I Am What I Am: the Jerry Herman anthem that anyone can own

I was leaving a wedding when I heard that Broadway legend Jerry Herman had died, which feels about right. I Am What I Am, his signature anthem from La Cage aux Folles, is a song to be scaled whenever drink has been taken and identity totters: by a spangled diva in the spotlight, a club kid staking a claim, a bridesmaid clinging desperately to dignity. Anxious, defiant, you stare into the dazzle, hitch up your tits and sing.

La Cage is a Feydeau farce with show tunes, pitting a cabaret queen against the moral majority, with a book by Harvey Fierstein (who later lent his gravel-pit register to the song on Broadway). When drag queen Albin is disinvited from his own son’s wedding, he refuses to shuffle out of the picture. One draft speech included the line, “I am what I am and there’s nothing I can do.” Herman’s synapses rippled. “Hold everything,” he exclaimed. “I want to take those five words, if you will give them to me … I can write you a first-act closer that will be a killer because I feel that emotion in me.” The next morning, he gathered everyone in his 61st Street studio and sang through the mounting choruses. “The reaction was cataclysmic.”

A hymn to self-belief … Simon Burke as Georges with John Barrowman, who took over the role of Albin in the Playhouse production of La Cage aux Folles.

A hymn to self-belief … Simon Burke as Georges with John Barrowman, who took over the role of Albin in the Playhouse production of La Cage aux Folles. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Herman is, among other things, a champion of the overlooked, undervalued middle-aged: from meddlesome Dolly Levi to Albin, squeezing with effort into bouffant and corsets. Albin’s big number begins by reminding himself that he’s fought to establish his own identity; by the song’s end, he’s insisting that we tell the world our own truths. As the Aids crisis deepened, this wasn’t an insignificant act. In 1983, George Hearn premiered it on Broadway with bunched fists and chandelier earrings; Walter Charles took it on tour with elegant restraint. In London 25 years later, Douglas Hodge’s gurgling Albin made it sound like a nervous breakdown in a glitter ball, while world-weary Roger Allam had more than a touch of Ena Sharples: being yourself is hard work, but what else can you do?

Herman’s showstoppers are relentless: they sink their teeth into you with bulldog grit and drag you along, chorus after chorus. The effect is delirious, but exhausting. Waiters pour down the staircase to welcome Dolly; Mame is feted in an everlasting cakewalk. Broadway composer Frank Loesser, Herman’s early mentor, doodled the effect of his songs as a speeding train with a bright scarlet final carriage. They start slow, then pick up momentum and make like a freight train towards an ovation-hungry kicker.

Sydney Flash Mob Choir celebrates equality, singing I Am What I Am – video

Away from the show, I Am … has been a lip-synch love bomb, of course it has. This summer, it provided the Pride theme for Belfast club Harland and Poof (“because at the end of the day, you are what you are. Let’s get fucked up, motherfuckers!”). It naturally slotted into Shirley Bassey’s repertoire – though the diva hardly struggles for self-belief – and attained disco fervour with Gloria Gaynor.

But it isn’t necessarily a solo: it resonates on a communal scale. In 2017, a flash mob sang out in Sydney after Australia voted to support same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, in 2012 it capped the opening ceremony for London’s Paralympics – a firework-igniting extravaganza including a hands-in-the-air Ian McKellen, a vast sculpture of artist Alison Lapper and, at its leather-lunged centre, Beverley Knight leading the 80,000-strong crowd in an adapted chorus: “I am some-body, I am what I am.”

Identity politics have become ever less cut and dried since Popeye sang, “I yam what I yam and that’s all what I yam – I’m Popeye the sailor man” and since Herman gave voice to an individual’s essential core. We still ricochet between apology and assertion, between private and social identity. But perhaps there’s still a frisson to planting a heel on the floor and snarling with Albin: “Life’s not worth a damn till you can say, / Hey world, I am what I am!”


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