Welcome to the mad house


A new production of the legendary Broadway hit musical La Cage Aux Folles will be bringing some sunshine and glitz to our theatre in January. In anticipation of its visit, we take a look at the background to the story.

Let’s deal with the title first of all. ‘La cage aux folles’ literally translates as ‘the cage of mad women’. In this case, the ‘mad women’ are actually drag queens, who perform at a club of the same name, in St Tropez in the south of France. The club is owned by Georges (played by Hollywood and Broadway star Adrian Zmed), whose partner Albin (John Partridge, recently seen at our theatre in Chicago) is the club’s star drag performer.

This idyll is disrupted when Georges’ son – from a brief youthful relationship with a woman – announces his engagement to the daughter of a right-wing politician, the leader of the Tradition, Family and Morality Party, leading him to ask his father and Albin to cover up their lifestyle.

Having developed from a 1973 French play, which was also made into a highly popular French film, the musical opened on Broadway in August 1983. It received a warm reception, despite producers’ worries about depicting a gay couple on stage at the height of the panic about AIDS. This initial production ran on Broadway for four years, and long before Priscilla set out across the Australian desert, became one of the first shows to bring drag into the mainstream.

British theatre in particular has a long and honourable tradition of men dressing up as women – if you don’t believe me, think about the pantomime dame – but drag took a bit longer to become mainstream.

But, what exactly is drag, and where does the term come from? Although Albin in La Cage uses his background a drag performer to try to pass as a woman, most modern practitioners would say there’s more to being a drag queen than just dressing as a woman. The American drag queen RuPaul says: “I do not impersonate females! How many women do you know who wear seven-inch heels, four-foot wigs, and skintight dresses?…I don’t dress like a woman; I dress like a drag queen!”.

Interestingly, there’s no agreement on the origin of the term ‘drag’, although it dates back to at least the 1870s. One suggestion is that it may simply be an acronym, standing for ‘dressed resembling a girl’. A more exotic explanation it that it comes from the Romany word for skirt, ‘daraka’, possibly travelling via Polari, the slang language used by the gay community right up until at least the 1960’s.

Wherever the term comes from, the flamboyance of drag is now part of the entertainment mainstream. In 2008, the cast of the West End production of La Cage Aux Folles were even part of the Royal Variety Performance.

La Cage Aux Folles: Tuesday 24 – Saturday 28 January. Book here.

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