Perfect Sound Forever

Come In My Mouth:
The Story of the Adult Musicals of the '70's

by Jonathan Ward (June 2002)

Musical Theater is about the least hip genre on the planet, at least for many of today's young, fashionable music aficionados. It's quite possible that every single used record store and thrift shop in the entire country currently has three battered copies of The Music Man and My Fair Lady waiting to be tossed into a dumpster, or completely enveloped with mildew - whichever comes first. Why is that? Is it because it's... happy? Celebratory? Can people not relate to the joy of spontaneously breaking into song to reveal your innermost thoughts and desires?

Neither can I. But that doesn't mean that it's not enlightened. In fact, there was a period of time when the musical was perhaps the most liberated of all art forms, confronting and tackling America's consistently sheepish stance on sexual liberation. Throughout the 1970's, there was a series of shows onstage in New York that attempted to honestly examine sexual morés, trends and myths with all-encompassing good humor that you won't find these days outside of a support group. With an exception or two, these shows have largely been forgotten. Many were never released on record - only private tapes exist in the hands of the composers and private collectors. They were raunchy, fun romps - and they're all gone.

Things were obviously changing on Broadway when in 1965, the male lead of the play Marat/Sade walked naked across the stage with his back to the audience. Such seemingly ho-hum nudity had been flashed off-Broadway - in the Village at the groundbreaking Living Theater for instance - but to the upper-class Broadway attendee of the mid-sixties, this was different. However, it wasn't until Hair, the hugely popular musical of 1968 that the walls started to shake. Hair, with its rock music composed by Galt McDermot and up-to-the-minute yippie lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, was quite literally a sensation to be reckoned with. Lyrically, it embraced some touchy subjects with a new sense of release. The song "Black Boys" for instance, an ode to a kind of candy and sung by a chorus of white women, deals with interracial love:

Black boys are nutritious - black boys fill me up!
Black boys are so damn yummy - they satisfy my tummy!
I have such a sweet tooth when it comes to love.
While primarily dealing with the acceptance of youth in an era fraught with conflict on many fronts, Hair was a first in terms of female nudity. It was brief and it was obscured, but it most assuredly was there on the Broadway stage singing right back at you. Not surprisingly, many theatergoers found this shocking. "The nudity is not done for shock," said lyricist Ragni in 1968. "It's not done vulgarly or out of an ugly moment. It's a beautiful comment about the young generation." As corny as it now sounds, Hair was a first in terms of an honest attempt to bring people together without hang-ups, which it did best when it had a sense of humor:
Father, why are these words so nasty?
Masturbation can be fun...
Join the Holy Orgy! Kama Sutra everyone!
For a number of years, that was about as racy as musical theater would get. However, with this vague new freedom allotted by Hair, a slew of boundary-pushing plays began to open around town. Sally Kirkland appeared completely nude throughout Terence McNally's Sweet Eros. A young Sly Stallone took it off in Score. The gay-friendly play Geese caused a scandal with its full-frontal male nudity. The author of De Sade Illustrated flew into a rage and burned down the set of his play in protest of the director's use of nudity. Dionysus in 69 opened to considerably good reviews. The play featured simulated nude orgies and was performed in a theater that would eventually become home to the respected Wooster Group. Burgeoning new director Brian DePalma was so impressed he committed it to film. Debates began to rage in the newspapers. Veteran actor Theodore Bikel in a New York Times piece entitled "Truth, Not Titillation" questioned the point of all of this, especially if the work in question - in his opinion - wasn't particularly innovative. Journalist Walter Kerr in another column sneered, "Our new-found stage freedoms seem to offer very little in the way of release; they are more nearly constructed to frighten."

