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La Cage Aux Folles At Thalian Hall Still Relevant, 37 Years After Broadway Debut

Opera House Theatre Company
La Cage Aux Folles, produced by Opera House Theatre Company, plays at Thalian Hall through January 18, 2020.

La Cage Aux Folles, roughly translated, means cage of the mad women.  But it’s better known as a musical by Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman that opened in 1983 on Broadway.  

Opera House Theatre Company opened its production at Thalian Hall New Year's Eve -- just days after Herman passed away.  This weekend, it finishes its run. 

We talked with two of the actors about why a show that broke precedent 37 years ago -- telling a story about a gay couple grappling with straight world expectation -- is still relevant in 2020.

JEFF PHILLIPS:  …I’ve been here since Jesus was a baby…

That’s Jeff Phillips, who plays one of the leads.  Audiences have seen him in Wilmington musicals for years…

JP:… Sweeney Todd, Secret Garden…


Cullen Moss has a long list of TV credits – including One Tree Hill, Dawson’s Creek, Secrets and Lies, Eastbound and Down, those Canada Dry commercials in which he plays…

CULLEN MOSS:  It’s an unambiguously European guru who sings the praises of Canada Dry Ginger Ale with lemonade as a means of achieving nirvana and calmness, which we know can be found in soft drinks…

Both of them are in La Cage Aux Folles at Thalian Hall.

Jeff Phillips explains the show this way:

JP:  If you’ve seen the movie The Bird Cage with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane, this is the musical in which that was based on.  It is about two young kids, Jean-Michel and Anne, who want to get married, and like all young people, they have to let the in-laws meet.  Her Dad is an ultra-conservative politician, played by Tony Rivenbark, with an ultra-conservative, high-strung socialite mother played by Suellen Yates. 

They have to meet Georges and Albin, a gay couple that own a drag bar, that’s the most successful business in St. Tropez, and Albin just happens to be the star named Zaza, who is the most famous drag queen in the area.

The beautiful part about this script is that you read it today and you think that it was written today.

La Cage has enjoyed at least two major revivals.

RLH:  This show – it kind of broke precedent and set a precedent when it first opened in the early 1980s.

JP:  Correct.  1983 it opens on Broadway.  So it’s Jerry Herman, Harvey Fierstein. Jerry Herman had already had a lot of success with Mame and Hello, Dolly! and was sort of looking for his next big hit.   It just started breaking box office records at The Palace Theater, won the Tony Award for Best Musical, and it’s the only musical, that when the revivals come back to Broadway, have won the Tony award for Best Musical Revival.

Why does it keep winning awards with each revival?

CM:  The theme of family and love and inclusion, I think, doesn’t die. There’s no expiration date on that.  The struggles with self-acceptance and accepting the differences in those who you love – that will always ring true. 

JP:  As a gay married man who is – sort of -- navigating a new social dynamic, a new legal dynamic since 2012, I find the emotional resonance very applicable to my own life.

I never thought I’d have the opportunity to do the show much less sing this – what has become a cultural anthem for the LGBT community…

CM:  It’s a beautiful moment and, it’s brought me to tears. 

[Harvey Fierstein sings I AM WHAT I AM]

That’s writer Harvey Fierstein singing the part Jeff Phillips is playing at Thalian Hall. 

La Cage Aux Folles finishes its run January 18th with performances Friday, January 17, and two shows on Saturday the 18th.   

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.