George Hamilton is the latest straight actor to play the role of Georges, the gay owner and emcee of the St. Tropez drag-queen nightclub in La Cage aux Folles. He has been preceded by the likes of Gene Barry (who originated the role), Robin Williams (in the Mike Nichols movie The Birdcage) and Kelsey Grammer (who starred in the Broadway revival on which the tour that Hamilton is in is based).
But in a phone interview, Hamilton didn't dwell on his predecessors in describing his approach to the role. Instead, he talked about his half brother, William "Bill" Potter, who was gay and died at 53 in the 1980s.
"Bill never felt accepted," Hamilton said. "Even though my mother loved him, he never felt like she accepted him. I accepted him because I grew up with him. I think about him a lot when I'm playing Georges."
In one of his last conversations with his brother, a decorator who never really came out of the closet, Hamilton said, he asked him what he would do if he had to live his life over. "And Bill said, 'I would love more.' And that's what La Cage is all about. It's not about gay or straight. It's about family, about living your life and finding love, and about standing up for yourself for who you are."
Hamilton's reference, of course, is to the iconic anthem of the musical, I Am What I Am, sung by Georges' partner, Albin — stage name Zaza — who stars at the nightclub. When the young man that Georges and Albin raised announces his marriage, he insists that the flamboyant drag queen go back in the closet so as not to offend the father of the bride, a homophobic morals crusader.
There's a wonderful bonus track on a reissue of the original cast album of La Cage aux Folles, with composer Jerry Herman at the piano, describing how he came to write I Am What I Am for his collaborators, book writer Harvey Fierstein and director Arthur Laurents, and singing the opening verse.
I am what I am
I am my own special creation
So come take a look, give me the hook
Or the ovation
"From there on, that became the heart of La Cage and one of the proudest songs I've ever written," Herman said.
When it premiered in 1983, La Cage aux Folles was the first gay Broadway musical, and for all its glitz and glitter, the show had a boldness that is easy to overlook some three decades later. I Am What I Am became a signature song for gay and lesbian pride (and a disco hit for Gloria Gaynor). Song on the Sand is still one of the few gay duets from a Broadway show.
There's a very La Cage moment in Next Fall, a play by Geoffrey Nauffts now at Florida Studio Theatre. Set in New York, the play is about two gay men, one a devout Christian, the other agnostic, who have been in a relationship for five years. At one point, Luke, the believer, desperately tries to "de-gay" their apartment before his religious father pays a visit, taking down a Robert Mapplethorpe photo that hangs over the bed, hiding a Tinky Winky doll and removing a Truman Capote book from the shelf.
Luke has never been able to come out to his parents, fundamentalists from Florida, to the bafflement and hurt of his partner, Adam. "And you don't think he knows?" Adam says of Luke's father. "All those years you were doing splits in your back yard in your little Richard Simmons shorts? Just tell him, already."
Next Fall is a cartoony sort of play, but its depiction of a gay Christian is interesting. Luke, who prays after sex, thinks that being gay is a sin but that as long as he believes, Jesus Christ will forgive him. "It's human nature, Adam," he says over breakfast after their first night together. "We can't escape it. But as long as you've accepted Christ … ."
That reasoning probably wouldn't fly in a Catholic confessional, and it leaves poor Adam excluded from the blissful afterlife awaiting his lover. But the conflict between Luke's faith and Adam's casual lack of belief gives Next Fall a provocative kick, though the constant quips sometimes make it feel like an episode of Will & Grace.
There's another play in the bay area, Daniel Talbott's Slipping, which has one more performance today at [email protected], that seems like a genuine advance for gay theater. Set in Iowa, it is about a 17-year-old named Eli who is openly out of the closet, with a supportive mother. That the play takes his homosexuality pretty much for granted is refreshing, though he has loads of the usual teenage angst over his romance with a high school shortstop and his previous, abusive relationship with another jock.
Slipping, which is broken into brief, often cryptic scenes and leans heavily on snippets of music by the Smiths, Linkin Park and other rockers, is like the culmination of a long, torturous process in the history of theater. Not unlike the process of coming out itself for many gay people.
The moody Eli isn't the kind of guy who would break into an exuberant rendition of I Am What I Am — he'll leave that to the kids on Glee — but his theatrical lineage reaches all the way back to pioneers like The Boys in the Band, the first widely seen gay play, and La Cage aux Folles.
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.