Give my revamps to Broadway

 

When Stephen Sondheim was writing the lyrics for “Gee, Officer Krupke,” to be sung in the 1957 musical West Side Story, he was hoping to be the first person to use a serious four-letter obscenity in a Broadway show: “Gee, Officer Krupke—Fuck you!” This did not come to pass. Columbia records balked because obscenity laws would prohibit the recording from being shipped over state lines. In the end, the line was changed to “Krup you!”— Sondheim has since maintained that it may be the best lyric line in the show. Is there any doubt what the lyric would be if it were written today? In the fifty-plus years since West Side Story, the expletive is not only fully accepted in the theater, but roundly applauded.

On the other side of record, so to speak, words that were accepted once have now been deemed as politically incorrect. The audience that was present at the first production of Jerome Kern’s and Oscar Hammerstein’s musical Showboat in 1927, based on Edna Ferber’s caustic play about alcoholism, miscegenation, gambling, and desertion, heard these opening lines:

Niggers all work on de Mississippi,
Niggers all work while de white folk play –
Loadin’ up boats wid de bales of cotton,
Gittin’ no rest till de Judgement Day.

Since then the lyrics “niggers all work” have been altered to “Negros all work,” “black folk all work,” “colored folk work,” and perhaps the most anesthetizing of all, “Here we all work on the Mississippi.” Yes, let’s all work and sing together on the Mississippi, happily toten’ barges and carryin’ bales. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Of course, Hammerstein was keenly aware of prejudice, bigotry, and the subjugation of fellow human beings, and his original lyric was a well-thought-out prelude to a show with several subplots. Along with segregation and inequality in the South, there was a tale of resilient females struggling to succeed in a male-dominated world. And yet, those opening lyrics can still encroach upon our comfort zone with the visceral immediacy of a kidney punch. John McGlinn’s 1988 recording of Showboat restored the original lyrics that had been dutifully excised after the original production, but the verity of his project was squeamishly avoided in the Broadway revival of 1994, in which the lines reverted to the more facile “colored folk.” After all, it was now supposed to be a musical, and even if it had serious undertones, the overtones were that of a carefully financed contemporary Broadway after a blockbuster hit—and not an insightful or thought-provoking jaunt into reality the way Hammerstein’s protégé Stephen Sondheim was to ascribe to and attain throughout his unparalleled work in the theater.

Sondheim did get his chance to pepper a 1991 score with a modicum of “fucks,” but it wasn’t the language that shocked theatergoers. The play was Assassins, a dark, humorous, melancholy, and disturbingly insightful drama about the assassins and would-be assassins of American presidents. No amount of swearwords could be as powerful as nine pistol-toting individuals staring out at you—the audience—aiming and firing. Mr. Sondheim, though a recognized giant of musical theater, has never had a play of his run more than a thousand performances on Broadway. More than having passed that Broadway milestone, The Book of Mormon has had tickets for choice performances running up to $500 a seat. Clearly, the raucous little play had its finger on the pulse of the theater-going public, and that pulse hardly skips a beat, today, when one of the characters exclaims, “Jesus called me a dick!”

The Book of Mormon, a Tony Award–winning, and startlingly popular, musical was a collaboration between the creators of television’s South Park (Trey Parker and Matt Stone) and the composer of Avenue Q (Robert Lopez). The plot revolves around two pious Mormon missionaries who are sent to do the Lord’s work in Africa. As if Mormons don’t have enough trouble with reprobates like myself in the United States, who pretty much slam the door on them when they come a-knocking, these naïfs must confront a one-eyed, genocidal warlord, a group of angry AIDS-infected villagers, and other sacrilegious locals, including one man who claims he has maggots in his scrotum, who are all blaming God for their predicament. Such a theme in a world where Broadway playgoers await yet the next overly produced saccharine Disney blockbuster would seem to spell immediate death on the Great White Way. On the contrary, it opened to raves and was hailed by New York Times critic Ben Brantley, who had this to say in his glowing review: “Now you should probably know that is also blasphemous, scurrilous and more foul-mouthed than David Mamet on a blue streak. But trust me when I tell you that its heart is as pure as that of a Rodgers and Hammerstein show.” From the song “Hasa Diga Eebowai”:

UGANDANS:
Hasa Diga Eebowai!

ELDER CUNNINGHAM:
Am I saying it right?

ELDER PRICE:
Excuse me sir, but what EXACTLY does that phrase mean?

MAFALA:
Well, let’s see… “Eebowai” means “God.”
And “Hasa Diga” means… “Fuck You.”
So I guess in English it would be “Fuck you, God!”

UGANDANS:
Hasa Diga Eebowai!

ELDER PRICE:
WHAT?!

MAFALA:
When God fucks you in the butt-

UGANDANS:
Hasa Diga Eebowai!

MAFALA:
Fuck him right back in his cunt!

UGANDANS:
Hasa Diga Eebowai!

Hasa Diga Eebowai!
Hasa Diga Eebowai!
Fuck you, God!

Prior to Book of Mormon, Parker, Stone and Lopez garnered the 2002 Tony Award for the “kidult” musical Avenue Q, which was something of a grown-up’s version of Sesame Street, complete with lead-playing puppets. With songs like “It Sucks to Be Me,” “and The Internet Is for Porn” Avenue Q was a topical recitation of Gen-Xers coming to grips with the onset of adulthood and responsibility. In the latter song, the entrepreneurial Trekkie Monster sings of many of the characters’ real interest in going online:

The Internet is for porn.
The Internet is for porn.
Grab your dick and double
Click for porn! Porn! Porn!
Pooorn!
Pooorn!

