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Top tags: 1970s  applied ethnomusicology  HIV/AIDS  mbakumba  medical ethnomusicology  musicals  New York City  ngoma  sexuality  Zimbabwe 

Nudie Musicals in 1970s New York City

Posted By Jim Cowdery, Tuesday, April 8, 2014
Updated: Sunday, April 6, 2014

Elizabeth L. Wollman

Baruch College


Unidentified cast members from the original Broadway production of Hair.

The Kenn Duncan collection, New York Public Library Digital Gallery


[Editor’s note: This post contains numerous hyperlinks to video and sound files that enrich the text with excerpts from the films and productions that the author discusses. We suggest that you read through the post once without clicking the hyperlinks to get a sense of their context in the discussion, and then go back through to reap the benefits of these additional illustrations.]

The grubby 1970s tend to lurk dejectedly in the shadow of the glorious ‘60s. Certainly, the sexual revolution is most commonly associated with that earlier, more frequently romanticized decade. But when it comes to the sexual revolution’s active absorption into the mainstream, the ‘70s trumps the ‘60s any day. The ‘70s, after all, saw the flowering of second-wave feminism and post-Stonewall gay activism and—following a series of Supreme Court rulings (Roth v. US, 1957; Jacobellis v. Ohio,1964; Miller v. California, 1973) that made the term "obscenity” increasingly impossible to define—more hard-core porn than anyone knew what the hell to do with.



The resultant confluence of complicated, even directly contradictory messages about sexual liberation, ethics, and gender politics resulted in seismic social changes that continue to be played out in this country at present—and thus a great deal of cultural anxiety that manifested itself in all forms of mass entertainment.


In the film world, 1960s sexploitation movies and imported art-house films like I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967) gave way, by the turn of the decade, to porn flicks like Behind the Green Door and Deep Throat (both 1972). Deep Throat, in particular, became a hot ticket in New York City in the summer of 1972, when everyone from Jackie Onassis to Johnny Carson started snapping up tickets to see it in Times Square. Following suit, middle-class audiences across the country started flocking to theaters to see hard-core porn in such droves that the New York Times ran a feature about the trend, dubbed "porno chic,” in early 1973.


Hard-core porn, though, was merely an extreme example of what was being reflected in most ‘70s entertainments. Like the public consuming them, films and tv shows wrestled with the decade’s radically changing sociosexual mores. Movies proffered radically diverse, even contradictory messages: domestic dramas like Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice (1969), brutal morality tales like Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977), and screwball comedies like the aptly-titled First Nudie Musical (1976) added to the national dialogue about contemporary sexuality. In tamer ways, so did tv sitcoms like "Alice” (1976) and "Three’s Company” (1977). So, too, did the commercial theater in New York City.


The Off Off Broadway movement, which began in the early 1960s, was invested in making experimental theater that might challenge and help transform an increasingly turbulent nation. Because many Off Off Broadway troupes were actively pushing the boundaries of what was deemed theatrically appropriate, stage nudity and simulated sex—along with a wide variety of experimental techniques—had become faddish on the fringe by mid-decade.


But the trend didn’t cross into the mainstream until Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical moved from Off Broadway to Broadway in 1968. A musical about youth cultures that strove to depict the social and political concerns of hippies and the new left unflinchingly and honestly, Hair was the first Broadway musical to feature simulated sex and, in one brief, much-talked-about scene set during a be-in, the full-frontal nudity of both male and female cast-members.



Sound file: "Sodomy" from Hair



Hair’s enormous commercial success spawned, on the one hand, tons of rock musicals and, on the other, many musicals with nudity and simulated sex (most of which also featured scores that drew, to some extent, on contemporary popular styles). One of the first, and easily the most commercially successful, was Oh! Calcutta! (1969), devised by the theater critic Kenneth Tynan. Tynan envisioned his revue as a highbrow antidote to the tawdry peepshow or sleazy strip-joint, and spared no expense on it. A theater was renovated expressly for the production; its set design was state-of-the-art; and sketches were contributed anonymously by prominent writers like Samuel Beckett, Sam Shepard, Leonard Melfi, and John Lennon. The groovy jazz-rock score was written and performed by a trio called the Open Window, which featured Peter Schickele in his pre-PDQ Bach days.



The original cast of Oh! Calcutta! takes an unorthodox curtain call at the final "dress” rehearsal in spring, 1969.

Photo by Ormond Gigli


Oh! Calcutta! was panned by critics, most of whom found it too self-conscious to be erotic, or even consistently entertaining. But who cared what the critics thought? Calcutta! ran for three-and-a-half years; the 1976 revival ran for another decade. By the time Calcutta! finally closed in New York in 1986, it had been seen by so many people from so many places that programs had been made available in seven different languages.


Oh! Calcutta! set off a minor craze for nudie musicals in New York, which lasted through much of the decade. The low-budget Stag Movie (1971) ran across the street from Oh! Calcutta! for six months, picking up spillover from sold-out houses and helping launch Adrienne Barbeau’s career.


Tod Miller, Adrienne Barbeau, and Brad Sullivan (l-r) in David Newburge’s Stag Movie.

