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Elizabeth L. Wollman – Nudie Musicals in 1970s New York City

Unidentified cast members from the original Broadway production of Hair.

The Kenn Duncan collection, New York Public Library Digital Gallery

[Editor’s note: This post contains numerous hyperlinks to video and sound files that enrich the text with excerpts from the films and productions that the author discusses. We suggest that you read through the post once without clicking the hyperlinks to get a sense of their context in the discussion, and then go back through to reap the benefits of these additional illustrations.]

The grubby 1970s tend to lurk dejectedly in the shadow of the glorious ‘60s. Certainly, the sexual revolution is most commonly associated with that earlier, more frequently romanticized decade. But when it comes to the sexual revolution’s active absorption into the mainstream, the ‘70s trumps the ‘60s any day. The ‘70s, after all, saw the flowering of second-wave feminism and post-Stonewall gay activism and—following a series of Supreme Court rulings (Roth v. US, 1957; Jacobellis v. Ohio,1964; Miller v. California, 1973) that made the term “obscenity” increasingly impossible to define—more hard-core porn than anyone knew what the hell to do with.

The resultant confluence of complicated, even directly contradictory messages about sexual liberation, ethics, and gender politics resulted in seismic social changes that continue to be played out in this country at present—and thus a great deal of cultural anxiety that manifested itself in all forms of mass entertainment.

In the film world, 1960s sexploitation movies and imported art-house films like I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967) gave way, by the turn of the decade, to porn flicks like Behind the Green Door and Deep Throat (both 1972). Deep Throat, in particular, became a hot ticket in New York City in the summer of 1972, when everyone from Jackie Onassis to Johnny Carson started snapping up tickets to see it in Times Square. Following suit, middle-class audiences across the country started flocking to theaters to see hard-core porn in such droves that the New York Times ran a feature about the trend, dubbed “porno chic,” in early 1973.

Hard-core porn, though, was merely an extreme example of what was being reflected in most ‘70s entertainments. Like the public consuming them, films and tv shows wrestled with the decade’s radically changing sociosexual mores. Movies proffered radically diverse, even contradictory messages: domestic dramas like Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice (1969), brutal morality tales like Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977), and screwball comedies like the aptly-titled First Nudie Musical (1976) added to the national dialogue about contemporary sexuality. In tamer ways, so did tv sitcoms like “Alice” (1976) and “Three’s Company” (1977). So, too, did the commercial theater in New York City.

The Off Off Broadway movement, which began in the early 1960s, was invested in making experimental theater that might challenge and help transform an increasingly turbulent nation. Because many Off Off Broadway troupes were actively pushing the boundaries of what was deemed theatrically appropriate, stage nudity and simulated sex—along with a wide variety of experimental techniques—had become faddish on the fringe by mid-decade.

But the trend didn’t cross into the mainstream until Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical moved from Off Broadway to Broadway in 1968. A musical about youth cultures that strove to depict the social and political concerns of hippies and the new left unflinchingly and honestly, Hair was the first Broadway musical to feature simulated sex and, in one brief, much-talked-about scene set during a be-in, the full-frontal nudity of both male and female cast-members.

 “Sodomy” from Hair

Hair’s enormous commercial success spawned, on the one hand, tons of rock musicals and, on the other, many musicals with nudity and simulated sex (most of which also featured scores that drew, to some extent, on contemporary popular styles). One of the first, and easily the most commercially successful, was Oh! Calcutta! (1969), devised by the theater critic Kenneth Tynan. Tynan envisioned his revue as a highbrow antidote to the tawdry peepshow or sleazy strip-joint, and spared no expense on it. A theater was renovated expressly for the production; its set design was state-of-the-art; and sketches were contributed anonymously by prominent writers like Samuel Beckett, Sam Shepard, Leonard Melfi, and John Lennon. The groovy jazz-rock score was written and performed by a trio called the Open Window, which featured Peter Schickele in his pre-PDQ Bach days.

The original cast of Oh! Calcutta! takes an unorthodox curtain call at the final “dress” rehearsal in spring, 1969.