Arguments continued, but more importantly audiences responded to these new works with open minds. In fact, many took the works seriously as just another example of how times were indeed changing, hence the need to bring new ideas to the theater. The limits of the law appear to have been reached in 1969 with the premiere of 29-year old Lennox Rafael's one-act play Che! An avant-garde sexual extravaganza depicting the last waking moments of Che Guevara, it was the first work of theater to depict simulated heterosexual and homosexual sex with a nude cast. Within a short while after its opening, the cast and crew were charged with public lewdness, consensual sodomy (even though simulated), obscenity and conspiracy to commit such acts under the New York state penal code. Even liberal critic Nat Hentoff, in response to Che!, wished for a return to the "drama of ideas." In a display of bravura, the show continued to play to sold-out audiences with the actors fully clothed.

 Meanwhile, Broadway stages contained more mild musical fare such as Purlie and The Boyfriend. There was a brief off-Broadway revival of burlesque musical theater with a show called We'd Rather Switch (words and music by Larry Crane) in 1969, whose claim to fame was that the men got naked instead of the women, but despite the skin it ultimately was a barrage of jokes that were lame in 1959, let alone ten years later. In fact, rumor had it that the cast was so embarrassed that they wouldn't have their names printed on the original cast LP - a bootleg that was sold at the theater. Despite wretched reviews, the show ran for months. Concurrently, in both New York and London, three important musicals were being developed that would open the doors for near total sexual freedom in the world of musical theater. The first, Kenneth Tynan's Oh! Calcutta!, would become a Broadway monolith with the longest number of shows in history until eventually surpassed by Les Miserables.

For upwards of a year previous to its opening, rumors had circulated about the content of "Tynan's new play" as it was called in the press, some saying that there would be actual copulation onstage. This stemmed from a prediction of Tynan's made some years previous. The rumors were coupled with anticipation, as Tynan (who dubbed himself "the thinking man's voyeur") was an enormously respected critic for the London Observer. City officials consulted with the producers and director of the show before it opened, to make sure and avoid another Che! The script Tynan developed himself with contributions from the likes of Samuel Beckett, Gore Vidal, Jules Feiffer, Jean-Luc Godard, Sam Shepard and John Lennon. A group called The Open Window, with Peter Schickele (the man behind P.D.Q. Bach), wrote and performed the folk-rock accompanying music.

It promised to be groundbreaking, and it was, up to a point. The show opens with the entire cast chit-chatting in bathrobes which read "Oh! Calcutta!" as the opening number plays - they step forward, and take everything off, proceeding to spend a large portion of the show dancing, singing and groping in the nude. Full frontal nudity and erotic touching notwithstanding, Oh! Calcutta! turned out to be less musical theater and more a musical revue filled with childishly humorous skits about sexual human nature, as if to go as far as they could to say that sex was no big deal. There was a song about kinky personal ads (including one person looking for a dog) entitled "Suite For Five Letters". There were skits about swinging and role-playing during sex. The most interesting song musically was "Coming Together, Going Together, which was a reflexive look at the auditions of the actual show:

Nancy: I hear the opening of the show is all the guys stand in a line and come into the audience.

 Margo: I hear the cast album's going to be recorded in the nude.

 Raina: It's an Indian show about sex. A religious fuck show.

None of this was actually true, of course. Then later, George sings:
There's some things I won't do. In this Calcutta show, they're gonna want you to screw, every night on cue...I didn't get into show business just to show my dick! I mean, what is the point?
A logical question, and one there may not be an answer to. Despite its groundbreaking nudity, Oh! Calcutta! doesn't approach sexual issues particularly seriously, and tends to sound like the stodgy voice of Tynan. It's as if when he approaches the issue of sex, he still skirts it. All the sexual situations are hetero, Tynan himself saying that he excluded homosexuality from the show. "There's been enough of that around," he said. Reviews were respectful of Tynan but critical of the show. "There is no more innocent show in town - and certainly none more witless - than this silly little diversion," declared the acidic Clive Barnes of the New York Times.

