La Cage Aux Folles is a great musical. It was revolutionary when it came out (and has the Tony awards to prove it). When it opened, it was one of the first shows that centered queer characters and showed gay relationships as loving, lasting, and normal. Its protagonists were two gay men and their son–clearly shown as a loving family. It also did an important job—better than even some contemporary shows do—of showing that while drag as an art form is loaded with humor, the performers are not the joke.
But even forty years later, the show still contains surprises. There is one seemingly lighthearted song at the end of the second act that, when examined in our current context, takes on an entirely new meaning. It can be reinterpreted as a bold, necessary rebuke of fascism in all its forms. And best of all, it slaps. That song is: “The Best of Times.”
La Cage Aux Folles’ radical inoffensiveness
For those more familiar with this story from its Hollywood film adaptation The Birdcage, this number and its context might be a bit of a mystery. That’s because the scene was cut in adaptation from show to film.
As a very brief recap, both the film and the musical are set in a drag nightclub (in the musical the club is in St. Tropez, France, in The Birdcage in Miami, Florida). The owner (Georges in La Cage, Armand in Birdcage) is the romantic partner of the club’s star (Albin/Albert), and together they raised a son (Jean-Michel/Val), from a previous dalliance of Georges’. But alas, the boy has terrible taste in parents-in-law: he has proposed to the daughter of an arch-conservative politician! The conservatives are coming to dinner, and so Georges and Albin (at their son’s misguided request) have to figure out whether and how to construct a closet around their lives in record time so that they can “pass” as cishet acceptably enough for their judgemental dinner guests. Chaos ensues. Ultimately, instead of trying to pass as cishet “Uncle Al,” Albin chooses to appear for dinner in perfect drag as the conservative ideal of Val’s mother.
But, in the show unlike the film, the dinner is burned and the party decamps to a local restaurant. There, Albin is rumbled by the proprietress of the restaurant and asked for a song. Thus begins “The Best of Times.” If you’re not familiar, have a listen:
On its surface, the song is a perfectly nice, inoffensive anthem. Its melody is simple, and repeated so many times that the audience can’t help but hum it as they leave the theater. Stephen Citron described the song in his book Jerry Herman: Poet of the Showtune:
“It’s an infectious sing-along, full of the repetition Jerry Herman writes better than anyone… It has very little to do with the plot, but it wells up such a spirit of bonhomie, optimism, and well-being that it has become a standard.”
Looking uncharitably at it, you can see why the scene was cut from the film. It’s a showstopper, but it’s a showstopper for the sake of being a showstopper. It doesn’t drive the plot forward or reveal anything new about the characters. Some great songs fit into this category: “Too Darn Hot,” “Steam Heat,” “Anything Goes,” or “Oklahoma” to name a few. This is turn-your-brain off bombastic musical theater.
But if you turn your brain back on for a second, there’s another way to interpret what the song has to offer that can have a radical, necessary, political message for our times.
A new interpretation of an old tune
I’ll be clear from the jump– this is probably not an interpretation that Jerry Herman, the songwriter, would have approved of. And, for those about to cry foul, that’s more than okay: the Author is Dead (figuratively and, unfortunately in this case, literally), and songs are given new life by being powerfully reinterpreted all the time.
The author might not approve because in his memoir, Herman himself discusses how he never intended for La Cage to be especially, as he puts it, “politically militant.” He goes on to write that has little time for the criticisms of the “Act Up! gays and other militants who criticized the show because it wasn’t ‘strong enough’ and didn’t go ‘far enough’.”
His approach was subtler. He writes:
“That’s the real secret of getting your point across– not by hitting people over the head with some pedantic lesson, but by making them fall in love with your characters.”
Herman celebrated how La Cage was embraced “in South Africa and Mexico and Brazil and Germany where you’d think people would be hostile to it.” He even thought it was a positive sign of the universality of the human experience that “The Best of Times” was played at the 1992 Republican National Convention for George and Barbara Bush.
I respect Mr. Herman’s optimism. I wish I could share it. In the face of both the Trumpist and COVID eras, something more is needed from his song than a hummable tune that even homophobes can appropriate as a feel-good appeal to political stasis. And there is more meaning we can make from this song: a scathing rebuke of fascist fantasies about the past.
The Best of Times is…
But first, the song. The number starts with Albin briefly introducing it as an age-old folk song, and then launches into the melody, with ideas that should resonate with anyone trying to live in the moment:
The best of times is now. What's left of summer But a faded rose? The best of times is now. As for tomorrow, Well, who knows? Who knows? Who knows? So hold this moment fast, And live and love As hard as you know how. And make this moment last Because the best of times is now, Is now, is now.
In its bridge, it repeats its presentist pean:
Now, not some forgotten yesterday.
Now, tomorrow is too far away.
Others join in—first his family, then the patrons in the café, then the arch-conservatives, then (presumably) the audience.
So hold this moment fast, And live and love As hard as you know how. And make this moment last, Because the best of times is now, Is now, is now.
The chorus repeats. The key changes. There’s dancing on the tables. It’s a whole thing. As the climax erupts (spoiler alert), Albin pulls off his wig (which, if you know drag shows well or just watch Drag Race, you know is a coup de grace on a bravura performance), and the jig is up.
So far, so simple. But the message in the song reveals itself most when contrasted with a song from another show—one that is remarkably similar in some ways and vastly different in others: “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” from the 1966 musical Cabaret.
Cabaret and La Cage, fascism and antifascism
Cabaret and La Cage are quite similar; both take place in and around a nightclub. Both center the humanity of the socially-marginalized people within the nightclub in direct contrast with efforts by conservatives outside it to dehumanize them. Both have bombastic showstoppers. But Cabaret’s is a dark inversion of the form. This is because Cabaret is a chilling show set against the backdrop of the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, and how the Nazis destroyed the lives of any they deemed “deviant.”
