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The Naked Truth About New York's 'Adult Musicals'

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Diana Lynn Goble tells jokes and Wayne Clark strips in 'We'd Rather Switch.' Diana Lynn Goble tells jokes and Wayne Clark strips in 'We'd Rather Switch.' (Kenn Duncan/ New York Public Library for the Performing Arts)

When you think of New York musicals from the 1970s, big and glitzy affairs like The Wiz or A Chorus Line might come to mind. But in off and off-off Broadway theaters, low-budget productions reflected the city's fiscal and social realities. Musicals like Hair, Oh! Calcutta! and I'm Getting My Act Together And Taking It On The Road dealt frankly with politics, sex, and gay rights. 

Elizabeth Wollman writes about the era in her new book Hard Times: The Adult Musical in 1970s New York City. Talking to Soundcheck host John Schaefer, she defined "adult musicals" as those that dealt with the sexual revolution, feminism, or gay rights movement during the decade.

Another common thread: Many featured simulated on-stage sex and full-frontal nudity with an assortment of male and female actors.

In the 1970s, "Broadway was kind of suffering. Financially a little bit, but especially creatively," Wollman said. "The youth movement in the 1960s was rejecting their parents and the previous generation as tastemakers -- and demanding their own entertainment." 

The song-studded Hair and long-running Oh! Calcutta! spawned Broadway productions and enjoyed mainstream success. Others, like Let My People Come and Stag Movie, are less familiar to today's theatergoers. 

"Some of these didn't really stand the test of time because maybe you're not going to play this music for your kids and dance around the living room with them," Wollman explains. "So they don't enter the public consciousness in the same way, but a number of them were really striking to me."

These boundary pushing musicals also left their mark on future Broadway productions of Company, La Cage Aux Folles and The Falsettos. As changing sexual mores from the 1960s continued to evolve in the '70s, Wollman says, "I think that entertainment products like this did influence the tide."

Your stories: Did you see "adult musicals" like Hair, Oh! Calcutta! and Let My People Come? Tell us why you attended -- and what you thought of them. Post a comment below or leave a voicemail at 866-939-1612. 

Guests:

Elizabeth Wollman

Comments [5]

Leonard J. Lehrman

I'm very glad to receive the correction regarding the very talented Earl J. Wilson, Jr. being still alive. Not sure what the source of misinformation regarding his alleged suicide was.
A well-respected and dear friend of mine has convinced me that the last sentence of my previous comment deserves some elaboration:
The transition from O CALCUTTA, which was, or tried to be, rigorously heterosexual, to LET MY PEOPLE COME was discussed in the broadcast, and the latter's welcoming homosexuality was seen as healthy or at least bowing to the times - despite the heterosexuality of the composer, two of its three creators were gay. I just remember how the homosexuality seemed to take over the piece; the only real sexual tension between actors, clothed or unclothed, was of the same-sex variety; whatever heterosexuality there was, seemed to be perfunctory - almost like "going through the motions." The door was opened to works like TORCH SONG TRILOGY and LA CAGE AUX FOLLES which asserted homosexuality not only as a right but as a commendable lifestyle.
Both principal critics for theatre and for music on the NY Times are now openly, proud members of the gay community, which has often treated folks outside that community pretty badly. I could cite specific examples, some close to home, but am not sure this is the right forum for it.

Dec. 06 2012 12:56 PM
Seth R Christenfeld from NYC

You understand incorrectly, Leonard: Earl Wilson, Jr., the composer/lyricist of Let My People Come, is quite alive.

Dec. 06 2012 08:30 AM
Leonard J. Lehrman

Leonard Bernstein told a group of us at Harvard he had been asked to write the music for HAIR, but found the book too weak; eventually, he said, the book was thrown out anyway. I found many of the songs exhilarating, the nudity a bit tame. Alan Dershowitz, who went all the way to the Supreme Court to get it unbanned in Boston, was willing to fight for our right to nudity in opera productions at Harvard, but we weren't able to act on it until years later - see photos of my production of THE MERMAID IN LOCK NO. 7 in France, in 1989, at
http://ljlehrman.homestead.com/BelezyMermaid-1.html
O CALCUTTA was much more exciting, especially the sections with Margo Sappington, the very talented (and only real) dancer in the production; I got permission to produce it at Cornell in 1974, but unfortunately, though everyone wanted to see it, only a handful were willing to be in it, so it had to be canceled for lack of a cast.
I saw LET MY PEOPLE COME with a friend over from France during a Christmas holiday. Unlike O CALCUTTA, there seemed to be no real heterosexual tension on stage - only homosexual. There were some clever scenes, and music (though I understand the composer committed suicide a few years later), but so far as sexuality was concerned, I thought it marked the beginning of the takeover of Broadway by gays.

Dec. 06 2012 12:40 AM
Mark Rubinsky

Can't wait to read the book. I was one of the electricians during the run of Let My People Come at the Gate, perched high above the audience in the lighting booth every night. As a straight, young man, I remember how moved I was by the song "I'm Gay". I recall it as a beautiful show and it did feel like were doing something exciting and subversive. Thanks for the memory.

Dec. 05 2012 09:44 PM
Jane

Back in the 1969, I worked for a research company that was hired to help evaluate how well Hair! would work as a movie. To do this, we recruited people to go to Hair (we paid for their tickets) and then brought them back to the office to participate in focus groups. We had to hire limosines to make sure that they actually came back to participate!

Dec. 05 2012 09:23 PM

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