Photo courtesy of Photofest


The revue Let My People Comea raunchier, more sexually varied response to the rigidly heteronormative Oh! Calcutta!—ran at the Village Gate from 1974 to 1976, closing only after an ill-timed move to Broadway in the waning days of the city’s financial crisis.



Sound file: "Choir Practice" from Let My People Come

The cast of Let My People Come at the Village Gate in the mid-1970s.

Photo by Vernon L. Smith


Even hard-core darling Marilyn Chambers tried to get in on the act with her own Broadway revue, Le Bellybutton, which opened in April 1976. Plagued with technical problems, the threatening backstage presence of Chambers’ manager-boyfriend Chuck Traynor, and the fact that Chambers’ talents did not extend to singing, Le Bellybutton lasted only a few weeks before closing.



Sound file: "Marilyn's Theme" from Le Bellybutton



The nudie musical trend reached its apex in 1977 with the Broadway premiere of the almost obscenely tame Cy Coleman musical I Love My Wife, which tackled partner-swapping in the most conservative way possible, featured no actual nudity, and had only one scene of (goofy, clownishly inept, eventually thwarted) simulated sex.



Sound file: "Sexually free" from I Love My Wife


Jason Alexander, Lea Thompson, Vicki Lewis and Patrick Cassidyin the 2008 Brentwood revival of I Love My Wife.

Photo by John Ganun




As social and political conservatism grew in the lead-up to the Reagan landslide in 1980—and as New York recovered from near-bankruptcy by gradually reinventing itself as a family-friendly tourist mecca—nudie musicals disappeared by the end of the decade (unless you count the premiere, in 1998, of Naked Boys Singing as a very late addition to the trend).




The cast of Naked Boys Singing does what the title of their show says they will.




What is most striking about 1970s nudie musicals that ran in New York in the 1970s—aside from the many naked, jiggling bodies, of course—was just how conventional they were. Even the raunchiest of the bunch espoused the same basic messages: Human bodies are beautiful! Sex, regardless of with whom, is natural and fun! The seismic cultural shift that is taking place right outside this theater is not threatening or confusing or scary at all! In marked contrast with XXX theaters, peepshows, and sex clubs like Plato’s Retreat, the sex that nudie musicals featured was simulated—never real—and was almost always packaged in a familiar, age-old format: the musical revue.


Like Hair, which spurred the fad, adult musicals encouraged mainstream theatergoers to take simple, vicarious pleasure in a sociocultural movement that was unprecedented and profound—and thus, for many, enormously confusing. Adult musicals allowed audiences to feel a little dirty, a little liberated—but at a safe viewing distance, in a controlled environment, with a groovy pop-music score and a lot of jazz hands.


While many adult musicals have been forgotten to time—just one more silly fad from a notoriously silly decade—they helped push the boundaries of the American stage musical as it has developed in decades since; there would be no La Cage aux Folles (1983), Falsettos (1992), Rent (1996), or Spring Awakening (2006) without them. Shows like Let My People Come and Oh! Calcutta! might not be as revered (or as regularly revived) as some of the musicals they have influenced, but they ran when they did, for as long as they did, for a reason. They were entertaining, sure, but they also helped educate and ameliorate countless spectators during an especially confusing and tumultuous era in American history.


Elizabeth L. Wollman is an associate professor of music at Baruch College, CUNY. She specializes in the postwar American stage musical, and is the author of the books The Theater Will Rock: A History of the Rock Musical from Hair to Hedwig (2006) and Hard Times: The Adult Musical in 1970s New York City (2012).


Tags:  1970s  musicals  New York City  sexuality 

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From scholarship to activism in Zimbabwe

Posted By Jim Cowdery, Tuesday, March 4, 2014
Jennifer Kyker
University of Rochester

During the President’s Roundtable at the 56
th Annual Conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology, in 2011, I suggested that ethnography is critical in sustaining a sense of urgency into the fourth decade of the AIDS epidemic. Turning to musical modalities, those infected and affected by the epidemic frequently sing aloud that which all too often still cannot be said, positioning ethnomusicologists to offer important insight into lived experiences of HIV/AIDS.Yet in the context of the global pandemic, producing knowledge alone seems insufficient, compelling us from scholarship to activism. As I observed in 2011, our discipline has long advocated that the music of all the world’s people is worth studying. To become an activist in the struggle against HIV/AIDS is an extension of this principle, making clear that the lives of all the world’s people are likewise worth saving.


Responding to HIV/AIDS through women’s education

I would like to share a few words about my personal involvement in social activism in Zimbabwe, where HIV infection rates soared to well over 25% of the total population in the late 1990s. Over the course of several extended trips to Zimbabwe during this time, I witnessed firsthand the devastating effects of HIV/AIDS, and following a year-long stay as a Fulbright Fellow in 2002-2003, I returned to the United States determined to make at least a small difference.

