Photo: Feast Creative

La Cage aux Folles may be a name many of us are familiar with – it’s an iconic queer musical, with music by Jerry Herman and book by Harvey Fierstein, which has given us queer anthem ‘I Am What I Am’. However, many of us may not have had an opportunity to actually see the show; while there have been a number of smaller touring productions, the last major London revival was way back in 2008 (the production subsequently transferring to Broadway in 2010). We’re excited that a revival of the show, which celebrates its 40th birthday this year, is about to open at one of our favourite venues, the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park.

The musical will officially open on 8th August, with previews from 29th July. GAY TIMES caught up with the two leads, Carl Mullaney and Billy Carter, to find out a bit more about this production, as well the show itself and the characters they play…

“I think that maybe a modern day audience, that for example have become attracted to drag through the rise of RuPaul’s Drag Race and shows like that, who don’t know the legacy and history of this show, may potentially be expecting to come to a drag show, outside,” begins Carl. “Actually the heart of the musical, really, is about a family unit. Family being the two of us, Albin and Georges, and our son Jean-Michel. Although, obviously, it’s set in a drag club called La Cage aux Folles and the fabulous drag queens dominate, it’s actually a story about love – about our love, and the love for our son.”

“The love for the community, too,” adds Billy. “The La Cage girls and boys, not just our unit but everybody who lives within our community. It’s a big reflection of today’s society, where you’re very aware of where you belong, and how people support you. It has a lot of emotional weight to it, which took me by surprise actually, when I first came on to the project… it catches me terribly emotionally, we all have our own personal stories. The one that seems to come out is – we have to perform for somebody else to be accepted and that’s really ricocheted around the company.”

“It’s brought up a lot of things in the rehearsal room – it’s a predominantly queer company, which we’re all so very proud of,” continues Carl. “It’s an almost entirely queer creative team. There are themes in the show which have given us all moments to pause and examine some of our own lived experience, and the lived experiences of our fellow cast and crew. I think that the great thing about it is that all of that work, all of the open discussion that we’ve had, is really colouring the performance and really bringing the reality and the heart to the piece. Oh and there’s also drag queens tap dancing! If that’s your thing.”

In this production, Billy plays the role of Georges, who runs the La Cage aux Folles club. “We do two shows a night and I’m the front man to it,” says Billy. “We re-examine our love for each other when we’re being prised apart. Throughout the show there’s a kind of renewal of vowels, there’s a bit of conflict. My son is getting married to the equivalent of Nigel Farage’s daughter so… that extreme, which we’ve all seen, to a super liberal progressive couple. And the fact that we have a son, we’re happily married, and this was written in the ‘80s – we’re a very successful unit.”

“I think for my character, it’s two-fold really because we have the character of Albin who is Georges’ life partner, and who is – like all of us – a very real person with real insecurities and worries and troubles and joys and obsessions,” says Carl, “and I also play Zaza who is the fabulous drag star of La Cage aux Folles. There’s a huge theme that runs throughout the show about motherhood, and Albin is very much the mother of Jean-Michel, who is Georges’ biological son but I’ve been in his life for 20 years and to all intents and purposes have raised this child as his mother figure.

“So Albin has the responsibility of being Jean-Michel’s mother but then Zaza is very much, to coin a modern-day phrase, the mother of the house of La Cage aux Folles, and all of its fabulous inhabitants. In this story, we visit 48 hours in the lives of these people where our son has met a girl and fallen in love, and with the impetuous nature of youth has decided to get married straight away and we have to meet her parents, who are, as Billy said, they’re a political force that want to shut down all the drag clubs on the coast. So it’s got this huge modern-day resonance, and it’s just how these characters deal with this situation.”

Billy Carter and Carl Mullaney in rehearsals. Photo: Johan Persson

We were interested to find out more about what Billy and Carl intend to bring to their interpretations of these characters, who were of course written some time ago. “It was written in the ‘80s so historically, or certainly for a long time, has been played by two straight men,” says Billy. “For a major revival, I think this may be the first with two queer people? The play was written for our characters, on Broadway, to be laughed at. There’s a responsibility that I feel as an actor portraying Georges, to give him the conflict and the pain that he goes through to please people, to pretend you’re somebody else that you’re not, I think that gives it a natural weight. It’s an interesting thing, in the ‘80s, it was all laughed at…”

“They had to, you know, it was the only way that they could get it on, to do it like that,” adds Carl. “To send it up in such a way that a straight or heteronormative audience would find it acceptable in the time that it was released. We’re definitely, with Tim Sheader [the director] at the helm, approaching it from a different perspective this time around.

“The most exciting and the most special thing for me is that we very rarely see the celebration of a femme gay man in the central role of a musical,” Carl continues. “Not only does this production do that, it’s making that femme gay man the hero of the piece. Well the two of us really, this couple, this gay couple who are of a certain age who are real people who’ve lived real lives and real struggles, and putting them at the centre of a big budget, full-scale lavish musical production, it’s very rare!”

So why should GAY TIMES readers come along to the Open Air Theatre this summer to see La Cage aux Folles? “It’s the first time this show has been seen outdoors, and that gives it an extra layer of magic and spontaneity and effervescence,” says Billy. “When all of these ingredients come together – a fabulous cast, the most incredible costumes that I think any of us will ever wear in a professional production… to be in the magical venue that is Regent’s Park and tell this story outside in the open air, it’s gonna be a summer to remember for us and for every single member of the audience who is lucky enough to get a ticket, because it’s selling fast!”

La Cage aux Folles plays at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre from 29th July to 16th September. More information can be found here.