 The silly little diversion was wildly successful however and continued the debate over how much is too much onstage. The show virtually became a household name as it continued to play throughout the '70's. In response to critics, Tynan declared that though the show was largely "massage," the quest for happiness through sex was the show's principal and most important theme - and for that the show is important to this day. Ironically, it's only the mellow rock score that doesn't sound hopelessly dated.

While lines to Oh! Calcutta! were turning into throngs, another liberated musical had it's opening in January of 1971: Stag Movie. The book and lyrics were written by playwright David Newburge, and the music by Jacques Urbont. Featuring a young, nude and vivacious Adrienne Barbeau, the plot revolved around a group of talented show-biz failures that decide to pool their abilities and make a musical porno film based around the classic stag reel "The Grocery Boy."

"It was a put-down of repression and uptightness and a celebration of sex," said Newburge in a recent interview. "It was what was happening."

Stag Movie was a small show in a small theater, but unlike Oh! Calcutta!, it had a plot, it was witty, and it had gay and bisexual characters who were integral parts of the story. Perhaps because of its bluntness it was roundly panned by most critics (with the noted exception of critic Harris Green, who said it was better than anything Lincoln Center had put up in years). The lyrics had a newfound playfulness about all types of sexuality - for instance, bisexuality and threesomes in the same song, "Try A Trio":

It's groovy to be a bisexual - your hunting grounds double in size
With no one are you ineffectual - to every occasion you rise!
Try a trio! Try a trio! To Capricorn and Pisces add a Leo!
Or orgasms and group sex in "Get Your Rocks Off Rock":
Oh, the flesh is protoplasmic - and the rhythm is orgasmic -
Just wait, you're gonna heave a sigh, Max - when you and the music climax

Show you're tits off, show your box off -
Do the Get Your Rocks Off Rock -
Show your rears off, show your cocks off -
Do the Get Your Rocks Off Rock!

Other songs, like "I Want More Out of Life Than This" depict honestly how married couples often let their sexual lives slip into banality, and offers suggestions as to how to get their loins back into working order. Despite the poor reviews, the show ran for five months due in part to Ms. Barbeau's nude performance, which was described as strenuous and even acrobatic.

 "Adrienne Barbeau was amazing," said Newburge. "I had written the show for a down and out, 40-year old hooker. I re-wrote it for Adriene. She was the only one who was any good."

 Unfortunately, a cast album of the clever Stag Movie score was never recorded, and the shows' underground popularity was soon eclipsed by the third important sexual show of that short time period, The Dirtiest Show In Town, which opened right down the street in the spring of 1971.

 Not exactly a musical and more closely an ensemble performance art piece, The Dirtiest Show in Town was written by Tom Eyen, with music by Henry Krieger. At once a verbal attack on air pollution and the war in Vietnam, it was also filled with sex and nudity, and songs with titles like "Dirty" and "Peace (Piece)". In fact, this intelligent combination elevated Dirtiest Show from a funny sex show to a cultural experience, daring reviewers to criticize it: it contained what they both loved and hated. Moreover, it contained stronger lesbian and gay characters, and the show built to a literal climax where the entire naked cast writhes in a massive orgy.

"My play has no sex preference. It's homo, hetero and bisexual. I'm not sticking up for any of the three," said Eyen.

The show received excellent reviews (except for stalwart Walter Kerr, who was still complaining about nudity) and enjoyed a long run. As with many of its kin, no cast album was pressed. Eyen, a theater workaholic, went on to write Dreamgirls, a huge Broadway success some ten years later.

While these three shows continued to play, it was clear that musical theater was beginning to bring a new dimension to the audaciousness of a newly liberated theatrical community: amusing and catchy songs. Songs that were meant to break down the barrier between actor and audience, songs that were not about conflict and instead about acceptance, freedom and love. While critics raged that they didn't want any part of that kind of love - indeed, they asked, was it really love? - supporters claimed that they probably weren't getting any. Another change was the dawn of the "porno chic" era in filmmaking. The 1972 films Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door had broken box office records and for a moment, it seemed, porn - with actual plotlines - was about to completely cross over into mainstream entertainment.

