How to Make a Politically Important Show Without Being Political

Earlier this summer I had the pleasure of seeing Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron’s Fun Home. The musical memory play (adapted from Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel memoir) had me captivated. It was an absolutely cathartic experience, and my eyes were still wet with tears long after the cast had taken their bows. As I sat on the train home, I tried to figure out why the piece had affected me so much. What was it about that musical that made me want to fight harder for the advancement of the LGBT community? As I reflected on the show and the many innovations it has made (most notably being the first mainstream musical to feature a lesbian protagonist), I remembered that it wasn’t too long ago that audiences were introduced to mainstream musical theatre’s first gay love story: Georges and Albin.

La Cage aux Folles opened on Broadway in 1983 and was a hit, winning 6 Tony awards including Best Book, Best Score, and Best Musical. The Harvey Fierstien/Jerry Herman musical (based on the Jean Poiret play of the same name) has since become a classic, and some consider it one of the first examples of gay rights activism in a Broadway musical. That was never the goal, though.

Jerry Herman, a gay man himself, did not want to write a propaganda piece. He insisted on writing a traditional musical comedy. In fact, he was very nervous about how the show would be perceived. Before the Boston tryout, no one knew how the world would react to a musical love story about two men. Never once did he think about any larger impact that the show might have. In the PBS documentary Words and Music by Jerry Herman, the legendary songwriter discussed the act one finale “I Am What I Am,” which went on to become an anthem for many performers in the LGBT community. Herman says that the song was never meant for any other context apart from the show. He only wrote what he thought Albin should say in the moment.

When asked—in an episode of Theatre Talk—if the show’s long-lasting success had anything to do with its proximity to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, Jerry Herman denies it: “It’s not a story about ‘a time’; It’s a story about a dysfunctional family and that’s why it was so successful.” He went on to say that he felt they had created a show that can touch anyone regardless of their own experiences.

Watch this video on YouTube.

According to La Cage’s example, the best way to make your political statement in a show is to not make it at all. This is an example followed closely by the creative team of Fun Home. Not once (to my knowledge) has Jeanine Tesori or Lisa Kron made any comment about their musical being anything more than the true story of Alison Bechdel and the adaptation of her book. They didn’t set out to be politically innovative. They set out to make a good show and to tell Alison’s story the best way they could. This is not to say that they were completely unaware of the importance of their work, but I would argue that their main concern was, above all, the story.

Artists are never trying only to create the next big thing. They simply do their work, and then we as a society interpret it. Neither Fun Home nor La Cage Aux Folles features any call to action. There is no Brechtian sequence in either musical where the audience is encouraged to make a change. They merely tell their stories and let the audience do the rest.

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