On July 22, at the Actors' Playhouse, Naked Boys Singing! celebrates its third birthday, and the cast will be observing their usual dress code, which is to say nothing. Nada. Zip.
Doin' what comes au naturel has kept the cast of eight playfully employed for 1,267 performances, and there's no letup in sight. This randy little musical romp about The Joys of Nudity has scampered up the pole of Off-Broadway's 20 longest-running shows, nuzzling in cozily at 19, between Driving Miss Daisy and Grandma Sylvia's Funeral.
Half the original cast is back in harness for the current anniversary conglomeration — Tim Burke, Tom Gualtieri, Jonathan Brody and Patrick Herwood — all having swung out from time to time to some fully-clothed chores, then returned to the nest like homing pigeons.
And here they are now — save for Burke, who has a successful day job in real estate and leaves the showbiz shilling to others — three guys naked from the waist down (or, for that matter, up), properly mufti-ized for the noonday sun, sipping coffee at the Starbucks on Sheridan Square and sitting around talking the way a coupla white chicks used to do.
"You never know how long something's going to run — you can't make any plans," Herwood is saying. "I thought, when we first started, it'll be a cute little summer job, and then maybe the novelty will wear off, but we're still here, having a great run. Absolutely! It's rare to have a constant paycheck as an actor working in New York." For him in particular, that's a first: "I'd done five national tours, never Broadway, before I actually landed a job in New York." The Broadway baby of the group is Brody, with Titanic, Me and My Girl and Sally Marr . . . and her escorts to his credit. Gualtieri is, like most of his playing partners, a veteran of the road, thankful to lay down roots a while.
Herwood was an understudy when the show debuted, covering three roles, but quickly found his niche, which occurs two verses into the opening number. He's the man right off the street who stumbles into the theatre, thinking it's The Duplex and wanting a waiter job. The seven Naked Boys Singing in front of him invite him to join their merry band; he pauses a millisecond to mull it over, then sheds his inhibitions (and clothes) on the spot.
It's a lightning strip, and not as easy as the tear-away clothes make it seem. "I won't say I had a problem with nudity," Herwood says, "but I was lucky in that I was originally an understudy and got my feet wet very slowly. I got used to it the way the guys got used to it, being naked with everyone else. When I went on the first time, there might have been a moment where I thought, 'Here goes nothing,' but there were so many other things to think about other than taking one's clothes off onstage. I wanted to get the steps right, I wanted to be in the right place, I wanted to sing my harmony parts right. It was a slow process for me. At this point, everybody I know has seen me naked."
In the case of Gualtieri, that includes members of his immediate family, who, through the sadistic generosity of the box-office manager, viewed the spectacle from front-row seats. "I couldn't look at my stepsister or my father. I pretended that they weren't there."
Not that he thinks the show is shameful or shocking. Quite the opposite: "I think largely what people come away with from this show is a pleasant surprise that it's not as prurient as they were expecting, that it's sweet. I would say it was a family show — with nudity."
And the awkwardness of that nudity fades fast. "Overcoming people's perceptions of nudity is our biggest challenge. For me, being naked onstage isn't much. Every once in a while, it strikes me, 'Oh my God! We're naked onstage,' and it strikes me funny — funny that we're naked and funny that people come to watch us perform naked."
Brody sees nudity with an actor's eye: "In everything I do onstage, I'm playing a character, and, for the purpose of that scene, the character is nude. That's my costume for the role, so it makes sense to be nude. Once you get over whatever hangs you up about your own body and are comfortable enough doing it, then you can see what you need to be doing in order to play that character and sing that song and do that number."
With this show, all doesn't meet the naked eye. Gualtieri is a prime example of that. Away from the Actors' Playhouse, he is a serious playwright, toiling over an epic drama on the Donner expedition called The Garden of the Earth; less seriously, he's also working on a series of historical sketches (Cleopatra and the kids at home, Mary Todd and Abe on the way to the theatre, "Paul Revere is a queer," etc.), and he writes spoofs of Sunday in the Park with George, The Sound of Music, Into the Woods and The King and I for Naked Boys to do in the annual Easter Bonnet/Gypsy of the Year competitions.
At this year's Easter Bonnet show, he returned in Miss Anna drag for "Hello, Young Actors" and noted with great class one of the big bugaboos about doing a nudie musical. "After three years," he declared crisply, "the Naked Boys do get approached with a lot of the same delightfully provocative remarks. Just backstage, moments ago, a fellow from Beauty and the Beast said, 'I'm always embarrassed for my friends when they have to appear naked in a show.' I was compelled to remind him that he was playing a fork..."
—By Monty Arnold