Nudity on Broadway is nothing new, but infrequent. When someone goes au natural, it raises the buzz – and some barriers – like the latest incidence.
A baseball play, “Take Me Out,” features two actors – Jesse Willliams and Patrick J. Adams – in full-frontal nudity in a locker room scene. It’s playing at the Helen Hayes Theatre on Broadway, and has been extended through June 21. Not sure if the nudity is part of the appeal, or simply brisk box office sales because of the controversy.
Whatever the reason, that theater has taken on new security measures, with playgoers required to isolate their cellphones in Yondr felt pouches with a magnet security tagging system, so calls or texting or photo-taking cannot be done for 2:15, the duration of the production. The regs are outlined in an insert of the show’s Playbill.
But clearly, somebody didn’t abide by the rules – likely, refused disclosure that they had a phone, or the device was not discovered during the entry process – and took photos of the aforementioned nude scene, prompting the theater security folks to demand the images be erased after unauthorized images appeared on social media.
No word about charges being filed, but it is across-the-board illegal to take photos in any play, with or without nudity, and the ban-the-phones directive maintains privacy issues for the actors. No ifs, ands or buts about this house rule. There’s new technology in place, where the theater security can monitor and sense camera in photo mode.
The lock-the-phone element – new on the Great White Way — has been utilized occasionally by mainstream rock concert stars, not due to nudity, but because the performers didn’t want the distraction of phones aiming at them or they didn’t want patrons to limit access to have images that could be shared or sold, even on social media.
I saw the original “Take Me Out” when it originally was staged in 2003, with the nude scene but minus the uproar of illegal photo-taking. There wasn’t the ban on phones in the house either. And if memory serves, no pics appeared for gawkers.
The fuss and flurry about nudity on Broadway might go back to 1971, when “Oh! Calcutta” debuted at the Belasco Theatre. The nakedness was constant, making the raucous show a success in its original run and a revival production later. It wasn’t a good show – but I recall the notorious nudity, with actors cajoling in the buff.
But baring it and sharing it goes back a bit earlier, to 1968, when “Hair,” subtitled “The American Tribal Love Rock Musical,” opened at the Biltmore Theatre. For the record, the show had rock and pop hits and hippie cultural elements. But only about 20 seconds – amid flashing lights – of nudity.
I recall asking James Grant Benton, the island comedian-actor who was in the Las Vegas company of “Hair,” what the governing rules were for cast members who would strip at the show’s finale. You remember, when “Let the Sunshine In,” was sung and danced. He said peeling and baring were voluntary, not required; if you felt it, you’d do it. Or not. And it was a quickie, if you did.
More impressive, in a Los Angeles production at the Aquarius Theatre in 1968, was the policy of engaging audience members to join the ritual of letting-the-sunshine-in, by ascending to the stage. The last Broadway revival was in 2011, and at the performance I attended, audience members could get on stage for the “Sunshine” sing-along.
Among other Broadway shows with nudity:
* “The Full Monty,” about unemployed British steelworks who attempt to be male strippers, has a big reveal – just as the lights go out. Meaning it’s a teaser scene, where most audiences see nothing.
* “Equus,” a revival of a psychological drama about Alan Strang, a disturbed youngster who blinded six horses, became a Broadway hit in 2007 when Daniel Radcliffe, by then a superstar thanks to his “Harry Potter” franchise of flicks, appeared naked, brightly and clearly. Nope, his young Potter fans could not attend, because of its adults-only restriction.
* “Spring Awakening,” a musical about boarding school teenagers in a repressive German society in the late 19th century, featured two young “Glee” faves, Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele, in one steamy scene but the baring was brief and Groff’s butt probably noticed, only briefly.
* “M. Butterfly,” the David Henry Hwang drama inspired by the operatic drama “Madame Butterfly,” tells the story of a military officer Rene Gallimard (played by John Lithgow) having a longtime love affair with Song Liling (portrayed by B.D. Wong), incredibly not knowing that his paramour is a guy, not a woman; a major disrobing nude scene features Wong.
* “Miss Saigon,” the hit musical with a Vietnam storyline about an American soldier and his tryst with a Vietnam woman, had a brief bedroom scene in a darkened moment, with mostly his butt showing. The disrobed solider in the original production was Willy Falk, a Punahou grad nominated for a Tony Award as a Featured Actor in a musical.
* “Love! Valour! Compassion!,” a gay Terrence McNally comedy with a lot of exclamation points, featured a company of eight skinny dippers, unclothed, in one frolicking scene. Broadway veteran Nathan Lane was in the cast.
* “The Lisbon Traviata,” another McNally endeavor, is an homage to opera singer Maria Callas, involving two aging men in a relationship, disrupted with the arrival of a younger gent, leading to an operatic finale of sorts, with nudity along the way.
When actor Joe Chishold appeared nude in “Afterglow,” an off-Broadway hit at the Davenport Theatre in 2018, he shared meaningful thoughts about dropping trous in an interview.
“Every single one of us is naked at some point every day,” he said. “American culture has spent the last century demonizing nudity, making it into something naughty or bad, but it’s the most basic human state of being. Somewhere along the way, we sexualized the naked body. But I think it is important to reaffirm the fact that sex and nudity are two separate things. That is a big takeaway of this show. In my mind, nudity onstage or onscreen, as long as is it serves a purpose and is not gratuitous, is simply another costume (or lack thereof).”
Three other shows – one on Broadway, two off-Broadway – further demonstrate the diverse ways nudity end up on stage:
- “Avenue Q,” the slightly naughty but clever musical produced by former islander Kevin McCollum an an original cast member from Hawaii, Ann Harada, was an all-puppet show (the dolls were manipulated by actors) which earned Best Musical laurels when it played the Golden Theatre in 2007. The show, in retrospect, had naked puppets having sex!
- “Naked Boys Singing,” an off-Broadway oddity with male singers and dancing totally nude (but with shoes) at the Actors Playhouse in 1999. I saw it, it was hilarious, but forgettable.
- “Puppetry of the Penis,” at the John Houseman Theatre in 2001, was wholly gratuitous, with two guys, in the buff, creating genital contortions or penal origami in the first and only show where the actor played with their privates. …
And that’s Show Biz…