‘Oh! Calcutta!’ at 50: Still Naked After All These Years
Fifty years ago, on June 17, 1969, robes opened and so did “Oh! Calcutta!” An erotic revue conceived by the English theater critic Kenneth Tynan, “Oh! Calcutta!” took it all off at the Eden Theater, a former pornographic cinema that had been renovated by the show’s producer, Hilly Elkins.
Mr. Tynan borrowed the title from a naughty French pun (a loose translation: “Baby Got Back”), soliciting anyone and everyone to submit a titillating sketch. Nothing “about art or redeeming literary merit,” he advised. A lot of the luminaries (Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams, Edna O’Brien) dropped out or were dropped, but the final, all-male lineup included Sam Shepard, Jules Feiffer and John Lennon, who contributed the masturbation comedy “Four in Hand.”
After Harold Pinter and Peter Brook declined to direct, Mr. Tynan entrusted the show to Jacques Levy, a clinical psychologist and an associate of the experimental Open Theater. Mr. Levy recruited the Open Window, an eclectic trio, to compose the music. Margo Sappington choreographed the show’s several nude dance and movement sequences.
In The New York Times, Clive Barnes wrote, “There is no more innocent show in town — and certainly none more witless.” “Oh! Calcutta!,” he suggested, “is the kind of show to give pornography a dirty name.” (Want to judge for yourself? A grainy YouTube video exists.)
Still, the original production ran until 1972, eventually moving to the Belasco Theater on Broadway. A 1976 revival remains Broadway’s longest-running musical revue.
To mark the half-century, we spoke to several of the show’s writers and composers, as well as to five original cast members (a couple of whom, Bill Macy and Alan Rachins, would later find fame on television). Here is the truth, naked and clothed, in excerpts from the conversations.
Bring your friends
Raina Barrett (cast) I followed all the audition offers. I saw that one; it mentioned nudity. And I thought, “Well, we don’t know how much nudity. I’ll consider it.”
Bill Macy (cast) Jacques Levy was a personal friend. And I had worked with him before. He said, “Come on, we’re going to do the play.” That was it.
Peter Schickele (composer) The Open Window was a chamber rock ensemble that I formed with a buddy of mine from Juilliard, Bob Dennis, and another composer, Stan Walden. Jacques asked us if we were interested in writing original music for a new show he was working on. We were.
Sherman Yellen (writer) Hilly wanted an erotic sketch. I had read some Victorian pornography, which I thought was a hoot, ripe for satire. That became “Delicious Indignities.”
Jules Feiffer (writer) Ken Tynan asked me to contribute. I more or less knew what I was getting into, and couldn’t resist the shoddy rock ’n’ roll glamour of it all.
Margo Sappington (cast, choreographer) Michael Bennett was asked to choreograph “Oh! Calcutta!” I was his assistant and performing in “Promises, Promises.” He came to my dressing room between shows. He said, “I need you to come and help me. And oh, by the way, you have to be naked.” When he decided he wasn’t going to do the show, the producers asked him for a recommendation. He said, “Margo can do it.” I was 21.
Samantha Harper Macy (cast) I had a girlfriend; she was selling Pepsis at the concession stand at “Oh! Calcutta!” She said, “Get on a bus. Get here as fast as you can. Everybody’s naked and all the guys are straight.”
Improv in the nude
Barrett The first audition was in Hilly’s office, up in the 60s. When you had an audition at a private apartment, it was a signal for a trap. So I went in full of trepidation. But Jacques and Hilly were delightful. At the end, they asked me what I was going to do about my teaching job. I said, “I’ll quit.”
Sappington The nude audition was an acting improv. You were given a situation: You had just received some extraordinary, fabulous news and you had gone for a walk in the woods to absorb this joyful event. You come upon a stream, and you decide to go for a swim. You take off your clothes, you get in the water, which was a sheet that was placed on the stage, and you compose a letter or a phone call to someone that you love telling them this news.
Alan Rachins (cast) There were so many different elements to think about that the fact that you were standing naked onstage really receded into the background.
