“Tits and ass”

There had been backstage musicals before A Chorus Line opened on Broadway on July 25, 1975. But as far as I can tell, there had never been a backstage musical—or, really, any Broadway musical—that merrily sprinkled fucks and shits throughout the dialogue, which is spoken by auditioning singers and dancers as they bare their souls to an unseen director.* And there had never been a song in a Broadway musical with a title like “Tits and Ass.” In fact, less than a dozen years before A Chorus Line opened, uttering the phrase “tits and ass” in a public forum had gotten the comedian Lenny Bruce hauled off to jail.

OK, I’m getting ahead of myself. And cheating a little. The song’s official title is “Dance: 10, Looks: 3,” and in case you slept through American Musical Theater 101, here’s some context: The song is sung by an aspiring chorus member named Val, who, unlike some of her competition, never studied ballet. She aspired to be a Rockette. “See, I never heard about The Red Shoes, I never saw The Red Shoes, I didn’t give a fuck about The Red Shoes,” she tells us, airily dismissing the most influential ballet movie ever made. Val’s a terrific dancer—“I could do a hundred and eighty degree split and come up tapping the Morse Code”—but “ugly, skinny, homely, unattractive, and flat as a pancake.” (We’ve already heard Val’s “A-Cup Angst,” as the TV Tropes website calls it, in “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love,” a song about adolescence sung by multiple characters. Val’s plaintive line: “Tits! When am I gonna grow tits?”)

After the umpteenth fruitless audition, Val tells us, she swipes a judge’s card and reads the damning judgment: On a scale from 1 to 10, she’s rated 10 for dance, 3 for looks.

Take it away, Val (Taryn Darr in a 2014 revival at Seattle’s Fifth Avenue Theatre):

 

That’s seven “tits and ass”es, plus some nice euphemisms: “bingo-bongos,” “orchestra and balcony,” “maracas,” ­“chassis,” “cupboard.” You can understand why people could think the song is called “Tits and Ass.”

And here’s the thing: According to Marvin Hamlisch, who wrote the show’s music with lyricist Ed Kleban, “Tits and Ass” was in fact the song’s original title. Hamlisch told a Columbus, Ohio, audience in 1995 that when the show played in previews, the song didn’t get the laughs he and Kleban had expected. He looked at the program and realized the title gave away the punchline. They changed the title. They checked the audience. Song: 10, applause: 10.

(A 2011 Village Voice story relayed an account by original cast member Donna Drake, who said that “even before that, it was called ‘Fuck The Red Shoes and had Val practically humping the stage!”)

The original Val, Pamela Blair, recalled her response to the lyric for a 1991 book, On the Line: The Creation of A Chorus Line: “I listened and thought, ‘Oh God—what an awful number!’ It was so brash and bold. … I remember thinking that they strung Lenny Bruce up for this; here I am in pigtails and it’s okay. The response, the laughs, were exhilarating. But it used to bother me, the content of the number.”

Nineteen-seventy-five was hardly the Dark Ages; in the 1960s, Hair and the Off-Broadway Oh! Calcutta! had extended the boundaries of theater-going taste and acceptability. Still, “tits and ass” was something new in a Broadway show. Not that tits and ass were themselves new; both words go back to Old English, and people had been combining them into an idiom for decades: Green’s Dictionary of Slang traces tits and ass (“orig. U.S.”) back to 1939, when it signified “a burlesque show, cheap sex-oriented entertainment which features strippers, etc.”

Which brings us to Lenny Bruce, born Leonard Alfred Schneider in 1925. He grew up in show business—his mother, Sally Marr, was a dancer and night-club performer—and his comedy act was notorious for provoking authorities. He was arrested twice in 1961 alone, in San Francisco and Los Angeles, on obscenity charges (in San Francisco for using “cocksucker” in his act, in Los Angeles for saying “shmuck”). In April 1964 he was arrested in New York for using “various obscenities“ onstage, including “tits and ass,” which had been part of a bit he’d memorialized in his 1963 autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People:  

You can’t put tits and ass on the marquee!…Why not?…Because it’s dirty and vulgar, that’s why not!… Titties are dirty and vulgar?…Okay, we’ll compromise. How about Latin? Gluteus maximus, pectoralis majores nightly…That’s alright, that’s clean, class with ass, I’ll buy it…Clean to you, schmuck, but dirty to the Latins!

