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Hard times no more: The Performers

By Liz Wollman


One of the largest — and, I admit, most disappointing — revelations I had while researching 1970s adult musicals for my book, Hard Times: The Adult Musical in 1970s New York City, was just how tame they all ended up being. Sure, there was frank talk about sex in most adult musicals. There were also a lot of naked bodies on display. Occasionally, there were simulated sex acts that were creative and acrobatic enough to make even the hippest, most solid of 1970s hepcats feel like a real chump and go on a serious bummer. This is precisely what I expected when I started looking into musicals with names like Stag Movie, Lovers, Le Bellybutton, and Let My People Come.

What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was just how traditional the subtext of most of these shows typically was. Indeed, lurking beneath the jiggling breasts, faked orgasms, and copious use of slang terms for genitalia was often an almost jarring adherence to conventional love relationships, and, more shockingly, even the occasional twinge of nostalgia for the social constrictions of the Eisenhower era. The moral of most adult musicals, even those featuring the nudiest, sluttiest, foul-mouthiest of characters, was that all the consequence-free, anonymous sex in the world — no matter how many swingers and far-out drugs were involved — was just never as fulfilling as good old-fashioned monogamous love. Preferably in the missionary position. After marriage. With the lights out.

Now, I was born a titch too late to experience the swinging seventies first-hand, unless you count the ribald (if surely heavily-edited, child-friendly) tales a particularly groovy babysitter would occasionally tell my sister and me as she helped us brush our teeth and get into our jammies. Nevertheless, I have always liked to think of that time as one of continued excess, during which a vast majority of American citizens turned on, freaked out, and had sex with one another as easily as we currently mutter “what’s up” to acquaintances we see on the street or run into on the subway. Thus, learning that the live entertainment form I’d decided to research — and that, at first glance, seemed to be the musical equivalent of hard-core porn, albeit with more jazz hands — were, in fact, really sort of tame and conservative, truly bummed me out at first.

But then again, recognizing the cultural conventionality in adult musicals was important, not only for the book’s narrative, but for my grasp of social history, which is, of course, never remotely as straightforward or uncomplicated as it is often depicted. My students always get an earful from me about how much I hate the overgeneralizations that get uttered all too frequently in documentaries and oral histories, especially those about rock music and pop culture that get broadcast on channels like VH1: “And then… everything changed.” “It was truly revolutionary… unlike anything… anyone… HAD EVER EXPERIENCED.” Hmph.

As it played out into the 1970s, the 1960s sexual revolution was enormous and confused and multi-tentacled, and meant many different things to as many different people. To be sure, some of us Americans had a great time: some of us did, indeed, jump wholeheartedly into the cultural orgy of drugs and excess that the era offered. And many of us did, indeed, find the strength to come out of the closet; or to leave unsatisfying marriages; or to change career paths, or spiritual, cultural, or social practices, in a quest for a more satisfying and liberated, and less stultifying life. But then again, just as many of us felt confused, threatened, left out, or even terrified by the many cultural disruptions of the time period. And I found ample evidence of enormously mixed emotions about the seismic shifts we lived through: a blend of almost palpable longing for the newly disrupted cultural codes we understood and felt safe enacting, which came part and parcel with — and directly contradicted — feelings of elation, joy, celebration, and a fervid embrace of cultural change.

Which is why, I guess, the adult musicals of the 1970s were so often a blend of the shocking and the conventional. The American stage musical has long made a practice of mixing the conservative and subversive, thereby appealing to the broadest possible audience. Stage musicals have always been, after all, a commercial entertainment form. Why should musicals depicting the sexual revolution, and the subsequent gay and women’s liberation movements, be any different? Shows like Oh! Calcutta! and Let My People Come enjoyed successful runs primarily because they allowed audiences the chance to experience the sexual revolution at a safe, even comforting, distance. Adult musicals helped ease doubt, ambivalence, and anxiety about rapidly changing cultural mores. They invited audiences to embrace the notions that sex could be fun and harmless, that naked bodies could be beautiful, and that sexual identity didn’t have to be so threatening. Adult musicals allowed spectators — some of whom were struggling with their own sexuality, some of whom were hoping to learn more about the rapidly changing sexual mores, some of them simply eager to find out exactly what all the fuss was about –to live vicariously without getting in too deep.

