It’s the only Broadway musical to have won a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical twice and the only show to win a Best Production Tony Award for each of its Broadway productions (1983, 2004, 2010), but its beginnings were far from auspicious to say the least.
Having produced the 1974 Tony nominated revival of Gypsy, for Broadway director, Arthur Laurents, executive producers Fritz Holt and Barry Brown approached their old “teammate” with a new venture, a musical based on a French farce about the son of a St. Tropez nightclub owner and his gay lover, who brings his fiancée’s ultraconservative parents home for dinner. This was 1983 at the height of the burgeoning AIDS epidemic and homophobia was in full surge. No fan of camp entertainment himself, Laurents figured Holt and Brown would never find the financial backing and only agreed to sign on because they were his friends.
His enthusiasm brightened however, upon meeting the show’s playwright, Harvey Fierstein and its composer/lyricist, Jerry Herman. Although a script had yet to be completed, Fierstein did have a plot plan for the production, which would bear the name of the original play (and film), La Cage aux Folles, and Herman had already written the song that would serve as the finale for the musical’s first act, and it was a show-stopper.
As the composer/lyricist for such enduring classics as Mame and Hello Dolly! Jerry Herman had long been a Broadway legend, albeit one without a hit for nearly two decades. Having concentrated on darker-themed productions he was keen to return to form with an optimistic, mainstream, song-and-dance musical that an average, everyday audience would enjoy. Of course in 1983 nothing said “mainstream and everyday” quite like a gay nightclub owner and his drag queen wife, and Herman is said to have suffered a panic attack before the pre-Broadway Boston unveiling of “La Cage”. For its part, the Boston audience (here in the one-time home of the censorious Watch and Ward Society), gave the show a standing ovation and Jerry Herman would go on to win the Tony Award for Best Musical Score.
While the role of Georges, the St. Tropez nightclub owner and master of ceremonies, was played by (“Bat Masterson” himself) Gene Barry, the pivotal role of Albin, the star drag performer of La Cage aux Folles (and Georges wife) was played by George Hearn. A long-time Broadway and West End leading man (who’s been married five times), it is Hearn who was most responsible for breathing life into one of Broadway’s most endearing characters.
Written by Herman and sung by Hearn, today’s selection is that show-stopping first act finale, concerning an individual who has been compelled to take a stand in the name of human dignity.
I Am What I Am
I am what I am
I am my own special creation
So come take a look
Give me the hook or the ovation
It’s my world that I want to take a little pride in
My world, and it’s not a place I have to hide in
Life’s not worth a damn
‘Til you can say, “Hey world, I am what I am”
I am what I am
I don’t want praise, I don’t want pity
I bang my own drum
Some think it’s noise, I think it’s pretty
And so what, if I love each feather and each spangle
Why not try to see things from a different angle?
Your life is a sham ‘til you can shout out loud
I am what I am!
I am what I am
And what I am needs no excuses
I deal my own deck
Sometimes the ace, sometimes the deuces
There’s one life, and there’s no return and no deposit
One life, so it’s time to open up your closet
Life’s not worth a damn ’til you can say
“Hey world, I am what I am!”