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.
"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.
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