Any child who grew up during the '60s and '70s heard the references, and wondered what all the horny hubbub was about. The sexual revolution was pushing the boundaries of permissiveness, and pop culture had found two newly coined catchphrases to signify the shift. One was taken from a controversial Swedish film. Another came from an equally scandalous off-Broadway revue where nudity mixed with nonsensical skits to form a surreal social commentary on the newfound liberated lifestyle. Everyone, from comedians to variety show hosts name checked I am Curious (Yellow), and that sassy stage play Oh! Calcutta!. Since age and rarity kept many from experiencing these erotic entities first hand, an odd sort of mythology formed around them. Everyone knew their names, but few actually understood the carnal connections. Criterion recently released the naughty norse movie, along with its companion piece I Am Curious (Blue). Now New Video NYC has found a copy of that rare, risqué musical. And in the case of the live performance at least, it is easy to see why so many bawdy buttons were pushed.
Following in the footsteps of Hair's 1968 full fleshed finale, Oh! Calcutta! was conceived as a literary look at the lewd. Devised by famed British critic and theater impresario Kenneth Tynan, the basic premise was simple - showcase the human body, and the sexual exploits revolving around it, through a collection of clever comic sketches and songs. Calling out to famous names in the world of writing, Tynan gathered an impressive group of scribes, and along with psychedelic pop tunes from The Open Window, offered audiences a peek into the waking world of the wantonness sweeping late '60s society. Consisting of a dozen setpieces and sketches, Oh! Calcutta! is vaudeville mixed with vice, or a more brainy style of burlesque, if you will. There is rampant full frontal nudity (both male and female) and lots of blue language. With Samuel Beckett's "Breath" as the missing link in the show's original production (he had the sequence removed), here is the material you will see as part of the performance:
"Taking off the Robe" - song featuring the entire company in a nude chorus line.
"Jack and Jill" (written by Leonard Melfi) - the nursery rhyme characters comment on the wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am nature of modern relationships.
"Suite for Five Letters" (material lifted from London and New York Times) - five cast members sing actual letters to the Editors of the London and New York Times newspapers.
"Dick and Jane" (written by Jules Feiffer) - a typical modern couple fight over the lengths and limits of their new found sexual "freedom".
"Will Answer All Sincere Replies" (written by Robert Benton and David Newman) - a pair of seasoned swingers arrive at the home of a novice couple.
"Delicious Indignities" (written by Sherman Yellen) - a Victorian lady tells her potential paramour about her long series of intercontinental scandals.
"Was It Good For You Too?" (written by Dan Greenburg) - a college student enters a sex experiment and meets up with a crazy bunch of scientists.
"Much Too Soon" - song featuring the entire company in a nude exploration of nature.
"One on One" - erotic ballet featuring two of the cast members.
"Rock Garden" (written by Sam Sheppard) - a country bumpkin father and son discuss life on the farm…among other things.
"Four In Hand" (written by John Lennon) - a new guy messes up a masturbation club.
"Coming Together, Going Together" - final nude chorus line.
Like the best kind of cultural time capsule, Oh! Calcutta! manages to both illustrate and illuminate the era it represents. It shows us just how far we've come in the world of the gratuitous, and in many cases, just how far back we've managed to push the boundaries of the bawdy. There are many things presented in this show that, today, would never make it on an urban theater stage. With the watchdogs of decency barking at everything from a supposedly accidental 'slip of the nip' during the 2004 Super Bowl to suggestive scenes in standard broadcast programming, full frontal male and female nudity would never survive the social outcry. Indeed, one of the most amazing things about Oh! Calcutta! is that it represents a clear cultural dichotomy between show and tell. In 2006, we are free to talk openly, honestly and perversely about sex. We celebrate actors and comedians who use provocativeness as a means of commenting on our current cultural morays, and the adult industry has gone from pariah to mid-mainstream entity thanks to the advent of home vide. But when it comes to public displays of the human body, we balk like Catholics over the premise of The Da Vinci Code. In fact, since we've found a way to bring pornography directly into our most private of sanctuaries, the meddling moralists have determined that it has no place in the public purview.
All of which renders this sloppy, surreal showcase all the more meaningful. As an exposé of ideas, it's weak and kind of juvenile, As a celebration of body image and shaping, it's strangely satisfying. Unfortunately, neither means that Oh! Calcutta! is some watershed moment in the history of theater, at least from a show standpoint. A typical formless revue, the very nature of the production warrants an automatic assessment of 'hit or miss'. The vast majority of the humor ranks right along with grade school level dirty jokes and the rampant use of profanity seems more for shock value than actual insight. Several times, the sketches seem to run out of steam, as if to suggest that the author had a great idea, but didn't know how to realize it within the boundaries of a single stage setting. A good example is "Jack and Jill". Not really a literal translation of the nursery rhyme, this opening piece wants to deal, symbolically, with the singles scene and the notion of the meaningless (to males, at least) one night stand. By using the fairytale setting, it is clear that author Leonard Melfi wants to juxtapose the innocence of attraction with the crudeness of copulation. On some level, it works. The man - Jack - is brandished a pathetic pig, while the girl - Jill - is rendered violated and devoid of humanness after the act.
