Dirty Words: “Hard Times: The Adult Musical in 1970s New York City” (University of Chicago Press) by Elizabeth L. Wollman

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When theater is good there is nothing better, and when it is bad there is nothing more interminable. You can shut a book, leave a movie, but the human bond of live performance, especially without the distortion and drinks creating a false sense of community at a music venue, is too intimate. Now add nudity and you’re venturing into new territory. Or not so new, as “Hard Times: The Adult Musical in 1970s New York City” (University of Chicago Press) by Elizabeth L. Wollman illustrates with its well-researched and fun-loving romp through an era where the fourth wall, among other things, was shattered. 

Wollman knows whereof she speaks. Not only an academic, an assistant professor of music at Baruch College in New York City, whose first book, “The Theater Will Rock: A History of the Rock Musical, from Hair to Hedwig,” gives her a strong foundation in the ways of the Great White Way, but she grew up in Pittsburgh, daughter of transplanted New Yorkers, and returned to the homeland frequently for trips to Broadway. She tried, but never got her parents to take her to one of the old nudie musicals, but vast interviews with participants and time sequestered in the vaults of New York Public Library for the Performing Arts has given her the knowledge to use her skills to share those heady times with readers.

Everyone knows “Oh! Calcutta!” the long-running tourist trap of the sexual revolution that lasted long past when hippies’ secondary sexual characteristics had started to sag, but who recalls “Let My People Come,” with its title a pun even pornographers would consider below their standards, or “I Love My Wife,” a wife-swapping musical comedy with a book and lyrics by Michael (“Hello Dolly”) Stewart and music by Cy (“Sweet Charity”) Coleman? “Deep Throat” ushered in “porn chic” and for one gloriously icky moment hardcore sex was accepted by the mainstream. 

Wollman charts the trajectory of sexually explicit materials on its march to Forty Second Street, from changing morals and precedent-setting court decisions, to the history of money-making burlesque and groundbreaking off-off Broadway productions. None of the works she writes about involve real sex, though often, to sell tickets, promotors hinted that they did, the marquee is still revolutionary as the site where the movements for women’s, homosexual and sexual liberation met and paved the way for a new acceptance of the naked body and alternative lifestyles as fodder for playwrights. While Wollman details more serious and sharply satirical productions, such as the feminist musical “Mod Donna,” much of the works cited were middlebrow enough to cater to an affluent audience able to afford a night of theater. 

There is also a surprising innocence to putting on a production with an all-nude cast. These are not the jaded live-sex performers working around the corner or the peepshow girls dully seated on their rears until called to action by the flash of a green bill. These are actors, singers and dancers, show people who are literally showing all because the show must go on. Though often it did not. Many productions suffered the scrutiny of censors trying to clean up Times Square, especially at the tail end of the decade when the city was close to default and seediness keep the suburbanites and out-of-towners from venturing into the area. However, as Wollman clearly shows, there was money to be made in them there hilly bosoms, and money was made. “Hair” paved the way with its naked be-ins at the close of the last decade and producers took notice of more than than just the naked hippie chicks. 

More than commerce there was a feeling of discovery and experimentation, a risk-taking element largely absent from the multi-million-dollar productions targeting Broadway today. People were on a mission. Hindsight may make much of the shenanigans look sexists or just silly, but without shame and sometimes without sense these musicals attempted to reinvent an art form in stasis. Some of the most fun reading Wollman’s book is the reaction of major media reviewers, while not always off the mark, they are still often more hysterical than reasoned critiques. 

Dense with fascinating history and entertaining stories, Wollman does a masterful job of bringing this decade in New York City to life through the lens of its performing arts community. She does tend to lean heavily on an academic style that could have been edited out without disrupting the ideas being discussed and smoothing out the bumps and grinds of its prose. That, however, is a minor criticism for a needed book that fills the gap in the bridge from classic Broadway to the commercial behemoth that has turned the Crossroads of the World into an exclusive mall. 

Tagged in: elizabeth l. wollman, adult musical theater, hard times

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