Judge Brett Cullum salutes the courageous cast of the first nudie musical.
I don't care what you say / I'll do it anyway / Because it's mine!
I asked to review Oh! Calcutta! because too often I have found myself naked on stage. Now, you might think that means I'm a perverted exhibitionist or some kind of stripper or porn star. Truth is, I'm a shy, conservative Texas boy who turned down a part in a stage production of Equus because of a twenty-minute nude scene near the end. Then a friend of mine who was in a production of Naked Boys Singing chastised me by pointing out, "Everything coming out of New York has nudity in it now. Nicole Kidman was completely nude in The Blue Room. Jerry Hall is touring around the country with The Graduate wearing only high heels through an entire scene. Get over yourself! Nudity hasn't been a big thing since Hair and Oh! Calcutta!." Flash forward six years, and I've been a cast member of Naked Boys Singing for three years and have appeared in countless plays in which the cast gets completely starkers before the final curtain. Because of my experiences, I was more than a little curious to see how we got here. I wanted to see where all this started, the Broadway classic that shocked a nation in to having to accept that the sexual revolution had conquered the Great White Way. When did naked people become staples of theatre?
First off, the title. "Oh! Calcutta!" is not a reference to an Indian city, but rather a phonetic play on the French phrase "O quel cul t'as!" which means "What an ass you have!" The original stage production debuted in 1969 (no laughing at the year), and played in London and New York until 1972. In the States the show was an Off-Broadway hit that played to packed houses in the Eden and Belasco theatres. Oh! Calcutta! was simply a series of skits, songs, and dance numbers that celebrated the sexual revolution by allowing characters to talk about sex and run around naked. Despite the fact that luminaries such as Samuel Beckett, John Lennon, Sam Shepard, and Jacques Levy helped develop the script, the show feels more like an extended Benny Hill episode with a lot more frontal nudity. The show was a curiosity and a sensation that translated to Broadway in 1976. Once on the Great White Way, Oh! Calcutta ran for thirteen years. The sinful revue was a bona fide sensation, and for a time it held the record as the longest-running show on Broadway.
The show was filmed for posterity, and several closed-circuit pay-per-view events were held in major cities in lieu of a tour during 1971; this version was also edited into a movie, which was released on VHS. The incarnation of Oh! Calcutta delivered on this disc is that video version, directed by Jacques Levy and complete with psychedelic touches and outside sequences that were never part of the stage production.
As a cultural icon it's wholly interesting, but does the play still have much to say? I'm afraid not. With the sexual revolution a distant memory, the dated look at swingers and Kinsey-style sexual research, and the novelty of nudity behind us, Oh! Calcutta! is a quaint slice of Broadway history that is far less shocking now than it was back in the day.
Oh! Calcutta begins and ends with shots of the audience, who have come to the theatre in 1970 to experience the bawdy piece of art everyone is talking about. Young and old mix nervously in anticipation, and intercut are shots of the actors getting ready and made up backstage. Some elements of the presentation of the show on film will bother modern-day viewers. The opening "taking off the robes" number that kicks off the first act remains a coy bit of ingenious choreography, but here it is presented in split screen, which produces a headache rather than an accurate representation of how innovative the sequence was. It's still absolutely mesmerizing, but I wish it had been given a more straightforward film approach. Thankfully the climactic finale is shown almost documentary style, so we see more of the stage show's spirit. Several of the skits seem strange out of the context of the era. The "Jack and Jill" skit, which climaxes with a rape, seems callously handled to modern eyes. Most of the skits are funny and clever, but they only entertain in a goofy, unambitious way. Some are cruder than others, but nothing seems as humorous or shocking as it should given the infamy of the play over the years. The whole show has a very dated feel, and I kept expecting someone to proclaim "This is my happening and it's freaking me out!" This is ancient stuff, boys and girls, and unless you lived through free love you might not get it (I didn't, and some of it admittedly confused me).
Had the show relied more on the singing and dancing and less on the skits, it wouldn't have dated so poorly. There isn't as much nudity as you would expect, and really only the opening and closing reveal the entire cast in full monty mode. The film earned an X rating for language, the sight of naked men, and some playfully simulated sex. Hard to believe after all these years that this was much to get excited over, but it was. About the only recognizable face is actor Bill Macy (who was the husband to Bea Arthur's Maude back in the day, and also appeared in The Jerk). The feature ends with the audience notably relieved that the show was not nearly offensive enough to inspire their disdain, and they all look like they had a good time. Which I imagine will be most people's reaction to Oh! Calcutta!.
You won't see a worse transfer this year on DVD, and there is even a formal apology before the feature starts about the quality of the elements. The entire show looks like an unmastered video feed of Dark Shadows or another daytime soap broadcast from the late '60s. Oh! Calcutta! can't look good with the primitive video techniques used to film it. Sound cuts in and out, and is often hard to hear thanks to some serious distortion on the audio track. It's best to have this on the DVD format, but what a shame not much could have been done to clean it up or make it look and sound marginally better. For posterity's sake I am glad it is here, but from a DVD standpoint it's not any better than the VHS release from years ago. There are no extras save for some cast biographies and a lovely booklet, which is a reproduction of the Playbill program theatergoers were given. The disc has no other extras, and I would have loved a cast reunion commentary, or retrospective interviews.
Oh! Calcutta! was the musical that brought nudity to Broadway with a vengeance. Hair had an innocent skinny-dipping scene, and Cabaret had some bawdy moments, but here was a show that existed solely to titillate and tantalize with the promise of naughty extended nudity. Pandora's box was opened, and producers realized naked people sold tickets. How else can you explain the nearly 6,000 Broadway performances of Oh! Calcutta between 1976 and 1989? Any serious Broadway buff should include the very first nudie musical in their collection. Take it from a guy who has trodden the boards without a costume, we owe a lot to these brave men and women who stood defiantly naked and sang a number without pants. Oh! Calcutta is guilty of being an iconic cultural signpost that revealed how far sexual freedom had extended. Pornography and art would never be the same.
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