Their existence, otherwise, doesn’t make any sense, especially during a period in which there were so many other kinds of far more explicit sexual entertainment available. After all, why Oh! Calcutta! when Deep Throat was showing down the street? Why buy tickets to see simulated sex on stage when there were actual live sex shows going on a few avenues away? Why see an Off-Broadway comedy about swinging, or group sex, when you’ve heard whispers of a key party being planned a few towns over? Through the 1970s, Americans struggled mightily over issues of sexuality and gender in unprecedented ways; the result was a complex, if heady, blend of feelings of elation, confusion, frustration, and fear. Adult musicals didn’t so much challenge as they did educated, palliate, and ameliorate, by offering cheery, conventional messages to audiences who needed reassurance during a time of enormous, rapid change.

I recently thought a great deal about the function of 1970s adult musicals while watching David West-Read’s sex farce The Performers, which opened on Broadway at the Longacre Theatre on November 14th… and closed four days later. Sometimes, Broadway flops are squirmy, embarrassing affairs, but this one was great fun — I think even more so, since the star-studded cast clearly knew the show was on the chopping block, and was thus collectively far looser than most companies tend to be on Broadway immediately post-opening. I’m awfully glad I got to see The Performers. But I’m not surprised that it closed as quickly as it did.

While not a musical, The Performers, which takes place in Las Vegas during an adult-film awards show, has a lot of the same ingredients as the adult musicals of the 1970s. The show featured no nudity — it’s not really an entertainment trend these days. But there was plenty of skin (the first scene features the hilarious Cheyenne Jackson in a teeny suede… thing, which he eventually removes to reveal even teenier Superman underpants); a few simulated, if exceptionally goofy, sex acts and a lot of even goofier sex talk; a scene in which an enormous dildo was tossed across the stage; and a huge pair of prop breasts, gamely worn by the actress Jenni Barber in the role of Sundown LeMay. Many of the characters — who have stage names like Mandrew (Jackson) and Chuck Wood (Henry Winkler) — talk frankly about scenes they’ve filmed, sex positions they excel at, and movies they’ve shot, all of which have names like Planet of the Tits, Spontaneass, and Cum on My Bum.

In some ways, shows like this imply that nothing has changed much over the course of forty years. Buried under the sex jokes, flying dildos, and increasingly ridiculous euphemisms for genitalia lies a variant on the same old plot: Mandrew’s childhood friend Lee (Daniel Breaker) has come to Vegas to interview Mandrew for an article about adult films for The New York Post. Lee’s high-school sweetheart and fiancée, Sara (Alicia Silverstone), has come along, too. After spending time with Mandrew, Lee — who has only ever had sex with Sara — becomes concerned that he and Sara will become bored with their sex life as they grow older together. When he broaches the possibility of playing the field before they marry to Sara, she gets insulted and pretends to strike up a flirtation with Chuck Wood. Meanwhile, Mandrew learns that his wife, Peeps (Ari Graynor), also a porn star, is pregnant. This good news is soured, however, when Peeps discovers that Mandrew recently kissed Sundown LeMay on the mouth, which is an intimacy that she and her husband typically reserve for private, offscreen moments together. Amid the strife, the awards show happens, Chuck Wood delivers an absolutely hilarious monologue-as-acceptance-speech that I wish I could have taken home with me after the show, lots of alcohol is consumed, and drunken, heartbroken wackiness ensues.

