Today in Theatre History: SEX! SELLS!; or, THE OPENING OF OH! CALCUTTA!–June 17, 1969

Inspired by the naked musical reviews by Shakespeare--including  the 1598 smash hit, "All's Well That Ends As You Like It" that had all of London running for their codpieces--Kenneth Tynan devised Oh! Calcutta! in 1969.

Inspired by the naked musical revues of Shakespeare and Jonson–including their 1598 smash hit, All’s Well That Ends As You Like It!, that had all of London running for their codpieces–Kenneth Tynan devised Oh! Calcutta! in 1969 as a sentimental tribute to the great blank verse tragedies of the Elizabethan age–especially those that included lots of full frontal nudity like Coriolanus and Julius Caesar.

On this day in theatre history–June 17, 1968–Kenneth Tynan’s musical revue, Oh! Calcutta! opened at the small Off-Broadway venue, the Eden Theatre, on the corner of 12th Street and 2nd Avenue in New York City.  It would eventually move to the Belasco Theatre on Broadway, completing its initial run in August of 1972 after 1314 performances.  Though poorly received by the critics, the show’s principal distinguishing characteristic–and indeed its main selling point–was the extensive use of nudity.  Ten actors (five men and five women) spent most of the two hour performance completely naked in what some critics viewed as a comment on the increasing use of nudity and sex on stage and in cinema during the late 60s, while the rest of us probably just viewed it for the naked bodies.  (More importantly, the production continued Broadway’s long-standing love affair with that cleverest of marketing devices known as the exclamation point!  Simple one and two-word titles followed by an exclamation point that easily identify a fun MUSICAL! for weary out-of-town tourists.)  In addition to work by Tynan, the show included pieces by Jules Feiffer, Sam Shepard and John Lennon. Even Samuel Beckett contributed a short play entitled Breath that was initially used as a prologue, though he soon withdrew the work.  Despite its controversy and racy reputation, the production launched the careers of several well-known actors, including Bill Macy, Alan Rachins and Margo Sappington.  As successful as this initial run was, defying most critics’ expectations, the 1976 revival at Broadway’s Edison Theatre became one of the most successful and longest running musicals in history, closing in August of 1989 after 5959 performances and proving once again the age-old lesson that Aeschylus taught the world in Prometheus Bound:  Cheesy musical revues with ten actors running around naked most of the time sell lots of tickets.  (It sounds better in ancient Greek).

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4 Responses to Today in Theatre History: SEX! SELLS!; or, THE OPENING OF OH! CALCUTTA!–June 17, 1969

  1. John Madill says:

    Ironically this show is credited with banishing the Belasco Theatre’s ghostly sounds: chains from the intimate decommissioned elevator to Mr Dave’s private apartment studio, and the laughter of young ladies and the clattering of their heels on the terrazzo foyer floors- not sure if its finally banished the occasional presence of the grey eminence himself.

    • padavis1715 says:

      Wonderful. I didn’t know that. Apparently theatre apparitions, unlike theatre audiences, are rather uncomfortable hanging around productions with an abundance of nudity. Who knew the Belasco ghosts were such prudes? Perhaps other haunted theatres should “bare” this information in mind (or on stage…) and consider revivals of the show–especially theatres with small costume budgets. Thanks.

  2. John Madill says:

    Hadn’t thought about that as a concept– so far I had heard of ghosts appearing (usually distantly) to signal good fortune by their presence; the invisible ghost of British comedian Dan Leno was known to give an underperforming actor literally a kick in the pants to smarten them up at Drury Lane. Props get moved, but nobody at the time seems to be able to figure out why.
    As regards wardrobe, the largely unidentified notable ghosts are often only known by the consistent colour or style of their wardrobe.
    By the way: was your reference to Aeschylus in fact to the mythically lost satyr play ‘Prometheus Unbound’ with its chorus of raucous ithyphallic goats?

  3. padavis1715 says:

    Yes, indeed. Thanks.

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