Composer-lyricist Carol Hall has written and performed cabaret songs ("Jenny Rebecca"), contributed to the groundbreaking record and TV special, "Free to Be You and Me," worked on the musicals Paper Moon, Good Sports, A....My Name is Alice, and hit pay dirt with one smash hit — The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, now being revived in a national tour starring Ann-Margret. Texas native Hall brought her own sense of the Lone Star State — the twang, the politics, the passions — to her rueful, satiric score, which told of hypocritical politicians with one foot in the famed, real-life Chicken Ranch brothel and the other on the steps of the church of their conservative constituency. Sexy, controversial, entertaining and bittersweet, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas — with Miss Mona the madam, the side-steppin' Governor, a muckraking TV reporter, and crusty Sheriff Ed Earl Dodge — is now a modern pop classic, a gen-u-wine crowd pleaser. Hall spoke to Playbill On-Line about the changes in the new revival, the pain of the flop sequel and how critics never saw past the sex of the show.
Playbill On-Line: One of the interesting things about your score to Whorehouse is that it mixes satire and humanity in a surprising way — surprising because you expect a title like that to deliver something big and obvious.
Carol Hall: People seldom write with intelligence about Whorehouse.
PBOL: Have reviewers in general not really gotten the rueful tone of the score, the way the show is about outsiders and hypocritical insiders?
PBOL: They were too busy noticing the cleavage?
CH: Uh-huh. "Whores with hearts of gold." I think 22 years of audiences getting it, though — whether they get it through their pores or their intellect — has an effect. People understand it at moments in the show when they are laughing. [The show] really is about hypocrisy.
PBOL: Did you know from the beginning that you would humanize these characters, or was it broader initially?
CH: It was never broader. We're all from Texas — Larry L. King, Peter Masterson and I were the original three before Tommy Tune. All we ever talked about was what struck us as funny and making it not what I used to call "people with their thumbs in their suspenders." We just wanted to write a show about Texas the way we knew it to be. PBOL: The sort of free-loving follies angle to the show, set in the early 1970s, seems quaint, innocent and bittersweet in contrast to the AIDS plague that would emerge in the early 1980s.
CH: I agree. Laughing about having sex all day with many different partners is dicey today. And that's why we've been really careful to keep it when it was written.
PBOL: How is this touring production different from what we saw on Broadway, on tours or in stock?
CH: I think everybody's movin' a little bit faster now. I don't know if it's the fault of MTV or what, but when I go to an old play — for instance The Rainmaker last year, or even The Music Man, which I adored — it felt like they were just kind of sluggin' along, slower than what my mind and my ears felt used to. So we have made cuts in the book that probably we would have made if we had time to think about it more 20 years ago. They're all nothing more than tightening, cutting the fat off. It's not anything like cutting out [the character of] Doatsy Mae, which is what they do when they do it out in Reno. [And] the girl newly hired on by Miss Mona used to have a monologue with her little son on the phone, and we don't really need that, so that's out. It doesn't take away from her character and saves two or three minutes.
PBOL: And Ann-Margret gets a new song at the end of the show?
CH: It's called "A Friend to Me." Let's talk about how hard that is, because, really, the show didn't need a new song. It's kind of like somebody handin' me a completed crossword puzzle and sayin', "Could you just add a word here, and, by the way, it needs to fit with all the others."
PBOL: The show originally ended with "Hard Candy Christmas" — the breakaway hit of the score, especially after Dolly Parton recorded her version for the film.
CH: Maybe, originally. There was a song called "The Bus From Amarillo" that was in the first act. Then, when we went to London, Tommy and Pete wanted to put "Bus From Amarillo" after "Hard Candy Christmas." After London, they came back and put "Bus From Amarillo" at the end [of the Broadway production]." What we've done [for the new revival] is to put it back in the first act and I have written a song for Mona which follows "Hard Candy" and it's the last thing that happens in the show, after she has said goodbye to the sheriff.
PBOL: My memory is that Mona is very much alone — bereft — at the end of the show, there was not a future for her. Do you solve that, or was that not what you wanted to address.
CH: No, that's how it is. And that's why the movie didn't work for me — that Dolly and Burt [Reynolds] had to go off into the sunset together. Pete Masterson said that Bill Goldman, the screenwriter, told him: "This is the story: The good guys win and isn't that too bad?" That's really true: In the end, they don't go off into the sunset, they say goodbye. They never, ever get sappy about it or sentimental about it. It's as rueful as it ever was, but what happens is that at the end we do 10 minutes of a huge hoedown — a hand-clappin', foot stompin', boot-wingin' dance number. So you leave way up: You've laughed and you've clapped and you've sung along. If we had brought the curtain down on the rueful scene, people would be slumping out of the theatre.
PBOL: It's like a big, raucous Texas wake.
CH: Uh-huh. I didn't think anyone could improve on those [original Broadway] dances, and [director choreographer] Thommie [Walsh] has. It's bigger now.
PBOL: Whorehouse had its share of controversy when it premiered — television ads were rejected, people called it immoral and indecent and religious groups complained about bus ads in New York City that declared, "Have Fun at the Whorehouse." As the only woman of the central creative team, did you get personal criticism?
CH: No, I never experienced anything like that. I always kinda considered myself on the cutting edge of the women's movement, so I was always kinda watchin' out for what I thought might be a touch of smarminess in the playing of the girls. I thought the bus ads were stupid, myself. I wish [producer] Stevie [Phillips] hadn't done it. I'm embarrassed by that — was then, and I am now. I had two kids, I wouldn't have wanted to see that at the bus stop.
PBOL: How do you look back on the sequel, The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public, which had Miss Mona recruited to Las Vegas to run a legal brothel?
CH: Well, uh — with pain. It was about two years before I could talk about it without cryin'.
PBOL: Was it a mistake?
CH: Yes, it was a very serious mistake. And what I learned from that is what Moss Hart said. Moss Hart said he didn't know the reason for any of his successes but the reason for all of his failures was the same reason: He said "yes" when he meant "no." What I remember Pete, Tommy, Larry and I doing was saying, "No, no, no, this is a terrible idea, we don't want to do this, no we don't!" And so the real question in my mind is, "How did we get to the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre? How did that happen?" It was a producer idea. There really was a woman who was a bankruptcy trustee who had been on the "Today Show." If you have a pizza parlor and you go bankrupt, the bank comes in and sells the pizza pans, or they can run the pizza parlor. But if it's a whorehouse it's the same deal. In that particular county it was legal. In real life, this woman had come in, run the whorehouse in the county where it was legal, and they had actually sold stocks.
PBOL: Did you know you wanted to be a songwriter — both music and lyrics — when you were growing up in Texas?
CH: I did. I hoped to do that. I honed [my work in the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop in New York City]. I had been at Sarah Lawrence, and at Sarah Lawrence you could design your own courses. There was a composer up there, Meyer Kupferman — a classical composer. We had together designed a year in which I would pick plays like Death of a Salesman and I would musicalize them and see where the high points were, and could it be done?
— By Kenneth Jones