Nancy Tribush Hillman (cast) I dressed in clothes I could easily take off. A safari dress and red-and-white-striped bikini underwear, no bra. It was the best audition I’d ever given. After I got the job, Jacques said, “When I saw the red-and-white underwear, I knew I had something special.”
‘They had to wear robes’
Yellen It was less sexy than a lot of rehearsals.
Stanley Walden (composer) We had these robes ordered and whenever anybody wasn’t working specifically on a scene, they had to wear the robes. There was no casual nudity.
Hillman They were a slight material, a cool kind of smooth material, a light gold.
Sappington On a daily basis, we would do these sensitivity exercises. One day Jacques said, “Throw your robes off,” and everybody threw their robes off and screamed and laughed and jumped around until we fell into an exhausted heap. That was three weeks into the rehearsal process.
Barrett Jacques was very clear that we didn’t have to do anything we didn’t want to do. That was one of his first statements: “Just say, flat out, ‘I object! I don’t want to do that.’”
Macy The nudity didn’t bother me. I’m from Brooklyn.
Harper Macy He put it in his bio: “I was born nude.”
Rachins It was very difficult. You’re not just naked, you’re vulnerable. I felt extremely vulnerable. Jacques suggested an N.I.L., a no-intercourse law. And as far as I know, people adhered to it.
Hypocrites and celebrities
Walden Our first night and we ran about three and a half hours. We spent the next month searching for the right combination of sketches. One number that was cut was the history of women’s underwear, a big production number with costumes and a unicycle on the stage.
Barrett It would change every day.
Hillman There was a lot of talking about what we saw in the audience. I think we were as interested in the audience as they were in us, especially the ones in the front.
Sappington We had this kind of rule that if we saw anyone with a camera, we were to break the fourth wall and an usher would come and escort them out or take the camera away.
Schickele Early in the run, my wife, Susan, and Bob’s and Stan’s wives were hanging out in front of the theater and they saw a cop car pull up. They were worried that the show would be shut down for indecency, that we’d be carted away. It turned out that the cops had heard about the show and just wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
Yellen The thing that was remarkable about that audience was that so many hypocrites were in it. I mean, everybody hated “Oh! Calcutta!” But everybody from Hollywood and Broadway and the government would come to see us. It was obligatory.
Sappington I missed meeting Warren Beatty, but Rudolf Nureyev came to see me. Jimi Hendrix came backstage. Everybody. The mantra was, “Well, I wasn’t so shocked.” That was the chic thing to say.
Opening Night and After
‘People were looking for a revolution’
Feiffer I went to the opening and the party, just long enough to get drunk. I felt shame for what had been done to my sketch.
Walden At Sardi’s, we were waiting for the reviews, for The New York Times. It was a pan. The investors, you could see their faces sagging. Hilly Elkins jumped up on a chair and said, “Anybody who wants to get their money back, I will buy out their investment here and now.”
Barrett When the reviews came out? Oh my God, gloom and doom. I want out! I want out of this! People were hysterical and overreacting.
Walden Of course, it turned out to be the longest running revue in the history of the theater. My big income from the show came many years later. I wrote the title song and a guy used it on a hip-hop record [“1 Thing” by Amerie]. It became a ringtone best seller.
Feiffer It inspired me to extend the sort of thinking that went into my sketch. The result was the play “Carnal Knowledge” that Mike Nichols had me adapt as a film.
Macy I’m 97 years old. I go out into the street every day and I accost strangers. I talk to them about “Oh! Calcutta!” I don’t wait for an introduction. I just walk up.
Rachins It definitely changed me. It was painful. It was exciting. It was funny. It was fun.
Harper Macy People were looking for a revolution. And we were part of that.
Yellen The lesson of “Oh! Calcutta!” was not nudity. It was an attitude toward women as objects, detaching romance from sexuality. I would never write that sketch today. I would never think that a subject which dealt with rape, even peripherally, was a funny one.
Walden Every once in a while somebody comes up with the idea of doing a revival. In 1969, the world was turning upside down. The whole fabric of society was cracking and changing. That’s 50 years in the past. You’d have to do a completely different show now.