The original 1983 Broadway production received nine nominations for Tony Awards and won six, including Best Musical, Best Score and Best Book. The success of the musical spawned a West End production and several international runs. The 2004 Broadway revival won the Tony Award for Best Revival, and the 2008 London revival garnered the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival. The 2010 Broadway revival was nominated for eleven Tony Awards, winning the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. La Cage aux Folles is the first musical which has won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical twice and the show that has won a Best Production Tony Award (Best Musical or Best Revival of a Musical) for each of its Broadway productions. A National Tour, based on the 2010 revival, began in October 2011 with George Hamilton as Georges and Christopher Sieber as Albin. The show has had five nominations for Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical from the three Broadway productions, twice for Georges and three times for Albin, and won twice, both for Albin.
Allan Carr, who had produced the successful film adaptation of Grease (1978), was eager to work in theatre and thought a musical version of the hit 1978 film La Cage aux Folles would be an ideal vehicle for his Broadway debut. However, he was unable to secure the rights to the film and was forced to settle for the rights to the original play only. Carr hired Jay Presson Allen to write the book and Maury Yeston to compose the score for The Queen of Basin Street, an Americanized version set in New Orleans. With Mike Nichols set to direct and Tommy Tune on board as choreographer, Carr searched for executive producers and found them in Fritz Holt and Barry Brown, who immediately fired the entire creative team that Carr had assembled. All of them eventually filed lawsuits, but Yeston alone won and later collected a small royalty from La Cage.
Holt and Brown had produced the 1974 revival of Gypsy directed by Arthur Laurents, and they approached him with an offer to direct their new venture. Laurents was not a fan of drag or camp entertainment and thought Holt and Brown never would find enough investors to finance a gay-themed project at a time when, during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, homophobia was more intense than ever. He agreed only because Holt and Brown were close friends and he wanted them to remain on Carr's payroll as long as possible, but his interest grew when he learned Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman had committed to the project.
According to Laurents, when he met with Fierstein and Herman for the first time, they had restored both the title and locale of the original play but had neither a script nor even an outline for the plot. All they had was the Herman song "I Am What I Am," and Laurents immediately envisioned it as an emotional outburst sung at the close of the first act. Laurents further claims that when he explained his concept to Fierstein and Herman, he inspired the direction they took in writing the musical. Herman tells a very different story in an interview included in the original cast CD. He claims that they were well into the collaboration when Fierstein arrived one day with an emotional fiery scene he had written for the end of Act I that included the words "I am what I am." Delighted, Herman asked to use the five words, boasting he would have a song by morning, which he did. With gay-activist Fierstein and the political Laurents on board, the show could have "become a polemic diatribe on gay rights." However, Herman was a moderating influence. Having suffered a series of disappointments with darker-themed shows since 1969, he was eager to score a hit with a mainstream, emotional, optimistic song-and-dance entertainment that middle-class audiences would enjoy. The team opted to create "a charming, colorful, great-looking musical comedy - an old-fashioned piece of entertainment," as Herman recalled in his memoir Showtune. By "delivering their sentiments in a sweetly entertaining manner", the team was able to convey their gay-themed message with more impact than they could have with a more aggressive approach.
Fierstein, Herman and Laurents met daily in Herman's Manhattan townhouse to work on the musical. Because they were limited to using only the Poiret play as a source, they were unable to include the character of Jean-Michel's birth mother, who had been created for the film. They focused the plot on the fact that the relationship of Georges and Albin seems so natural that the boy is able to accept a man as his "mother". The three men agreed that Albin needed to be as glamorous an entertainer as possible, and Theoni V. Aldredge was hired as costume designer to achieve their goal.