Campy La Cage Returns; Arty Overtures Overreaches

My, there’s a lot of drama associated with the first musical about a gay couple, the 1983 La Cage Aux Folles. Now happily back on Broadway like nostalgic kitsch, it was said to be daring in its day, though it was always, essentially, a sweetly old-fashioned show. From its glitzy inception, La Cage (“Time: Summer. Place: St. Tropez, France”) was caught in the crossfire between traditional escapist showbiz and the self-consciously new American art of Stephen Sondheim.

To the disillusion of La Cage’s legendary composer, Jerry Herman (of Hello, Dolly! and Mame), Art with a capital “A” won. In that same 1983 Broadway season, Mr. Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George-a musical about art-was clamorously acclaimed by The New York Times as the future (though Sunday in the Park’s banal second act satirizing modernity was smugly anti-modernist and fell apart). The embittered Mr. Herman, alas, has never composed another musical again.

La Cage won its share of Tony Awards (including one for Harvey Fierstein’s book). But the complaint of the usually optimistic Mr. Herman had more to do with Mr. Sondheim’s “artiness” and musicals of ironic existential angst and disenchantment. La Cage itself was less-complicated high drama dressed up in tinsel.

The original leads, Gene Barry and George Hearn, who played the lovable, middle-aged homosexual couple, Georges and campy Albin (who’s the cross-dressing French entertainer known as Zaza), seemed anxious to tell the world they were really straight. One hundred percent, yessiree! Now there’s a sign of the times. Twenty-one years later, Daniel Davis and Gary Beach, in a very winning partnership as today’s Georges and Albin, have no problem being publicly gay. They don’t make a particular song and dance about it. They’ve told us, in dignified effect, that they’re single men of a certain age who love performing in musicals. You do the math.

No one in their right mind gives a hoot, anyway. But there was risk involved with the original 1980′s version. The show became a big crossover hit on Broadway, but with AIDS it quickly folded on the road. In other sad words, the great American public was prepared to be entertained by “colorful” homosexuals. But when AIDS struck, the show was over.

La Cage pandered cautiously to the bridge-and-tunnel crowd in the first place: Georges and Albin are absolutely charming, particularly in the assured hands of two pros as good as Mr. Davis and Mr. Beach. There’s nothing we can teach these great performers, nothing they do not know. But, though the show’s creators originally thought they were risking a lot, Georges and Albin really amount to America’s first gay pets for straights.

In the harmless, sentimental essentials, they’re just like any middle-aged married couple. They could be straight. They’ve even got an ungrateful, bratty son, the outcome of an experimental one-night stand by Georges 20 years before-and if you believe that, you’ll believe anything. But the son, Jean-Michel (played by Gavin Creel in a ponytail), disowns his “mom,” the effeminate Albin, when he brings his fiancée and her right-wing parents home to meet a “normal” family.

Jean-Michel’s future father-in-law is a leading politician and founder of the Tradition, Family and Morality Party-the equivalent of today’s Traditional Values Coalition. This isn’t as bitingly timely as it may seem. The fun and games-sort of-begin when Albin tries to be masculine. If you ask me, Georges and Albin should have kicked their homophobic ingrate of a son out of the house years ago. But no matter.

La Cage, expertly directed by a clap-happy Jerry Zacks, is old-fashioned glitz and fun-and let’s not make too much of it either way. This is how it was, this is how it was meant to be, when Broadway musicals had overtures and entr’actes, and the showgirls known as Les Cagelles performing an extremely vigorous can-can are really quite muscular men in plumed drag.

To add to all this showbiz drama, La Cage’s great Act I closer, “I Am What I Am”-or, as it was sometimes known in the biz, “I Ham What I Ham”-became, of course, the anthem to gay pride. Biblical scholars will note Mr. Herman’s inspired link between “I Am What I Am” and Exodus 3:14, when Moses asks God his name, and the response in Hebrew is “‘Ehyeh-’Asher-’Ehyeh,” or I AM THAT I AM.

Be that as it may, Mr. Herman’s rousing, popular version has been recorded by such artists as Gloria Gaynor, Tony Bennett and Pia Zadora, and I must say I’m not surprised. It’s a terrific song delivered in high-camp style by the aggrieved, proud Albin. They really don’t write them like this anymore:

I am what I am

I am my own special creation

So come take a look

Give me the hook

Or the ovation.

Here we go! Mr. Herman’s buoyant music and lyrics raise the spirit of heartfelt showbiz corn, and we couldn’t be gladder.

It’s my world

That I want to have a little pride in

My world

And it’s not a place I have to hide in

Life’s not worth a damn

Till you can say “Hey world.

I am what I am!”

Perfect! That’s a perfect show tune. If it doesn’t touch you in some way, do not pass go and proceed to jail, where you will be forced to watch a never-ending performance of Pacific Overtures.

Let me apologize immediately! The above remark is most unworthy, particularly as Christmas approaches. Or, as the wry, winkingly “inscrutable” Narrator played by B.D. Wong in Pacific Overtures might put it: “It is my understanding that even the setting sun darkens horizon when blossom falls on mountain.”

The famously confused 1973 musical by Stephen Sondheim, with its ambitious book by John Weidman, has now been revived by Roundabout Theatre at Studio 54. (Why, incidentally, are we still seated at tiny cabaret tables left over from the Roundabout’s production of Cabaret?) Pacific Overtures can be seen as a bold experiment worth making in its merger of East and West cultures-Mr. Sondheim’s artistic rejection, as it were, of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s simplistic King and I.

But as I see its detached, overcrowded narrative about 19th-century American imperialism and feudal Japan, the musical itself is an act of cultural imperialism in its attempt to tell its story entirely through Japanese eyes. According to the original director, Hal Prince, the idea was to tell the story of the opening up of Western trade by Commodore Perry in 1853 “as though it were written by a Japanese playwright in the Kabuki style.” From the outset, it was an immodest ambition tinged with unconscious American cultural arrogance. Mr. Prince’s co-option of Brechtian technique is well-known, but Pacific Overtures overreaches itself into its own colonizing, preachy corner.

It suffers, on the one hand, from attempting far too much. Is it about the clash of two opposing cultures and the Westernization of Japan? Is it a history lesson or dramatic pageant? A guilt-inducing moral lecture about U.S. capitalism and greed? Or the story of flesh-and-blood individuals-the tale, say, of the radicalized fisherman and the compromised samurai, here flimsily sketched?

Mr. Sondheim’s more accessible, fizzy set-pieces can seem like orthodox “turns” (the jolly East-meets-West “Please Hello!”), or they can be grave (“Lion Dance”) and brilliant (“Someone in a Tree”). The entire musical-or at least what I take to be its central message-is captured wonderfully in one supreme song, “A Bowler Hat,” in which a once-proud Japanese warrior morphs before our eyes into a thoroughly modern Westernized man.

If only the rest of Pacific Overtures had been as theatrically simple and inspired. How could the horribly patronizing closing number, “Next,” even hope to sum up 150 years of Japanese history? It manages to skip over World War II while proudly naming Hideki Matsui-the top hitter on the New York Yankees last season-as an inspiring example, I guess, of Japanese initiative.

Directed and choreographed by Amon Miyamoto (whose choreography can be, uncomfortably, no better than standard Western showbiz), the barbarian U.S. invader, Commodore Perry, is conveyed by a gigantic, lumbering, Disneyesque puppet that sort of staggers in through the audience from time to time and hovers darkly over the action. Hmmm. Nothing could be less threatening. If we can’t convey American power and imperialism today more imaginatively than a puppet, proceed to Avenue Q and have done.