Oh! Calcutta! original soundtrack cover
|Music||Peter Schickele, Robert Dennis and Stanley Walden|
|Lyrics||Peter Schickele, Robert Dennis and Stanley Walden|
1970 West End
1976 Broadway revival
Oh! Calcutta! is an avant-garde theatrical revue, created by British drama critic Kenneth Tynan. The show, consisting of sketches on sex-related topics, debuted Off-Broadway in 1969 and then in the West End in 1970. It ran in London for over 3,900 performances, and in New York initially for 1,314. Revivals enjoyed even longer runs, including a Broadway revival that ran for 5,959 performances, making the show the longest-running revue in Broadway history at the time.
The show sparked considerable controversy at the time due to its extended scenes of total nudity, both male and female. The title is taken from a painting by Clovis Trouille, itself a pun on "O quel cul t'as!" French for "What an arse you have!".
Tynan came up with the idea of putting on an erotic revue in the summer of 1966. Tynan had hoped that Harold Pinter would direct the production, in order to give it avant-garde legitimacy, but Pinter declined. Sketches were written by, amongst others, Samuel Beckett, John Lennon, Sam Shepard, Leonard Melfi, Edna O'Brien, Jules Feiffer, and Tynan, and featured the cast naked. Peter Schickele (also known as "PDQ Bach"), Robert Dennis and Stanley Walden were the revue's composers, known as The Open Window. Beckett's contribution, Breath, was used as a Prologue in the original New York staging, but Beckett eventually withdrew permission for its use.
The musical opened off-Broadway at the Eden Theatre on June 21, 1969, transferred to the Belasco Theatre on February 17, 1971, and closed on August 12, 1972 after a total of 1,314 performances. It was directed by Jacques Levy (later the songwriting partner of Bob Dylan on his album Desire) and choreographed by Margo Sappington. The cast included Raina Barrett, Mark Dempsey, Katie Drew-Wilkinson, Boni Enten, Bill Macy, Alan Rachins, Leon Russom, Margo Sappington, Nancy Tribush and George Welbes, as well as the 3 "Open Window" composers.
The musical premiered in London on July 27, 1970 at The Roundhouse, and transferred to the West End Royalty Theatre on September 30, 1970, running through January 27, 1974. The show then transferred to the Duchess Theatre on January 28, 1974, where it ran until 1980, for a total of 3,918 performances. The London show was produced by Michael White.
A revival opened on Broadway at the Edison Theatre on September 24, 1976 and closed on August 6, 1989 after 5,959 performances, again directed and choreographed by Levy and Sappington. The revival briefly became the longest-running show in Broadway history. It remains Broadway's eighth longest-running show and the longest-running revue in Broadway history.
A pay-per-view video production played on closed-circuit television in select cities in 1971, and was released theatrically in 1972; in both cases many cities and municipalities banned its showing. Frank Herold, an editor who worked on the film, provides commentary on this in a brief post he contributed to the project's Internet Movie Database page.
The Spanish-language premiere production opened on October 9, 1977 at Teatro Príncipe in Madrid, Spain, directed by Juan Jose Alonso Millan, who also translated the show.
Note: the musical revue was in the form of sketches. These are taken from the 1971 production shown on pay-per-view. Lyrics and music by Robert Dennis, Peter Schickele and Stanley Walden (unless otherwise noted).
The actors dance and remove their robes to the opening song ("Taking Off the Robe" (Oh! Calcutta!)).
A boy and a girl who just met are in their own playland, with the boy constantly trying to find ways to seduce the girl who is afraid of him because he is a boy. The sketch ends with the girl in a coma after the boy rapes her ("Jack & Jill").
A song of five letters written by anonymous authors about their sexual preferences ("Suite for Five Letters"). Actually they were letters to the editor from various newspapers from olden times in London and later in the Suite, contemporary letters from sexual newspapers of the day.
An uptight girl gets a lesson in loosening up after her lover is sick of her constantly stiff ways ("Dick & Jane").
A young couple start to rethink getting into the swingers lifestyle after meeting the middle-aged couple who answer their ad ("(Will Answer All) Sincere Replies").
A chaste woman is caught by her admirer, who then proceeds to learn that she is not as chaste as he thinks she is ("Delicious Indignities (or The Deflowering of Helen Axminster") was written by Sherman Yellen).
A man participates in a sex study and the whole experience ends up turning into one big farce ("Was It Good For You Too? (Green Pants, I Like the Look)"). The scene plays like the Marx Brothers at a sex research facility.
A pre-filmed section, where the actors are nude outside doing interpretive dance ("Much Too Soon"), music and lyrics by Jacques Levy, Dennis, Schickele, and Walden.
Another nude interpretive dance ("One on One (Clarence and Mildred)").
After a man rambles on about painting the fence and building a rock garden, his son talks about what girls really like ("Rock Garden").
Players come out to sing the final song and dance, also doing voiceover as to what the theater patrons are really thinking about the experience. Examples include: "She has pretty eyes" (the joke being that all of the actors are nude at this point), "How come none of the guys have hard-ons?" "That's my boyfriend--that IS a hard-on", and "If they showed this in Washington, Agnew would shit!" ("Coming Together, Going Together").
Clive Barnes, in his 1969 New York Times review, wrote that "the humor is so doggedly sophomoric and soporific", adding "The failure here is almost exclusively a failure of the writers and the producers. The director, Jacques Levy, has done his best with the weak material at hand ... the nude scenes, while derivative, are attractive enough. The best effects -- including the rather sweet grope-in immediately after the intermission -- have been taken from Robert Joffrey's ballet 'Astarte', and the show uses the same projected media designers ... In sum, 'Oh! Calcutta!' is likely to disappoint different people in different ways, but disappointment is the order of the night."
Irving Wardle, writing in The Times in 1970, said: "I have seen better revues than Oh! Calcutta! but none based on ideas that strike me as more sympathetic. Namely that the ordinary human body is an object well worth attention: and that there is no reason why the public treatment of sex should not be extended to take in not only lyricism and personal emotion but also the rich harvest of bawdy jokes." He noted that the enjoyment and lack of embarrassment of the cast helped the audience to accept the more insubstantial elements of the revue's material and that the stage sets' screen projections assisted the dance numbers considerably, concluding: "In many ways it is a ghastly show: ill-written, juvenile, and attention-seeking. But it is not a menace".
The 1970 Roundhouse, London production attracted the attention of the Metropolitan Police's Obscene Publications Squad, which sent two officers to a preview of the show. One of the officers returned twice more before recommending a prosecution under the 1968 Theatres Act for obscenity. The Director of Public Prosecutions sent its panel of experts -- including two retired headmistresses -- to see the Roundhouse production and their judgement that it was not obscene enabled it to transfer to London's West End.