Gay classic La Cage Aux Folles returns in a timely manner
Todd McKenney speaks with Rachel Cook about the return of La Cage Aux Folles.
Robin Williams made The Birdcage, which was based on the award-winning play La Cage aux Folles, a household name. When it hit our screens in 1996 most audiences had seen nothing like it. Williams’ recent death has of course renewed interest in the film, but until you’ve seen the play, you really haven’t experienced La Cage Aux Folles.
La Cage Aux Folles was written by Harvey Fierstein and Jeffrey Herman and was first staged on Broadway in 1983. The audience reaction at the time was strong. It was a play about gay characters and gay life in a time when gay characters were still portrayed as tragic or strictly comic but nothing more. There was also the matter of the AIDS epidemic which was at its height and the ensuing backlash to the gay community.
In Australia, in 1985 Her Majesty’s staged the production with legendary theatre performer Jon Ewing playing the lead role of Albin and McKenney as one of the ‘Cagelles’.
“I actually think it came out at the wrong time in the mid-80s when the AIDS hysteria was in full flight,” Todd McKenney tells MCV.
“I was actually in it as one of the chorus and a lot of the people were in hysterics about ‘the homosexual show’, whereas now I think the time is right.”
McKenney’s career began in his mother’s dance school in Perth. He landed his first professional role in 1983 in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Song and Dance, and from there the opportunities came thick and fast. His portrayal of Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz cemented his place in musical theatre.
Now thirty years after he was in the chorus of La Cage Aux Folles he is playing Albin.
“I have such strong memories of Jon Ewing playing the role I’m now playing and my performances will be heavily influenced by my memories of that,” McKenney says.
“Also there is something great for me personally to come almost 30 years down the track and be playing a lead role in a show that I was a chorus member in when I was first starting out.”
McKenney is no stranger to heels. He says he has a pair in his cupboard, “I don’t think there are any surprises there”, he laughs. (McKenney also performed in Pricilla Queen of the Desert’s Sydney season.) However, his love of La Cage Aux Folles is also entwined in the fact that it encapsulates a love story. In fact, it is the story of the two lead characters Albin and Georges and their family that holds the show together.
“I like the humour of it but I also like that there is a very tender story wrapped up in the middle of it,” McKenney says.
“It’s not just a drag show it’s about family and family comes in so many different shades and form and structure. People watching the show now are used to gay families and they weren’t when the show first came out. My character is first of all a mother and then second a drag queen.”
Playing opposite McKenney is longtime friend Simon Burke. Burke plays Albin’s lover Georges, and the fact that Burke and McKenney have been close for many years will only add to the charisma between these two characters.
“I’ve known Simon since 1985,” McKenney says. “Simon and I know each other backwards and we have a very similar sense of humour and we are both at a very similar point in our careers. Rehearsal period is going to be a lot of fun apart from the show itself – there is probably another show in the rehearsal period!”
In one of the more tender moments of the show, Albin and Georges are remembering the time when they met and Georges signs ‘Song in the Sand’ to Albin:
“They reminisce about when they first met walking along the beach and they hear a piano accordion guy playing a melody and it’s just like any husband and wife, any gay couple any lesbian couple – anyone who has been in a relationship, they have that strong memory of when that first seed of love was planted and that song is just beautiful.”
Of course Albin’s big number is ‘I am what I am’, perhaps the biggest gay anthem of all time. McKenney is well aware that this is a number which gay audiences, in particular, will be waiting for.
“I’m learning this one already because I have to nail it every night. To sing a song that everyone knows so well and put your own stamp on it and also make it so that people want to listen and don’t just think oh here’s that song is really important.”
While McKenney’s career shows no sign of slowing down he does have some words of wisdom for up and coming musical theatre wannabees:
“Cover a lot of genres, don’t just sing the artsy-fartsy Sondheim songs. Don’t forget about the granddaddies of musical theatre such as 42nd Street, The Music Man, the big old fashioned belt-outs. And if you’re a singer you’ve got to dance and you have to have some sort of music skills. Be as proficient as you can in all areas to be employable.”
Considering McKenney’s stellar career I would think this to be sage advice.
[Top image] - Todd McKenney and Simon Burke in La Cage Aux Folles. Photo: Colin Page
La Cage Aux Folles, November 22– December 7, Arts Centre Melbourne. artscentremelbourne.com.au