Seeking to identify a response that would be meaningful, feasible, and familiar, I settled upon educating orphaned and vulnerable teenaged girls, the demographic group at highest risk of new HIV infections, in the urban, high-density townships of Highfield, Glen Norah, and Epworth, where I had primarily lived and worked. Tsitsi Magaya, daughter of the famed mbira player Cosmas Magaya, offered up a name, the Zimbabwe Music Festival Association provided a start-up grant of $3,000, and in August of 2003, I suddenly found myself directing a new, 501(c)(3) non-profit organization called
Tariro, or "Hope.”


Educating girls, shaping individuals

At the heart of Tariro’s work is our recognition that women’s education represents a key intervention in preventing the spread of HIV; as the
Global Coalition on Women and AIDS has observed, "Growing evidence shows that getting and keeping young people in school, particularly girls, dramatically lowers their vulnerability to HIV… Evidence from Zimbabwe shows that among 15-18 year old girls, those who are enrolled in school are more than five times less likely to have HIV than those who have dropped out.” Yet in Zimbabwe, no child attends school for free, and the ability to pay school fees, buy required uniforms, and purchase necessary supplies is increasingly out of reach for over a million children who have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS.

Working with local headmasters, Tariro identifies academically gifted girls at risk for dropping out of school, and who in many cases have already spent extended periods of time out of class. We currently sponsor over fifty students, paying school fees, purchasing uniforms and supplies, including sanitary products, and making textbooks available through a lending library. Reflecting the power of individual voices and stories, a common theme within musical ethnography, Tariro offers students highly personalized attention. Further distinguishing our localized approach from that of larger, multinational aid organizations, we are committed to supporting students throughout the duration of their education, maintaining sponsorship even at the university level.


Pauline K., Tariro’s first university graduate, completed her Bachelor’s degree at the University of Zimbabwe in 2010


The role of music and dance


Tariro students with mbira player Sekuru Tute Wincil Chigamba, center left, and dance instructor Daniel Inasiyo, center right)


From the beginning, music and other forms of expressive culture have featured prominently in Tariro’s work. For many of our students, music, dance, poetry, drama, and visual arts constitute important means of self-expression. In a society where HIV/AIDS is often stigmatized, these artistic modes help young people speak openly about the disease, and share their experiences as individuals living in communities deeply affected by the virus. These expressive forms are likewise ideal activities in a setting with limited resources, as students can engage in them at little or no cost. In the following video, for example, a group of Tariro students living in the informal, peri-urban township of Epworth perform an original song they composed about HIV/AIDS. The same group of students regularly wrote poems and staged dramatic skits dealing with HIV and related issues, such as child abuse, giving them a platform to publicly communicate a children’s perspective on the epidemic.


Tariro also offers students the chance to participate in more structured musical experiences. Every Saturday, our students gather on the grounds of Chembira Primary School, a government institution with the motto "The home of traditional dance.”



Daniel Inasiyo demonstrates choreography for a marimba arrangement of mbira music


Under the instruction of Daniel Inasiyo, the school’s traditional dance instructor, Tariro students join forces with the Chembira traditional dance group, learning to sing, dance, and play indigenous genres such as mhande,jukwa, mbakumba, and mbira, as well as the neo-traditional Zimbabwean marimba.

Click for Audio: Tariro students perform mbakumba

Many of the musical styles Tariro students perform are rarely represented in scholarly literature, or in extant recordings of Zimbabwean music, which have focused predominantly on mbira and related popular styles. After the demise of Zimbabwe’s National Dance Company in 1991, these styles have also increasingly disappeared from public performance contexts in Zimbabwe, with the exception of a few annual festivals, such as Neshamwari and Jikinya. Through public performances at venues such as the German Zimbabwe Society and the Mannenberg, as well as a set of self-published field recordings entitled
Maungira EZimbabwe, our students participate in maintaining the audibility of these musical forms within the contemporary Zimbabwean soundscape, eliciting deeply enthusiastic responses from listeners.



Music, ethnography, and social justice

Jeff Todd Titon has observed, applied ethnomusicology is more than a "process of putting ethnomusicological research to practical use,” reflecting instead a broad "desire to intervene with music on behalf of peace and social justice.” Engendering true social change is a long and difficult process, and Tariro’s modest successes do not diminish the many challenges inherent in our work. In an environment characterized by macroeconomic instability, hyperinflation, frequent power and water outages, and political upheaval, we see a small percentage of our students drop out of school or fail their exams each year, and at least one of our former students has died. Tariro must likewise negotiate pronounced disparities of power, from the household gender relations confronting our students to the legacies of capitalism and colonization that shape our very existence.

Inherent within our work, the methodologies of musical ethnography have greatly contributed to Tariro’s ability to navigate this complex situation. Joining our localized approach and long-term commitment to educating girls in Zimbabwean communities affected by HIV/AIDS, the participatory nature of Tariro’s traditional music and dance ensemble, which offers students the chance to develop musical skills, form social networks, and acquire cultural knowledge in a supportive, peer environment, points even more explicitly toward applied ethnomusicology’s promise in responding to issues of social justice in the field.


Tags:  applied ethnomusicology  HIV/AIDS  mbakumba  medical ethnomusicology  ngoma  Zimbabwe 

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