Dolores Grey.)

I didn't register the gayness, or didn't feel much for it. Odd considering I was a fourteen years old going in knowing each showtune. There was no "I Am What I Am" because I loved musicals without shame and no one told me that I should feel any other way. My parents and sister were with me, in fact.

Peter Marshall and Keene Curtis starred. (Turns out Keene was the first gay man to play Zsa Zsa, playing his first gay role, which I just found out while reading my program from a revival - nearly 25 years later, 500 miles away from Phoenix, on the bank of the Thames.)

Tonight I sat in the third row, on the far aisle, as Graham Norton sang "I Am What I Am" and then stormed off the stage, past me and directly out the side door of the theater onto the honest-to-goodness street.

As the lights went up for the interval I wiped away my tears. I had already been crying intermittently, involuntarily in that way that feels embarrassing for a grown man to cry at a Jerry Herman musical.

It's a brilliant production, don't get me wrong. It's been stripped of it's glitz and it's stopped apologizing for itself. The men don't rip off their wigs at the end of a song to shock a complicit audience. No self-respecting drag queen needs to trick the audience into believing she's a woman. There's no trickery necessary because a drag queen would be the last person to deny she's anything other than herself.

Graham Norton cannot sing so much, but he owned his part. His Zsa Zsa was not what we used to patronizingly refer to as courageous. He played his part with aplomb but, so much better, his performance was matter-of-fact. Thank you to Sean Penn for his courageous Harvey Milk, but no one except a gay man can sing "I Am What I Am" with the integrity of a real live homosexual. So, thank you Graham Norton for playing her with no more affection than one would expect from a French drag queen in a Jerry Herman musical...and no less.

When gay Arthur Laurents first directed La Cage, written by gay Jerry Herman and gay Harvery Fierstein, he said he couldn't have the leads kiss because half the theater would walk out. He wanted to finesse the audience into acceptance. This revival - some 25 years later, long enough for someone to be born and grown into an adult, this revival ended with a middle-aged gay couple kissing as the curtain slowly went down.

And the audience still leaped to it's feet.

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