Quick quiz: What was the most profitable show on Broadway last year? No, not The Lion King, not The Phantom of the Opera, not even Cats. The biggest bucks went to The Blue Room, a two-character, starkly morose, 90-minute British drama by David Hare that, before it opened, sold out its entire three-month run and made the cover of Newsweek.
Granted, The Blue Room starred Nicole Kidman, a Hollywood A-list star of considerable appeal and popularity. But her name alone doesn't sell tickets (as several of her films have shown us), much less $75 ones. But Nicole Kidman NUDE! sure did. When advance word came over from London that Mrs. Tom Cruise spent much of the evening wearing next to nothing and for a few moments was TOTALLY NUDE! a London critic dubbed the show "pure theatrical Viagra" well, suddenly all those Long Island husbands were suggesting an evening of cul-cha to their wives, and the lullaby of Broadway was a loud and ferocious cha-ching, cha-ching.
"Sex sells" is more than a cliché: It's practically a clause in the Bill of Rights. But in a time when XXX videos are easy to purchase and view privately, when "sex dates" are readily acquired over the Internet and phone lines, when cable television is beaming a thousand variations of soft-porn titillation into homes nationwide, you would think that the appeal of going to a public space and watching people take off their clothes would wane.
Hardly, and certainly not in St. Louis. Consider the case of Scott Miller, artistic and producing director of New Line Theatre, a local company dedicated to producing "issue-oriented" musical theater. Two years ago, facing an increasing deficit from some critically praised but poorly attended productions, Miller and his board decided to create an "offshoot" identity, Out of Line Productions, to produce David Dillon's Party, a comedy about six gay men who all eventually get naked. Miller says the show was their most successful "by faaaaaaaaaar," running a week longer than usual and grossing about two-and-a-half times what they normally gross on a show. Not only was the deficit gone, the company had more income for this season. So it's no surprise that over the next four weeks Out of Line will present Head Games, a comedy "that contains adult content and full frontal nudity." Miller reports that sales for the production which previews on Aug. 5 are "brisk."
Miller's not alone in his method. Two years ago, a Los Angeles theater company dedicated to producing serious work for the gay and lesbian community was tottering toward bankruptcy when they opened a musical whose title says it all: Naked Boys Singing. The show is still running in LA and recently opened in New York. Ticket sales are, of course, brisk. Then there's Making Porn, an admittedly tacky play that has been produced to great success all over the U.S. and features a variety of gay-porn stars. The ultimate irony of Making Porn is that its gay-male audience is willing to shell out up to $50 to see a naked man whose work they can rent at the video store for $5.
Miller hasn't figured out quite what he thinks about the trend. "It seems to me," he says haltingly, "that gay men are more interested in seeing nudity than their straight counterparts, but I'm not sure. There is something about gay men that it is a big deal to see someone naked. I guess it's generally that America is a repressed flock and that gay men have often been forced to be more repressive about their sexuality the freedom of stage nudity appeals.
"What was most interesting to me about Party," he says, "is that by the end of the play the fact that the cast was naked meant little to the audience. They got caught up in the story, and the play itself was more solid than they suspected walking in. Sure, they came for the dicks, but they left having experienced a play."
That production inspired Head Games, a play he wrote about "a birthday party for a 35-year-old off-Broadway director who's grieving over his advancing age in a youth-obsessed culture, and also over his ability to find a good gay comedy with nudity to fill his theater company's coffers.
"It's really about my experience with Party," he says of Head Games. "So many people made fun of me and gave me trouble, and then it was this huge hit. I'm a part of a gay-theater discussion group on the Web, and the arguments over Party have been ferocious. So I took all that mess and wrote it into this new nudie play. I'm pretty well aware that I take myself too seriously most of the time, so, in a way, it was surprisingly healthy writing Head Games.
"I wrote the first draft in a day, the second in four days, and I've been tinkering with it since," he says. "These things sort of write themselves. David Dillon confessed to me that he wrote Party in four days."
Miller says that he has had "no problem" finding St. Louis actors willing to appear nude. "We don't get the turnout we get for something like Into the Woods," he says, "but I can cast pretty easily." He reports that at the initial audition the actors remain clothed, but at callbacks actors are asked to perform the same monologue twice once dressed, once naked. "That way we get to make certain that there are no problems with appearing naked and they aren't going to surprise us and freak out," he says. Without much pushing, Miller admits, "The whole thing is absurd, but, man, does it sell."
And next year? "We'll be doing Hair," Miller says. "But I'm not sure whether we'll actually do the nude scene. It will probably be optional, and I'll let the cast decide whether they want to do it each night."
Inspiring great repeat business, no doubt.
Head Games runs Thursday-Saturday, Aug. 5-28, at the St. Marcus Theatre, 2102 Russell Ave. For tickets, call 534-1111; for information, call 773- 6526.