While Crazy Now, 1972's dirty musical written by Norman Sachs, attempted to be a "wild musical revue" with songs such as "Get Naked" and "Dirty Mind", it unfortunately played for only one night, and probably wouldn't have been able to fill the Oh! Calcutta! void while that show was on hiatus. However, it stands to be mentioned as it continued the trend. More interestingly, a successful off-Broadway run of a show called The Faggot was the next sexually charged musical to break new ground. A show written and directed by Al Carmines, an accomplished off-Broadway musical writer and minister at the Judson Memorial Church, it explored gay and lesbian identity in relation to the heterosexual world. Carmines' show wasn't slathered with nudity, yet it remained a frank plea to understand gay lib, and played with many sexual stereotypes, complications and scenarios within the community. The oratorio of a show was opened and closed with "Women With Women, Men With Men":

When you search for yourself in someone who's made like you -
The answers are plain to see -
Beards meet beards, breasts meet breasts -
It's what you've touched that you know best -
Women with women, men with men - identity once again -
We searched for ourselves and what have we got?
Women with women, men with men.
"The Hustler: A Five Minute Opera" was an explicit bout of anonymous sex between a Harvard grad trying to make an extra buck, and a horny man with money to spare. "A Gay Bar Cantata" was exactly that, and included a torch song by the fag-hag owner. There were leather men and boy toys, plays on Oscar Wilde and Gertrude Stein, giving equal time to the lesbian and homosexual characters. Not only were the critics enamored with Carmines songwriting skills and the company's tight, vocal harmony but also they seemed to delight in the fact that his show was not a preachy or militant display, and were willing to submit to its occasional naughtiness. At the end of it all was a song entitled "Everyone Is Different":
Every love is different, too -
What turns me on may not for you -
In the relative universe - love of course will be diverse -
We will make a pact with you -
Love what you want and we will too
Not everyone jumped on that boat, including many homosexuals. There were repercussions that battled themselves out in the papers. Carmines was attacked by those who felt that he belittled the issues, and made homosexuality cartoonish. Said Carmines in a response: "No matter how benign, no matter how humanitarian, no matter how compassionate, no matter how just, those who would have any artist trim his vision to fit a sociological or political need for the "right things being said" are the corrupters of art." Carmines had several off-Broadway successes, but The Faggot remained unheard until many years later when Blue Pear Records released a limited edition release of the score on LP, with the sound taken from a private tape. Carmines, still with a refreshingly open mind, to this day practices as a minister in New York City.

 Around the same time, director Phil Oesterman and writer/composer Earl Wilson, Jr. were having a conversation. "Phil told me that the time was right to do a show about sex, and make it explicit and beautiful and funny and young. I said, 'Didn't they do that in Oh, Calcutta!?' and he said 'No, there were no songs to speak of in Oh, Calcutta! Sit down and write a song and make it outrageous."

 In January of 1974, the single most liberated sex musical opened at the historic Village Gate Theater on Bleecker Street. Directed by Oesterman with music, lyrics and skits written by Wilson, Let My People Come was an underground sensation. It broke all barriers - simulated sex, orgies, lesbianism, homosexuality, simulated oral sex, bisexuality, all celebrated, all hilariously carefree. To deliberately upset the critics, Oesterman and Wilson didn't even invite them to review it, instead letting word of mouth carry the show. "The critics don't know anything about young people and what they have to say about their bodies or their feelings or sex," said Wilson. The ploy worked. The show wasn't reviewed in the Times until May, and by that time it was sold out every night, the cast had joined Actor's Equity and an album had already been recorded.