Photo by Ormond Gigli

Oh! Calcutta! was panned by critics, most of whom found it too self-conscious to be erotic, or even consistently entertaining. But who cared what the critics thought? Calcutta! ran for three-and-a-half years; the 1976 revival ran for another decade. By the time Calcutta! finally closed in New York in 1986, it had been seen by so many people from so many places that programs had been made available in seven different languages.

Oh! Calcutta! set off a minor craze for nudie musicals in New York, which lasted through much of the decade. The low-budget Stag Movie (1971) ran across the street from Oh! Calcutta! for six months, picking up spillover from sold-out houses and helping launch Adrienne Barbeau’s career.

Tod Miller, Adrienne Barbeau, and Brad Sullivan (l-r) in David Newburge’s Stag Movie.

Photo courtesy of Photofest

The revue Let My People Come—a raunchier, more sexually varied response to the rigidly heteronormative Oh! Calcutta!—ran at the Village Gate from 1974 to 1976, closing only after an ill-timed move to Broadway in the waning days of the city’s financial crisis.

“Choir Practice” from Let My People Come

The cast of Let My People Come at the Village Gate in the mid-1970s.

Photo by Vernon L. Smith

Even hard-core darling Marilyn Chambers tried to get in on the act with her own Broadway revue, Le Bellybutton, which opened in April 1976. Plagued with technical problems, the threatening backstage presence of Chambers’ manager-boyfriend Chuck Traynor, and the fact that Chambers’ talents did not extend to singing, Le Bellybutton lasted only a few weeks before closing.

“Marilyn’s Theme” from Le Bellybutton

The nudie musical trend reached its apex in 1977 with the Broadway premiere of the almost obscenely tame Cy Coleman musical I Love My Wife, which tackled partner-swapping in the most conservative way possible, featured no actual nudity, and had only one scene of (goofy, clownishly inept, eventually thwarted) simulated sex.


“Sexually free” from I Love My Wife

Jason Alexander, Lea Thompson, Vicki Lewis and Patrick Cassidyin the 2008 Brentwood revival of I Love My Wife.

Photo by John Ganun

As social and political conservatism grew in the lead-up to the Reagan landslide in 1980—and as New York recovered from near-bankruptcy by gradually reinventing itself as a family-friendly tourist mecca—nudie musicals disappeared by the end of the decade (unless you count the premiere, in 1998, of Naked Boys Singing as a very late addition to the trend).

The cast of Naked Boys Singing does what the title of their show says they will.

What is most striking about nudie musicals that ran in New York in the 1970s—aside from the many naked, jiggling bodies, of course—was just how conventional they were. Even the raunchiest of the bunch espoused the same basic messages: Human bodies are beautiful! Sex, regardless of with whom, is natural and fun! The seismic cultural shift that is taking place right outside this theater is not threatening or confusing or scary at all! In marked contrast with XXX theaters, peepshows, and sex clubs like Plato’s Retreat, the sex that nudie musicals featured was simulated—never real—and was almost always packaged in a familiar, age-old format: the musical revue.

Like Hair, which spurred the fad, adult musicals encouraged mainstream theatergoers to take simple, vicarious pleasure in a sociocultural movement that was unprecedented and profound—and thus, for many, enormously confusing. Adult musicals allowed audiences to feel a little dirty, a little liberated—but at a safe viewing distance, in a controlled environment, with a groovy pop-music score and a lot of jazz hands.

While many adult musicals have been forgotten to time—just one more silly fad from a notoriously silly decade—they helped push the boundaries of the American stage musical as it has developed in decades since; there would be no La Cage aux Folles (1983), Falsettos (1992), Rent (1996), or Spring Awakening (2006) without them. Shows like Let My People Come and Oh! Calcutta! might not be as revered (or as regularly revived) as some of the musicals they have influenced, but they ran when they did, for as long as they did, for a reason. They were entertaining, sure, but they also helped educate and ameliorate countless spectators during an especially confusing and tumultuous era in American history.

Elizabeth L. Wollman

Baruch College

Elizabeth L. Wollman is an associate professor of music at Baruch College, CUNY. She specializes in the postwar American stage musical, and is the author of the books The Theater Will Rock: A History of the Rock Musical from Hair to Hedwig (2006) and Hard Times: The Adult Musical in 1970s New York City (2012).