Happy endings (the old-fashioned kind; not the pornographic kind) are experienced by all involved. Peeps and Sundown make up. Mandrew and Peeps make up. Sara and Lee make up. The porn stars all make it clear to Sara and Lee that sex is not nearly as important as love and commitment, and that they would all kill for the kind of love that Sara and Lee have for one another. Sara and Lee realize that they’ve never had sex with anyone but one another because they have never loved anyone else as deeply. Love conquers all, and monogamy rules — just like it did in adult musicals during the 1970s.

Yet for all the similarities, there are a couple of important ways that The Performers differ from adult musicals. Back in the early 1970s, for a few years at least, hard-core pornography was taken more seriously in the art world as a burgeoning genre with the potential for mainstream appeal, especially following the enormous — and, for many, surprising — commercial success of films like Behind the Green Door and Deep Throat. Yet hard-core porn never crossed over; it went, instead, to video. Thus, over the past several decades, as much as pornography has influenced the aesthetics of myriad forms of mainstream entertainment — from the fashion world to horror films to cooking shows — the adult film industry’s potential for a chance to edge into the mainstream is long gone, if it ever truly had a chance at all.

The Peformers makes this clear: While Lee and Sara feel like freaks for being so straitlaced, it’s their wacky, adult-film friends who are the true outsiders. Exceptionally stupid and self-centered, if also ultimately good-natured and well-meaning, the adult film actors in the show have their own rules, ideals, and aspirations, and live by their own warped code of conduct. Chuck Wood serves as the wise elder of the group. He’s been around since the 1970s, a time he frequently, reverently describes as one of both innocence and enormous excess, and he has come to realize that as he ages alone, all the sex he’s had has amounted to nothing. Not accidentally, then, Chuck is the character who is instrumental in getting all of the heartbroken, arguing couples into the same room together to talk it all out, sit-com style, at the end of the show.

But much more broadly, I think it’s the failure of The Performers to connect with audiences that points, at least in some small part, to the cultural differences between the 1970s and now. It’s easy to say that we are more prudish than we were back in the 1970s: that today’s audiences wouldn’t be able to handle stage nudity, or the kind of frank talk about sex that was a regular feature of so many shows that appeared on, Off, and Off Off Broadway back then. By that logic, maybe The Performers closed because of its very subject matter: audiences stayed away because they deemed it too crass or off-color for their tastes.

Then again, maybe not. In some ways, we’re really a lot savvier now than we were then, especially when it comes to human sexuality. After all, while some of the excesses of the 1970s have faded away over time, we’ve got lots more in the way of lasting, meaningful, truly progressive ramifications: more rights for women in both the domestic and the public sphere; more states recognizing the civil rights of gay men and lesbians; more citizens who, despite their political or religious affiliations, just aren’t too terribly concerned or bothered by the sexual preferences or private lives of their neighbors. Maybe, then, stage nudity is no longer trendy because we just don’t crave it like we did. Maybe jokes about dildos and crazy sex positions are cute, but ultimately not all that deep.

Near the end of The Performers, a sad, drunken Sara bursts out with a line that neatly sums up the feelings of the entire company: “I just wanna be me and be okay with it, and have everybody else be okay with it, too!” This is, in some ways, a quintessentially 1970s statement — boil it down to its essence and you get any number of platitudinous expressions that were so popular back then: “Go with the flow.” “Do your own thing.” “Whatever turns you on.” Maybe we just don’t need the same neat, tidy little messages anymore. Maybe a silly sex farce, while fun and cute, and even occasionally hilarious, is just not what we need right now. Maybe The Performers closed as quickly as it did because in the end, we’ve moved beyond it.

Elizabeth L. Wollman is Assistant Professor of Music at Baruch College in New York City, and author of Hard Times: The Adult Musical in 1970s New York City and The Theater Will Rock: A History of the Rock Musical, from Hair to Hedwig. She also contributes to the Show Showdown blog.

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Image credit: Poster for The Performers used for the pusposes of illustration under fair use. Source: theperformersonbroadway.com.

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