Lars von Trier's movie "Nymphomaniac" is now in theatres, and it makes one wonder, "When did sex in the legit theatre ever get people this worked up?" That show would have to be Oh! Calcutta!
Forty-five years ago this month, Kenneth Tynan's sex revue began rehearsals to ready for its June 1969 premiere, with Newsweek and Time stoking the controversy with back-to-back articles on the show's progress. Before or since, what other Off Broadway production in rehearsals ever received that kind of national attention?
Hair had tested the waters the year before, with Broadway's first nude scene. But Tynan wanted to create a much bigger splash, and that included putting a nude ballet in his show plus a number of sex-related skits that looked at promiscuity, bondage, masturbation, S&M and infidelity, among other topics. He hired Michael Bennett to choreograph, and it was Bennett who wanted Margo Sappington to be the female half of that naked pas de deux.
"Why me?" Sappington asked Bennett. "Because every time I come into the dressing room at Promises, Promises, you're naked," he replied.
And so Sappington was cast in Tynan's revue. But before Oh! Calcutta! could go into rehearsals, Bennett got busy with other shows, namely Company and Follies, and so Sappington took over as choreographer. Tynan, who was the managing editor of the National Theatre, asked Sappington to see Hair as part of her choreographer research. The hippie musical surprised her.
"When they took off their clothes, nobody onstage moved," she observed. "They just stood there. Plus the stage was pretty dark."
The full-frontal stasis of Hair was purely intentional. Naked breasts, penises, and buttocks were allowed onstage, but only to create a theatrical tableau. Naked private body parts that actually moved were in violation of the city's penal code. With Oh! Calcutta!, it would be Sappington's job to challenge that law with a nude ballet. "We just took a chance," said Michael White, one of the show's producers.
For Tynan, Oh! Calcutta! was something of a mission. Before his National Theatre gig, he'd been an esteemed critic at the "Evening Standard," "The Observer" and the "New Yorker." He was also well-known for being the first person to utter the f-word on the BBC, and indeed he was a huge opponent of censorship. But he was also financially broke.
"Oh! Calcutta!, he thought, would make him money," said White. And he was also very kinky. "Ken had a lot of sexual fetishes, which he was very open about having to do with ladies' underwear or S&M," said Bill Liberman, the show's company manager. "His doing Oh! Calcutta! was definitely part of that."
Tynan wanted the respectability of Broadway, but the Nederlander sand Shubert organizations preferred to keep their reputations intact by eschewing the rent money from "such a dirty show," said Lawrence Shubert Lawrence Jr. The producers of Hair had run into a similar puritanical wall of resistance from the New York City theatre monopoly, but lucked out by securing the Biltmore Theatre, one of the few independently owned Broadway venues. Tynan had no choice but to look downtown.
One day, Bill Liberman found himself walking by the Gaiety on Second Avenue, just bellow Fourteenth Street. "It was a theatre. I thought it might be appropriate, so I bought a ticket," he recalled. Inside, strippers bumped and grinded, and as they were finishing up their act, a movie screen lowered. "And a film came on showing a penis going into a vagina," noted Liberman. "But it was light enough, and I could see it was a real theatre." Tynan quickly rechristened it the Eden, as in the Garden of Eden, but not before lead producer Hilly Elkins had it thoroughly doused with Lysol.
"We're disinfecting the place before we move in," Elkins announced. "Speaking of whorehouses, there were at least two beds in each dressing room." Fifty-four cots, to be exact.
Rehearsals began in March 1969, even though the show would not open until June. Director Jacques Levy told his cast, "There's a good chance we'll all be arrested. We might even be arrested today." It had not escaped the eight actors' attention that uniformed and plainclothes cops alike waited outside the Anderson theatre as they filed into the rehearsal space, just across Second Avenue from the newly renamed Eden. "It's only fair to warn you that you're taking a chance with your livelihood," said Levy. "What we plan has never been done in America before, and a public outcry could lead to a blacklisting." In the days to come, an Actors' Equity representative warned, "The worst that could happen is that they be arrested and convicted, and given a sentence and very seriously have their careers compromised."
It took three long weeks of rehearsal before Levy let his actors cast off their matching yellow bathrobes and perform naked. Skits written by famous writers were tried out, and many didn't make the cut, like one written by Tennessee Williams. But short works by Jules Feiffer, Sam Shepard, Robert Benton, David Newman, John Lennon and, of course, Tynan survived. One written by Samuel Beckett, titled "Prologue," came with the proviso "Do not change a word of this script," even though it contained no dialogue and depicted three naked bodies on stage, entangled in garage, as recorded strains of female orgasms washed over them. In the time-honored tradition of buyer-beware, a house board in front of the Eden both warned and enticed passersby with the suggestion "Recommended for mature audiences only." Elkins also took out censorship insurance, of sorts, by "unofficially inviting," as he put it with great fanfare, several members of the police vice squad to see Oh! Calcutta! before it opened," to check on the material."
Before one preview performance, Margo Sappington looked in her dressing-room mirror to see a man in blue standing there. "Well, can I put on my clothes before we go?" she asked. He told her there would be no arrests that night; he was getting a VIP backstage tour, courtesy of Ellkins.
Famous people also got the royal tour. One night Rudolf Nureyev came backstage; he asked Sappington if her partner in the nude ballet ever got an erection on stage. "A few times in rehearsals, yes," she let him know.
Later, Nureyev told a writer from the New York Times that "the new permissiveness is all to the good. Of course, it must be done well. And I must say, I thought the pas de deux done in the nude in Oh! Calcutta! was really very beautiful." Would he ever dance in the nude? "Why not?" he replied.
When the show finally opened on June 17, 1979, it was the kind of evening in which everything said or done seemed predigested for maximum coverage in tomorrow's gossip columns. Joe Namath arrived surrounded by a dozen fawning females. Anita Loos of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes fame pointed out that the naked revue had a costume designer, Fred Voelpel. And halfway through the show, Ed Sullivan walked out with much fanfare. "Guess he couldn't find anything he could use on his show," a wag remarked. At the Sardi's party afterward, actress Hedy Lamarr thought back to swimming nude in "Ecstasy" three decades earlier. "To think when I did it nobody could see me but the cameraman. Now it's right in the open," she remarked. Jule Styne dismissed the revue as "witless." And Shirley MacLaine mentioned something about playing the lead in the movie version.
Even though he didn't like how his "Jack and Jill" sketch had been performed in previews, Jules Feiffer sent Tynan a telegram on opening night. It read: "Break a member." Then came the reviews. "They were disastrous," said Elkins. "They all said it was too much and the sexuality was overbearing."
Cast members started to cry. He told them not to worry. "Let's wait until tomorrow and see what happens."
The next day the box office exploded. In his syndicated gossip column, Earl Wilson reported how Oh! Calcutta! had made history: "A police official told me that once upon a time if a person was nude and moved, that was illegal. But that has been thrown out long ago."
Well, a few months ago.
Tynan's sex revue opened at a cost of $234, 969, including $50,000 advanced to the theatre owner for renovation of the Eden. So many tickets were sold in that first week that Elkins immediately pushed the top price ticket from $10 to $15, a record for Off Broadway. In February, the Shuberts came on board, letting the show transfer uptown to their Belasco Theatre, where it played 1,314 performances. A 1976 Broadway revival played nearly 6,000 performances. And there was dozens of other productions that played throughout the world. Even so, Kenneth Tynan never made over $250,000 on the project he had conceived.
From the book SEXPLOSION Copyright 2014 by Robert Hofler. Reprinted by permission of It Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.