“Tomorrow Belongs To Me” is not the best song in Cabaret, but it is probably the most important one. The song is used slightly differently in the musical versus its film adaptation, but in both, it begins as a sweet, acapella folk song sung by a single voice. As it goes on, more and more characters join in as the choruses repeat. But as they do, the lyrics turn into an explicitly violent Nazi anthem. In the famed Beer Garden scene in the film, it shows the song initially sung by uniformed Hitler youth, but eventually, more and more ordinary-seeming Germans enthusiastically join in. It demonstrates the seductive power and friendly face of fascism. It remains chilling to this day. Watch it here:
We tend to think of Nazism in particular, and fascism in general, as humorless and cultureless. But it is important to remember the fact that fascists of all kinds have used, and still use, music and culture to spread their ideology. Understanding this and how it works is an essential component to fighting it.
Fascist music and culture trends use particular themes and ideas that reflect their ideology. In The Devil’s Historians: How Modern Extremists Abuse the Medieval Past, my co-author Amy Kaufman and I repeatedly show how Nazis and other fascists are obsessed with the past. But their past always has similar characteristics. Political theorist Roger Griffin famously identified “palingenetic ultranationalism” as a core component to fascism. The idea is that fascist ideology always revolves around a rebirth (palingenesis) of a nation. The present, for them, is corrupt and irrevocably broken. They seek a return to a glorious past of their imagination, where they and their nation were great. Ironically, though today’s conservatives rail against progressive “grievance” and “identity politics,” the fascism with which these conservatives flirt so dangerously is defined by grievances against a perceived loss of power by white, male, cishet, Christian identities. It seeks to “Make America Great Again,” harkening back to a vague time of greatness that has been lost. It is a message that is oddly hopeful for the future—but its hope is curdled into violence against their chosen enemies.
Fred Ebb understood this well when writing the lyrics to “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” They are simple, juxtaposing traditional pastoral imagery with the promise of future violence and glory.
The sun on the meadow is summery warm. The stag in the forest runs free. But gather together to greet the storm. Tomorrow belongs to me. The branch of the linden is leafy and green, The Rhine gives its gold to the sea. But somewhere a glory awaits unseen. Tomorrow belongs to me.
The patrons in the café join in.
The babe in his cradle is closing his eyes The blossom embraces the bee. But soon, says a whisper: "Arise, arise, Tomorrow belongs to me" Now Fatherland, Fatherland, show us the sign Your children have waited to see The morning will come When the world is mine Tomorrow belongs to me
The chorus repeats. The key changes. The orchestra swells. The Nazis salute. It’s a whole thing:
Now Fatherland, Fatherland, show us the sign Your children have waited to see The morning will come When the world is mine Tomorrow belongs Tomorrow belongs Tomorrow belongs to me
The implication of the refrain is that, “while the present may belong to you, through glorious violence, tomorrow will be mine.” The present is the enemy; they have created a fantasy of the past, and lay claim to the future. They will make both real through violence.
When comparing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” with “The Best of Times,” the lyrics of the latter take on a very different meaning. It stands as a rebuke of the fascist message. It almost seems intentional. Compare the pastoral summery imagery of “Tomorrow Belongs”
The sun on the meadow is summery warm.
The stag in the forest runs free.
To “The Best of Times’” rebuttal:
The best of times is now.
What's left of summer
But a faded rose?
“Tomorrow Belongs to Me” is obsessed with the past and future:
The morning will come
When the world is mine
Tomorrow belongs to me
“The Best of Times” shouts that they don’t matter.
Now, not some forgotten yesterday.
Now, tomorrow is too far away.
“Tomorrow Belongs to Me” is about nationalist love through a darkly paternalist lens:
Now Fatherland, Fatherland, show us the sign
Your children have waited to see
“The Best of Times” is about loving friends and family hard, and in the moment.
So hold this moment fast,
And live and love
As hard as you know how.
It is no accident that “The Best of Times” is sung to the arch-conservative intruders in La Cage. It is a refutation, by Albin, Georges, and the residents of Saint Tropez to their arch-conservative ideology, cloaked in a pretty anthem. And thus, what might, at first glance, just be an bombastic song in a 40 year old musical suddenly snaps into relevance today. It is a rebuke of fascism then and now.
The paradox of hope and gratitude
Of all the myriad emotions in the human experience, only two are forward-looking: hope, and its counterpart, fear. One is the expectation that something good will happen, one is the expectation of something bad. Many songs in the musical theater canon are forward-looking: the entire songbook of “I want” songs, for example. Looking to the future with hope is no bad thing (radical, I know). It’s essential for a progressive outlook; one cannot change the world for the better without looking towards the future. Hope is also something that, here in the midst of a resurgence of the Coronavirus pandemic—we all could use more of.
But it’s also important to recognize two other things: first, that hope can be wielded as a weapon too. That’s one of the appeals of fascist ideologies, that Cabaret revealed so elegantly; fascism plays on the emotions, it is aspirational. This is one of the reasons why arch-conservatives are so interested in forcing their interpretations of an heroic, mythic national past on everyone—whether that be in Germany or the United States. They are trying to build a fantasy of the past that they can then claim as their vision for the future. In order to do so, that historical fantasy needs to be compelling enough to inspire their adherents to commit violence in order to enact it.
The second thing to know is that one of the antidotes can be a focus on appreciating the present-moment. Holding gratitude for the present–and for all the positive changes that we and our ancestors have made in our society over time– and hope for the future is a good paradox. Because “The Best of Times” must simultaneously be now and all the future nows we can strive to make for our friends, our family, and everyone whom we love. Today belongs to life, to love, and to us.