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Oh Calcutta

Posted on June 18 2019

In 1965 theatre critic and writer Kenneth Tynan became the first person to say ‘fuck’ on British television. It should come as no surprise that four years later he created the nude musical revue “Oh! Calcutta!” The show first bowed during the summer of 1969, at the height of the counter culture revolution. Ten days after the show opened homosexuals took a stand at the Stonewall Bar, a milestone in gay and lesbian history. That summer would also see a man on the moon, a man named Manson and a landmark rock concert in Woodstock, NY. The world was changing – and so was theatre. “Oh! Calcutta!” opened it was first considered an off-Broadway offering. It first appeared at a venue that could go either way – Broadway or off – depending upon the type of contract offered as per Actors’ Equity. The space was formerly known as The Phoenix Theatre. This show would be its first tenant under the new name. Perhaps inspired by the nudity, its new name was the Eden Theatre. After eight months “Oh! Calcutta!” moved uptown to the Belasco Theatre, a proper Broadway house, and it was retroactively ruled that the unbroken transfer would consider the Eden run as part of its Broadway record. After that, the Eden served as the off-Broadway launching pad for “Man of La Mancha” and “Grease.” Although Tynan ‘conceived’ of the show, he left the actual creation to an array of others. The music would be penned by three men known as The Open Window, which included Peter Schickele, also known as PDQ Bach. The trio were also the show’s pit band. For the sketches, an array of literary icons contributed material: Samuel Beckett, John Lennon, Sam Shepard, Leonard Melfi, Edna O’Brien, Jules Feiffer, and Tynan himself. Nobel Prize winner Beckett’s piece was the show’s opener, but during the show’s early months the Irish playwright withdrew his playlette and the opening became a song titled “Taking Off the Robe” which set the tone for the evening to follow. The show was not a star vehicle but the cast did contain some performers that went on to greater fame with their clothes on. Bill Macy (later husband to Bea Arthur on TV’s “Maude”) and Alan Rachins (“LA Law”) were both in the buff during the show’s original run. The show was directed by Jacques Levy and choreographed by Margo Sappington (who also performed). This duo would re-team for the ill-fated musical “Doonesbury” in 1983, which would prove their Broadway swan song. As for the revue’s title, it takes its name from a 1946 French painting by Clovis Troille of a reclining nude from the back titled “Oh! Calcutta! Calcutta!” which is a pun on the words “Oh, quel cul t’as!” or “Oh, what an ass you have!” The image became the show’s logo and appeared on the Playbill, although because of its exposed female buttocks, was not printable in ‘respectable’ newspapers or magazines. “Oh! Calcutta!” ran for a total of 1,314 performances. In 1972 a film version was created which was actually staged and recorded for pay-per-view TV (then in its infancy) in 1971 at Reeves Tele-Tape – ironically, the same studio facility where “Sesame Street” was recorded! It was revived in 1976 at the Edison Theatre, a mid-town venue in the Edison Hotel where, once again under the direction of Levy and Sappington, it became the longest running revue in Broadway history with 5,959 performances.


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