Billed as "A Sexual Musical", Let My People Come was again a revue with no plot to speak of, but its energy, honesty and daring in regards to exploring sexual issues was a first. Right off the bat in the shows opening number, the cast sings:

We think it's time to liberate your genitalia!
Let's hear it for pussy and cock!
The song "Give It To Me" was a sex-positive feminist anthem:
I want a man who loves to fuck and can keep it up for days -
Who's clever and smart and can make me come in a thousand different ways -

There's too many candy-assed, lily-livered, soft-bellied boys
Parading as men -
Find me a man who's got some balls - I'll be happier then -
Give it to me, give it to me - hot and strong!

There was "I'm Gay", a sensitive ballad about coming out told in the form of a letter home to a boy's parents. "And Then She Loved Me" was another ballad about a lesbian couple taking each other in for the night. "Linda, Georgina, Marilyn and Me" was an ode to America's favorite porn starlets. Then, there was "Come In My Mouth":
I can feel all your strength...what would you like me to do?
I'll take you inch by inch, just let me worship you...
You taste so good...give me some...
My mouth is a hole...fuck me...fuck me...
You can almost feel the crowd start to mop their collective brows once that number started playing. But the cast broke them down with humor and sincerity, as with the triumphant "I Believe My Body" which the sweaty company sings directly to the audience:
It takes a lot of fear to build up a wall...
I believe my body when it talks to me
I believe it's better to be open, honest and free -
I believe the time is right, the time is now -
I believe we've got to trust each other somehow!
I believe that sex is good, I'd be doin' it now if I could -
I believe my body when it talks to me.
Naturally, there were some complications. Someone at the State Liquor Authority must have heard about the show as two undercover agents attempted to stop it by shutting down the club, claiming that liquor could not be served at a show depicting simulated sex. The producer attempted to weasel out of the charge saying that the show was in fact a "nude ballet." However, it wasn't until a group of actors, reviewers and personalities came to the show's defense against the charges of lewdness and indecency that the state backed off. Famed sociologist Alvin Toffler (Future Shock) and feminist Betty Friedan both testified in court that they believed Let My People Come was a legitimate work of art; an important one, in fact. "I regard the Village Gate as a cultural institution of New York," said Toffler. "It has served as a testing ground for new talent, new ideas, new music. Let My People Come is directly in that stream of social comment... It is not dirty, just happy and healthy." Friedan chimed in to say that she had seen the show twice and was planning to take her college-aged daughter. Eventually the charges were settled with the Village Gate having to fix minor building violations.

 Let My People Come broke all box office records at the Village Gate and played for 1,167 performances. Unfortunately, once it went to Broadway, it suffered more setbacks. It was condemned by local theater groups and composer Earl Wilson, Jr. demanded that his name be removed from the credits, claiming, of all things, that the show had become too vulgar. The publishers of the Andrews Sisters' song "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" then sued Let My People Come and its producers, because of their parody entitled "The Cunnilingus Champion of Company C". In fact, it was an early test of the Fair Use statute, and Let My People Come lost due to the fact that the law didn't provide for direct parody without permission. A full 20% of the Broadway profits had to be paid out, and unfortunately, the show closed after 106 performances.

 Other sexually explicit musicals were appearing around New York City while Let My People Come had the limelight. In 1974's Sextet (music by Lawrence Hurwit, lyrics by Lee Goldsmith) a six-person cast of straight and gay characters wrestle with stereotypes, though the show only lasted 9 performances. Lovers: A Really Gay Musical Revue (music by Steve Steiner, lyrics by Peter Del Valle) fared a longer run in 1975 and pressed a cast album featuring songs like "Belt & Leather" and "You Came To Me as a Young Man". Neither of these broke any real new ground, but the attempt was notable. The most intriguing newcomer lasted 26 performances in 1976 yet it wasn't reviewed in any major paper: Le Bellybutton, a musical starring Ivory Snow girl/porno starlet Marilyn Chambers.