But there is a problem here, one inherent in anything conceived before the birth of the second sexual revolution (the '80s understanding of the science and social ramifications - read: AIDS - of human sensuality). Walking a thin line between daring and dumb, the dialogue given to the characters is an aggravating combination of confessional and metaphysical mumbo jumbo. Instead of coming right out and delivering a devastating attack on the casualness of free love, Melfi muddles his message up in cutesy pie conversations. This happens a lot in Oh! Calcutta!. Instead of being honest and forthright about the world of swinging ("Will Answer All Sincere Replies") or the generation gap ("Rock Garden") we get sitcom level laughs buried in often infantile jabs at the prudish portion of the world. Whether its poorly timed slapstick (physical comedy of the kind attempted in "Was It Good for You?" rarely works onstage) to the one note novelty of John Lennon's jerk-off ode "Four in Hand", most of the material here is mired in the early stages of sexual expression. Only the veiled Victorian goofiness of "Delicious Indignities" and the fetishist fun of "Dick and Jane" manage to stay fresh forty plus years later. Even the music, overloaded with fuzzed out guitar and that most noteworthy of late '60s sonics - the harpsichord - manages to be evocative without being completely primitive.
And then there is the nudity. All the actors perform in the buff, including recognizable face Bill Macy. For the generations who don't know, Macy played Maude Findlay's put upon husband Walter in that seminal Norman Lear sitcom, recalled the early days of television with his role as a writer for the infamous King Kaiser in My Favorite Year and in recent years has made appearances on Seinfeld, Millennium and in the film Surviving Christmas. At 45, he's up on stage with nothing but a smile, and the effect is kind of disconcerting at first. Back in 1999, Nicole Kidman appeared completely naked (for less than 20 seconds) in David Hare's The Blue Room and the scandal sheets went gaga. Somewhere between 1968 and 2006, we've lost the naturalism of nudity and reestablished its naughtiness in the popular culture. Seeing a well built man and an equally elegant lady doing an interpretive dance to sexual fulfillment (Oh! Calcutta!'s erotic ballet "One on One") without a stitch of clothing on may seem pretentious, or even perverse. But here, it has a sharply artistic bent. It is handled without exploitation or salaciousness. As with most of the nakedness in the show, it is meant to demystify and demonstrate the ordinary beauty - an occasional comic conceits - in the human form. Still, many may find themselves giggling at the pre-porn body types - and their obligatory hirsute facets - of the cast. In combination with the mediocre mirth and time machine tenets, Oh! Calcutta! becomes an arcane entertainment; interesting, but for the reasons originally forged.
Be prepared for a shock. New Video NYC has managed to unearth the only remaining production of the show (from a 1971 pay-TV presentation) and it really does look horrible. Early videotape had a tendency to ghost, flare, bleed and fade, and we experience all of that here. The details are hard to define, and the colors tend to be on the bland to nearly monochromatic side. We still get the gist of the production and its particulars, but the overall image is a 1.33:1 full frame nightmare. If you are truly interested in the title, and don't mind a little prehistoric technology interfering with your enjoyment, by all means ignore this warning. Otherwise, the caveat is clear - this is not a good DVD transfer.
With its Dolby Digital Mono spread out over two speakers, the sonic situation here is not much better. A laugh track is employed to ratchet up the audience response, and the boom mike operator occasionally loses the actors amid the action. Still, we can hear most of the dialogue rather clearly, and the music adds its ambience without having much aesthetic value. Overall, the aural elements here are average and don't really detract from the effectiveness of the show.
Along with a reproduction of the 1971 Playbill, which is very helpful when following along with the show, and a couple of cast biographies, the added content offered as part of this DVD is weak at best. What New Video NYC should have done is contextualize the show, complete with scholarly essays and reviews from the time explaining the impact and import of Oh! Calcutta!'s arrival on the New York stage. Without this material, the show still seems lost in a cloud of myth and misunderstanding - as does this disc.
For the record, the title is a play on words. It has nothing to do with India or the notion of the rising Eastern influence in the popular culture of the time. French artist Clovis Trouille created a painting of a woman's shapely backside, and entitled the work "Oh Calcutta, Calcutta!" It was a play on the phrase "oh quel cul t'as", which translates to "oh, what a lovely ass you have." As an inspiration for this unique, and occasionally obtuse, stage revue, Kenneth Tynan couldn't have picked a more appropriate tag. The humor in his sexual stage show is perfunctory and pun-level at best. It's the nudity, and the notion of what it means both then and now, that raises the stakes on this naughty nod to nostalgia. Even given its awkward entertainment elements, this DVD deserves a Highly Recommended rating. Anyone who wants to see where the randy revolution came from would be hard pressed to find a better example. And, if like this critic, you always wondered what the bawdy brouhaha was all about, here is your one and only chance to check it out. It may be more eye opening that you imagine it could be. In truth, Oh! Calcutta! is au contraire to our renewed Prudish parameters. It's as shocking now as it was so many years ago - and what a sad social statement that ultimately is.