A squadron of starry-eyed hoofers have come to Stage 773 to “liberate your genitalia.” The 13 likable performers in this rousing revival of Earl Wilson Jr.’s 1974 succès de scandale, Let My People Come, are out to convince you that sex is good, shame is bad, and whatever turns you on is A-OK. As the troupe belts out in gorgeous multipart harmony to conclude the evening’s opening number, “Let’s hear it for pussy and cock.” It’s Free to Be You and Me with a boner.
Nearly everything in Brian Posen‘s production for the brand-new Street Tempo Theatre is so craftily mounted, stirringly sung, and shrewdly choreographed that it’s difficult to avoid getting swept up in the tsunami of grooviness that gushes from the stage. Posen and musical director Kory Danielson somehow grant this achingly young cast (mostly Columbia College students or recent graduates) the confidence simply to stand and deliver for 70 minutes. Whether they’re working their way through the tuneful, stylistically varied score, executing Matter Dance Company‘s sharp, spare choreoraphy, or reciting original monologues they’ve added to Wilson’s script, the performers are preternaturally poised—never overacting, oversinging, or pulling focus. Posen and Danielson even manage the seemingly impossible: coaxing music-theater majors into singing in their natural voices rather than the god-awful nasal-timbre-meets-fake-vibrato style that’s colonized the American stage.
It’s all so warmhearted and convincing that you’d think maybe the free-love movement isn’t dead after all. But on closer inspection, the show demonstrates just how conservative our sexual imaginations have become in the aftermath of Reaganism and the AIDS epidemic. These kids may think they’re cheering for free pussies and cocks, but they cheer loudest when those pussies and cocks have been conscripted into committed, preferably monogamous relationships. Sex for recreation, stress relief—anything other than intimacy or relationship building—is never up for serious consideration.
The American political climate was very different 37 years ago, when Let My People Come premiered at the Village Gate nightclub in Greenwich Village. The triple whammy of the women’s movement, the sexual revolution, and gay liberation had presented a vigorous, widespread challenge to the fundamentals of sexual identity and practice. Surprisingly, stodgy old Broadway played an important role in that confrontation with two monster hits at the end of the 1960s—Hair (“Masturbation can be fun / Join the Holy Orgy Kama Sutra everyone”) and Kenneth Tynan’s licentious sketch revue, Oh! Calcutta! Away from the Great White Way we got The Dirtiest Show in Town, a 1970 musical revue that attacked the Vietnam war, pollution, and other social ills on the road to what you might call a climax featuring a simulated orgy with a naked cast. Adrienne Barbeau did a nude turn—also at the Village Gate—in Stag Movie, which included songs like the bisexual-friendly “Try a Trio” and pro-exhibitionism “Get Your Rocks Off Rock.” And in 1972—while Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door were breaking box-office records—another musical, The Faggot, explored gay and lesbian identity in a normatively heterosexual world. It was written by Al Carmines, off-off-Broadway icon and Christian minister.
So the time was ripe for Let My People Come, the first production of which ran for more than 1,000 performances. Songs like “I Believe My Body,” “Screw,” “Whatever Turns You On,” and “Give It to Me” leave few sexual urges uncelebrated. “Linda, Georgina, Marilyn, and Me” is a dance-hall number about the joys of becoming a porn star. And the oh-so-earnest “I’m Gay” chronicles a young man’s attempts to come out to his parents. The show was packed with nudity and simulated sex. Authorities did their best to shut it down until such notables as Alvin Toffler and Betty Friedan spoke out in support of it.
Posen’s revival is straitlaced by comparison. It contains exactly one second of nudity: on the final song’s final beat, one actor strips but leaves his hand over his dick. (I thought shame was bad.) The tone is alternately playful and serious—but, tellingly, never both at the same time. Songs lionizing the natural, joyful, uninhibited aspects of sex are rendered in a manner that’s punchy and inconsequential, the cast tripping gleefully along the surface of the lyrics, while the handful of songs that dwell on the struggle to find “real love” are given weight and poignancy, as though only that really matters. It doesn’t help that “Doesn’t Anybody Love,” a song suggesting that love is the best justification for sex, is positioned as the show’s 11-o’clock number, all but subverting everything that’s come before.
It’s the addition of the autobiographical monologues, though, that fundamentally alters the show’s agenda. They progress from frothy—a girl losing her virginity to a schedule-crazed boyfriend, a boy discovering that he’s a straight-acting gay man—to weighty. Late in the show an ensemble member explains that she used to cheat on her boyfriends, but the current one fulfills her in ways the others didn’t so she’s faithful at last. And in the self-congratulatory final monologue another tells us she wears her virginity “like a crown”and will only surrender it for true love. Sex may be good, but this version of Let My People Come adds that only certain uses of it are correct.
Liberate our genitalia my ass.