Three decades ago, Tony Award-winning composer Jerry Herman ("Hello, Dolly!," "Mame") went to see the French film "La Cage aux Folles," a comedy about a gay couple — a manager of a drag nightclub in St. Tropez and his lover, the club's star attraction — and what happens when the manager's son brings home his fiancée's very conservative family.
"I came home and said, 'This has to be my next musical,' " recalls Herman. "I called my agent and he told me that other people were working on it and I was too late. He was so sorry. But what happened is that they got rid of that group and they wanted to start all over again with me. I always felt it was meant to be."
Herman starts to laugh. "This is what I told my closest friends: I called each one of them and said, 'I am going to do a new show that I know has very limited appeal, but I don't care because I love the material.' They all laugh now. They said, 'Limited? We don't think so.' It's just been a beautiful surprise."
Just like the Les Cagelles performers at the nightclub, the musical has had amazing legs.
The original Broadway production, which ran from 1983-87, starred George Hearn as the flamboyant Albin and Gene Barry as his partner, Georges. It received eight Tony nominations and won six of the awards, including best musical, director (Arthur Laurents), actor (Hearn) and score for Herman.
A 2004-05 Broadway revival didn't find an audience but won two Tonys, including one for best revival. Then in 2008, a more intimate, scaled-down version directed by Terry Johnson premiered in London and won the Laurence Olivier Award for best musical revival as well as for best actor, for Douglas Hodge as Albin.
That production, also starring Kelsey Grammer as Georges, opened last month on Broadway to great acclaim. The production picked up three Drama Desk awards on Sunday, plus a special award to Herman "for enchanting and dazzling audiences with his exuberant music and heartfelt lyrics for more than half a century." It will compete for 11 awards at the Tonys on June 13.
Relaxing in the well-appointed living room of his expansive Beverly Hills condo, the 78-year-composer, who won the lifetime achievement Tony last year, says the success of the new "Cage" has been a "remarkable" experience. "It's the same music, the same lyrics, the same wonderful book by Harvey Fierstein. But it's totally new. It's in the perspective of the audience going into a little club."
The lavish 1983 production, says Herman, was perfect for its time. "It was when we were doing big glamorous musicals," he says. "Now, 27 years later, this new production is so perfect for today because it's gritty. It's real and it's not glamorous at all. The entire evening focuses on the three people, the two guys and the son. It's about people and it's about the difficulty of a son being ashamed of a person who brought him up as a mother. You are never distracted by a sequin or a bead. Instead of 30 pieces, the orchestra is stronger with eight pieces."
It can take Herman weeks and even months to write a song, but it took him only one day to compose "I Am What I Am," the rousing and emotional end to Act I, which became a hit for Gloria Gaynor and a gay pride anthem.
"Harvey Fierstein came in one day with a beautiful speech to end Act I," Herman recalls. "In the middle of the speech, Albin said, 'I am what I am, there's absolutely nothing I can do about it.' I remember him reading this and I said, 'Wait a second. If you will OK my using those five words, I will write you a killer closing number for Act I.' Harvey said, 'Go have a good time.' The next day, I called both Arthur and Harvey and said, 'I have something to play for you. I can't wait.' It just came to me."
Herman is really the last of the traditionalist Broadway musical composers in the tradition of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser and Cole Porter. His scores run the gamut, from flashy, catchy tunes to big production numbers to heartfelt ballads. It's no wonder that two of his "Hello, Dolly!" tunes, "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" and "It Only Takes a Moment," taught the little robot "Wall-E" all he needed to know about the human race in the 2008 animated Oscar winner.
"I think his music is universal," says "Cage" musical director Todd Ellison. "I think it touches on so many levels. The lyrics are concise and the melodies fit them perfectly. So you have a song [from 'Cage'] like 'Song on the Sand,' which is a gorgeous melody and the sentiment is so incredibly moving. He turns on the faucet and out comes the melody. It just flows so easily for him."
Over the last 27 years, Herman has received letters about how "Cage" changed people's lives (now he gets e-mails).
Ironically, he says, "I did the show not as a gay activist, that's not what I am. I did the show because I thought it was a great piece of entertainment and entertainment is my middle name."