In a parody of Sesame Street’s relationship between Bert and Ernie, the closeted Rod avoids the issue of his gender preference to his pal Nicky in the song “If You Were Gay,” but Rod really plays up the façade in the tune “My Girlfriend Lives in Canada”:

Her name is Alberta,
She lives in Vancouver.
She cooks like my mother,
She sucks like a Hoover.

As for the smash hit Hamilton, about the life and trials of Alexander Hamilton in the early years of the republic, there are a handful of swear words—a few “shits” and a few “fucks.” For a show of this length and topicality, the profanity feels appropriately sparing. When the show will be made available to tens of thousands of high schoolers next year, the language will not be altered. Considering the acceptance of erstwhile foul language and sexual connotations, Hamilton would most likely be rated PG-13 today. Whether in song or in dialogue, the recent musical theater, as well as non-musicals, is rife with swearing. Billy Elliot, Jersey Boys, Motown: The Musical, the revival of Pippin, If/Then, and Spring Awakening—all highly regarded shows—are just a few example. And, although it was not a musical, I cannot leave off without mentioning a play that went as far as giving its title one that could not be printed in most newspaper reviews: The Motherfucker With the Hat.

Regarding the April 2011 opening of the play, Times critic Ben Brantley opened his review thusly: “The play that dare not speak its name turns out to have a lot to say. Stephen Adly Guirgis’s vibrant and surprisingly serious new comedy opened on Monday night at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater under a title that cannot be printed in most daily newspapers or mentioned on network television.” During the course of his review, he openly bemoans the fact that he must not mention the play’s title: “This is vexing for those of us who would like to extol the virtues of ‘The ___________ With the Hat,’ at least in public.” He prudently refers to it as the “Hat,” much as a superstitious actor finds safety under the umbrella of the “The Scottish Play” for Macbeth. Unlike other Times writers who ardently defend the newspaper’s wholesome front, Brantley makes his feelings of being stifled very clear: “But I’ll admit that upon first hearing the name of his play, I thought irritably, ‘How the ___ am I going to write about it?’ As you see, I have already devoted much space-consuming ink to my quandary.” Another New York paper, Daily News, went a step further and boldly referred to the play as “The Mother f—with the Hat” in its review. Both the Wall Street Journal and New York Post reviewed it with the official Broadway title, “The Motherf**ker with the Hat.” Interestingly, it was only the Times critic who openly caviled over the expurgation, while Terry Teachout just alluded to its unprintability in the WSJ review: “Don’t let the stupid title put you off. If you do, you’ll miss one of the best new plays to come to Broadway in ages.”

For those who look down on Broadway musicals as an inferior art form, they should be well aware that the hallowed stage of the Metropolitan Opera is no longer immune to the infringement of swearing. Although not yet fit to print in The New York Times, the salacious word “motherfuckers” was sung aloud from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in February of 2011. This was all the while it was being simulcast over international radio, as well as in movie theaters in high definition, during John Adams’s production of Nixon in China. And it wasn’t even Dick Nixon who said it!

Back to Broadway, the irreverent Book of Mormon has been touted as the most potentially obscene production to ever grace the Great White Way. We shall see.

9 thoughts on “Give my revamps to Broadway

    • Rob Chirico June 8, 2016 / 3:31 am

      Clap may have several meanings for the audience at large

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  1. Rob Chirico June 8, 2016 / 4:09 am

    The following anecdote has been attributed to several regarding the very prim Loretta Young and one of the guests to her show, but I trust Stephen Sondheim’s recollection: Ethel Merman was known for swearing during rehearsals and meetings. While rehearsing a guest appearance on NBC’s The Loretta Young Show, she was told that since Young could not abide foul language she would have to pay $1 each time she swore. As she was being shoehorned into an ill-fitting gown for the next number Merman exclaimed, “Oh shit, this damn thing’s too tight.” Young advanced on her waving her curse box and said, “Come on Ethel, put a dollar in the box. You know my rules.” Merman’s retort reportedly was, “Ah, honey, how much will it cost me to tell you to go fuck yourself?”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nancy Friedman June 9, 2016 / 12:13 am

    Let’s not forget Stupid Fucking Bird, a parody of Chekhov’s The Seagull. I wrote about the play — and how its title has been expurgated by various theater companies — for Strong Language last year.

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  3. brittanyconstable June 14, 2016 / 5:25 pm

    Funny story: I was 14 or so when I went to see Cabaret with my sister. At one point, the male lead uses the word “fuck,” and I actually jumped. Not because I found the word upsetting or shocking, but because I’d somehow come to the conclusion that you simply weren’t allowed to swear on stage, like it was TV or radio. (This impression was probably aided by the fact that several of my favorite musicals–Phantom, Les Mis, Into the Woods, etc–had graphic and dark subject matter but clean language.)

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  4. Hilmer June 22, 2016 / 4:32 pm

    The year that The Motherfucker with the Hat ran, the telecast of the Tony Awards featured someone standing on the sidewalk across from a poster for the play. He stood so that his head obscured the potentially offensive word.

    There’s also a recent play by Mike Bartlett called Cock, which is advertised in some cities as The Cockfight Play.

    So silly.

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  5. Longhornskier June 24, 2016 / 1:10 am

    I saw _The Book of Mormon_ at a theatre in the South, and my first thought during ‘Fuck You, Jesus,” was, “How did this production ever get permission to come here,” then, “There will be a mass exodus, if the theatre is not struck by lightning first!”

    Foul language for shock value is not news, but an unsanitized, sacrilegious play, performed in a city that was too conservative to exhibit a Picasso painting in a museum show until the 70s was quite a shocker.

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