This one doesn't need a witty blurb. Judge Brett Cullum concurs.
Tonight you're going to see gratuitous nudity!
There is absolute truth in advertising with Naked Boys Singing, because you get ten men performing musical numbers nude. All singing, all dancing, and hardly any clothes. No surprise you get to see everyone naked. What is disarming are the emotional depths of the songs and the charming naivete of the actors who gleefully prance through their paces with a lot of joy without a stitch of clothing most of the time. The whole experience feels surprisingly a lot more innocent rather than sleazy, and you'll never see this much flesh without any salacious agenda or "whacka whacka" porn music. It's not pornography, and it never aspires to be apart from a moment or two in a steam room ballet. There's nothing overtly sexual about any of the numbers, because they concentrate on the insecurities of men with their bodies. Anyone expecting titillation will be a bit let down, although the film is indeed full of handsome men in the buff. TLA Releasing provides the DVD edition of Naked Boys Singing with a stuffed package including insightful backstage moments that chronicle the making of the project.
Facts of the Case
Naked Boys Singing is simply put a fun show without much to weigh it down or get in the way of singing without pants. As a musical revue it has almost no dialogue, and the songs drift from silly ditties about a "Naked Maid" and a "Perky Little Pornstar" to more serious subjects like loss with "Kris, Look What You Missed" and unrequited love for "Window to Window." There's a locker room changing number, a very strange cookout metaphor for masturbation, a traditional Jewish Bris, an operatic chronicling of all the words for the male member, and even a love song to the late Robert Mitchum and the days when men were allowed to be flawed. The overall message of the show is that we as a culture take male nudity far too seriously, and we need to lighten up and realize it's no big deal. It pokes fun of the fact that you paid to see ten men naked sing, and keeps its tongue in its cheek the whole time. Sondheim it ain't, but at least it's smart enough to know exactly what it is doing and offer no pretense or clothes.
There is no formal plot aside from a "get naked" unifying theme, and that is how the show was presented onstage originally. The musical revue merely works its way through several campy numbers about men, no clothes, and what that means. It starts up with a group number with the whole cast singing "Gratuitous Nudity," and then moves through various solos, duets, and group numbers for the next hour and a half. Songs are written in all different styles, and the show is presented in front of a live audience. The film adds an overture which shows the guys arriving at the Hayworth theatre where it was shot, but sticks closely to the original stage concept.
The musical revue Naked Boys Singing has been charming audiences around the world since March of 1998 when the show debuted humbly at The Celebration Theatre in Los Angeles. It was conceived to rescue the sixty-four seat theatre from financial ruin, and artistic director Robert Schrock was looking for a surefire hit to save him and his company. He knew West Hollywood audiences responded to two things—musicals and nudity. So why not do a gay themed naked musical? It was the logical response to Oh! Calcutta! which was aimed at straight audiences a couple of decades back. He decided to ask a whole gaggle of songwriters to write sixteen songs about male nudity, and the result was a revue about how vulnerable men are without their clothes. The show was a smash hit, and ran at the Los Angeles venue until July of 1999. The original Los Angeles cast made a CD recording of the show, and after the run was over it opened Off Broadway at the Actors' Playhouse in New York City. In New York they've changed locations a few times, but it still continues to run open ended at Dodger Stages. It is (as of the date of this writing) the 10th longest running Off Broadway show in history. Other companies have sprung up in cities like Chicago, San Diego, Fort Lauderdale, San Francisco, Portland, Provincetown, Minneapolis, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Buffalo, Milwaukee, Houston, Rome, Sydney, London, Cape Town, Oslo, and Vancouver. Robert Schrock had a hand in all of these productions, and served as a consultant to launch each one even when he couldn't physically make it to the location. He wanted to make sure the show stayed true to his original vision, and that the material was presented in the right spirit with a certain level of quality.
I know way too much about the stage version, because I was in the Houston production from 2000 until roughly 2005 presented by the Bienvenue Theatre and directed by Christian DeVries. We mounted the "sure to sell out every night" show three separate times, and somehow I ended up in every iteration including a stint in San Antonio. I always performed the solo number "Robert Mitchum" and sang and danced my way through the company numbers. The show has many rules, and the first is you audition completely clothed. Nobody is cast on the basis of how they look nude, but rather how well they sing and dance. The idea has always been to find a variety of body types, and not to allow the cast to look too uniform to keep it authentic. In every city the show was mounted the cast was local to make sure the flavor of that area was preserved. Some productions included special local numbers designed to give them a tie to their respective community such as Houston's "Every thing's Bigger in Texas," "Rockin' on the Rock" for San Francisco, "A Little Yankee Ass" for London, and "Hey Mr. Ashcroft" for Washington. The only thing missing from the cinema treatment are these geographic reference points, as well as a number from the original LA production called "Stripped" which was cut early on and replaced with "The Entertainer."