 Written and composed by Scott Mansfield, Le Bellybutton looked to be a hot-pants sex fest, and featured songs such as "Bisexual Blues," "A Suckers Soliloquy" and "I Never Let Anyone Beat Me But You." Beyond the scarce private recordings, very little information about this show has surfaced. It may have been an attempt to cash in on disco culture (the opening number was called "Disco Baby") and went the way of another forgotten, overblown, expensive Broadway flop, Got Tu Go Disco.

The last attempts at creating open sexual dialogue within the confines of musical theater occurred in 1977. Cy Coleman, a hugely successful composer (Sweet Charity, The Life) opened I Love My Wife on Broadway, a musical about wife-swapping. While Hollywood had gone down this road many years before with Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Coleman's show was close to a whimper compared to the salaciousness of Let My People Come. No nudity, fairly innocent language - however its main focus was the mundane suburban lives of married couples, and the need to explore their own sexuality. Of course, the couples - best friends - try switching partners and it doesn't work (hence the show's title, which is like a cry for redemption). What makes the show important was its appeal to mass audiences (it enjoyed a considerable run and won two Tony awards), excellent acting and composition. The most compassionate song was "Sexually Free":

Free! Sexually free!
Free to lose our guilt - live it up to the hilt
Be a libertine or bust!
Free! Sexually free!
Free to drop the pins - there are just seven sins
And the best one is lust!
Free! Sexually free!
Free to go for broke - making love 'til you croak
Or your pants begin to rust!
See what it is to be satisfied and unfrustrated -
Free and at liberty to be loved and stimulated -
Be unashamedly sexually liberated!
Well, not exactly, there was too much suburban angst, but it was a nice try. The other show that came out, as it were, in 1977 was Gulp!, an off-Broadway gay musical about a lifeguard. The newspapers wouldn't even touch it. It seemed that musicals about sex had collapsed in a heaving pile.

 While many musicals still contain a number or two about sex, they are most often not explicit and they certainly don't contain a "free-love" message as did the shows of the '70's. In fact, it's worth pondering the demise of these shows. It's possible that in this day and age, an explicit musical wouldn't even get off the ground. Since then, has there existed anything extraordinarily popular in the performing arts that's been both extremely sexually explicit and liberating? There's explicit artwork and porn films - but these are wholly different. In the case of performance artwork and artwork in general, rarely is the work in question about sex itself, or a celebration of it - instead it is heaped with serious political overtones. One might argue that these musicals were political in their own way - they were making a statement, but the statement was blanketed with happiness and acceptance. And in the case of porn, the purpose is not a dialogue, but the functional release of the orgasm.

 So, what exactly happened? In current cinema for instance, it's painfully rare that two healthy characters have sex for fun, without guilt or frustration. Someone is either being adulterous, being used, or a lurking terror is imminent. Even in the new porno-chic films emanating from France (Romance, Baise-Moi), the sex is hurried and often violent. These musicals would, by today's standards, come off as incredibly corny, but at the same time, it's undeniable that they were breaking new ground, and ground that hasn't been touched since. Perhaps a musical as such would be seen as promoting promiscuity in this age of AIDS. If one insisted that we are not living in an era of totalitarian political correctness, then where has the good sex gone in our art? Maybe only Annie Sprinkle has found a way to blend the two. "It's horrifying," said David Newburge, author of Stag Movie. "In the fifties we thought we were living in an age of rationale and reason. The sixties had liberation and freedom - little by little its gone the other way. There's always backlashes."

Then again, we might be on the road to change again. John Waters (a la Kenneth Tynan) recently made the proclamation that two major stars would definitely have sex onscreen by the decade's end, and the recent film Y Tu Mama También has been praised as erotically free and liberated. One would hope that, as in the finale of Stag Movie, we'll have a chance to go there together:

A chorus of angels in heaven decreed -
What we did was truly a miraculous deed -
We never reckoned a geyser would explode -
The very second our passions jointly flowed -
Now millions of stars spilled out into the sky!
We came together.
You and You and I.

Special thanks to David Newburge and Rick Talcove

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