 

Bruce’s subsequent six-month trial included defense testimony by Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsburg, James Baldwin, and many other famous folks. Despite their efforts, he was convicted and sentenced in December 1964 to four months in a workhouse. Freed on bail, he went through 20 months of appeals before dying of a narcotics overdose in December 1966.

Less than nine years later, A Chorus Line brought rave reviews and zero arrests. The show won nine Tony awards and the Pulitzer Prize for drama, and played for 15 years—6,137 performances—a Broadway record. (The record was eventually broken by Cats.)

There’s a curious coda to the success of A Chorus Line and “Dance: 10, Looks: 3.” The show has maintained a robust afterlife not only in professional revivals but also in amateur productions, including more than a few by high school drama departments. What to do about a song whose lyrics Amazon labels “[Explicit]”?

I found some answers on a Broadway World message board, “A Chorus Line changes for amateur productions.” One high school show changed “tits and ass” to “boobs and buns,” another to “boobs and tush,” and quite a few, it seems to “this and that.” Here’s an example from a Belleville West High School (Illinois) production, uploaded in 2008.

 

 

Strong Language contributor Anne Gilson Lalonde recalls a 1986 production in her own Illinois high school, New Trier, that substituted “curves and swerves” for “tits and ass,” which is almost as hilarious as it is heretical. Not only that, Anne reports: “In our production, Val goes to a health club rather than a plastic surgeon. And instead of singing ‘Did the nose with it / All that goes with it,’ she sings ’Did the clothes with it.’”

Worst of all may have been a tribute to Marvin Hamlisch that aired on PBS on New Year’s Eve 2012. (Hamlisch had died unexpectedly in August of that year.) On his website TV Worth Watching, critic David Bianculli aired his despair in the headline: “PBS Broadcasts No ‘Tits’ and Shows No Balls.” What had happened? Actress Beth Behrs, cast as Val in the Live from Lincoln Center show, started singing “Dance: 10” but was cut off by host Audra McDonald, who rushed over in mock-panic to prevent Behrs from saying the T word. “Like a trouper,” Bianculli writes,

Behrs picks up where she left off — substituting a soundalike word each time she’s supposed to sing “Tits.” The variations, over the course of the song, included:

“Schlitz and ass.” “Grits and ass.” “You’re all looking at my bits now, aren’t you?”

“Spritz and ass.” And so on, with each variation diluting the song a little more.

This is a song performed on stage, thousands of times, during the Ford administration — yet even in the context of a New Year’s Eve salute to a dead composer, someone deemed it unfit to perform intact 37 years later. On PBS.

 

Interesting, isn’t it, that ass was unobjectionable while tits necessitated the censor’s desperate inventiveness.

__

* Nor had there been a Broadway musical that dealt matter-of-factly and sympathetically with homosexuality, as A Chorus Line does.

 

5 thoughts on ““Tits and ass”

  1. Brian March 20, 2019 / 10:21 am

    “Interesting, isn’t it, that ass was unobjectionable while tits necessitated the censor’s desperate inventiveness.” I got around my mother’s objections to “ass” by reminding her it was in the Bible.

    Like

  2. SecretsOfAYoungLady March 20, 2019 / 1:29 pm

    I played this part in my college musical, which turned out to be actually pretty good for a college production. This is a fascinating post about A Chorus Line.

    Like

  3. Ken Smith March 21, 2019 / 3:32 am

    According to Carlin, tits is one of the seven dirty words you can’t say on TV and, yes, ass is okay, but, “swerves and curves”? What the fuck? I have never seen A Chorus Line and I’m not likely to, but I truly appreciate the context and content of this appraisal of a Broadway classic. Cheers.

    Like

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