Creator Robert Schrock always knew he would eventually do a movie of the show, and even back in 2000 when I was starting as a cast member of the inaugural Houston production he talked about it when he came down to consult and advise us. The biggest question was always how to put a simple intimate theatrical revue on the silver screen. Bob thought about inserting a romance story with two of the boys falling in love and following their drama backstage between the numbers. There was much talk about expanding the show to include location shooting, or adding a plot and dialogue, but in the end the film version is simply a presentation of what ended up on stage with almost nothing changed. The only variations I can detect are some of the numbers are slightly extended, and optical camera effects are slapped on to make it more filmic. The orchestrations are far more fleshed out as well with more instruments, since the original productions relied on one super talented pianist named Stephen Bates who unfortunately passed away in 2003.
The movie version recreates the show's physical production qualities slavishly beat for beat even retaining most of the original choreography in the big opening and closing numbers. Director Troy Christian (choreographer for Adam & Steve) collaborated with Robert Schrock to restage the show for the film version, but it retains the simple bare approach that is trademark to the source material. They have assembled a cast of fresh faces new to the experience with only one cast member returning from the original Los Angeles production. The boys are of varying types including a professional dancer (some will recognize Kevin Stea from a Madonna tour or Showgirls), a natural redhead, an Asian tenor, a Hispanic hunk, a Nordic gym bunny, and an assortment of other types creating the ten men ensemble. They all have great bodies coupled with "good enough" voices, and the dancing is simple enough to allow for the fact things are hanging out unsupported.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
My only problem with keeping the stage production for the movie version of Naked Boys Singing is you do not get the immediate intimacy of a live show. The movie often feels flat because you are watching an audience clap and cheer, and yet somehow you aren't included. Also seeing a naked singer on film is not as impressive as seeing one a few feet away from you, although some will argue "pause" and "zoom" make up for that. I wish you could see more backstage antics with the movie, because that is where the film can go where the original can't. There's a reason musicals like Dreamgirls or Chicago don't just tape a performance of the Broadway show for their respective movies. A lot of times what works on the stage doesn't translate to film as well as it should, the two are intensely different mediums. Often the attempts to make it more filmic such as quick edits, simple visual effects, and split screens distract more than help.
The transfer is a little bit frustrating in places since it is a stage show shot by a digital camera crew. The widescreen image is clear enough most of the time with nice flesh tones, but it looks blown out by the lights at points and too dark in others. It seems like the camera people had no experience filming a theatrical production. The music is a bit off in spots even though that's easily explained. The challenge of trying to tape a naked musical live is you have no place to put a microphone. All of the singing and dialogue had to prerecorded or looped in post production rather than recorded live. Sometimes the vocals don't match the performance, and other times the vocals seem too hot ot harsh. These are show tunes, and sometimes they grate in the translation. Again, some songs work better in a live situation and less so when five speakers are pumping it out in your living room.
What makes Naked Boys Singing an extremely satisfying DVD experience is the inclusion of an hour-long documentary on the process of making the film. It is the DVD's sole extra save for promotional spots, and it elevates the project considerably. This footage is priceless, and really should have been incorporated in the feature when it had a cinematic run. It gives context to everything. They start with conceptualizing the project, casting, rehearsing, and filming everything. It's almost more fun than the movie itself, because we get to see the drama of what the company goes through when they realize they will have to perform naked for a live audience. One guy drops out altogether, another begs his agent to get him out, and another learns he looks great naked but can't deliver the singing the creative directors want. It's a struggle, but everyone remains good natured about the whole thing. In the end people know what they are doing if fluffy fun, and they all appreciate the chance to perform and discover how to get over their insecurities.
In the end that is what Naked Boys Singing is about, shedding your insecurities. Most people will go in just to see the nudity, but the beauty of the revue is it brings up a lot of issues most people have whether they end up naked on stage or not. Do I measure up? Is everyone looking at me? Why do I feel so vulnerable? Is this dirty? Pretty heady stuff for a little group of songs written merely to save a West Hollywood theatre. Most of all it's just a lot of fun! True, seeing it on stage is the best way to experience the show. But thankfully the DVD will allow anyone who can't get to a city where the show is playing to see it, or those simply too embarrassed to buy a ticket and watch men shake their moneymakers at them with a group of strangers. It's got a real big…um…heart!
Guilty of being exactly what you'd expect and just a touch more. Sorry Pat Robertson, but it looks like this one's a hit.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: TLA Releasing
• "Nuts & Bolts" The Making of the Movie
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