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Theatre, Music, etc.


April 4, 2008

Theyre naked and they
sing, but . . .

Film and DVD just don’t work for this nude musical–and please, spare us the ‘diverse bodies’ BS

Naked Boys Singing became an off-Broadway cult phenomenon a decade ago, and it continues to run there and spring up in the more progressive cities across America. The conceit of the show is a bunch of naked men singing and dancing about issues ranging from circumcision and locker-room anxieties to love and masturbation.

Now, there’s a film version available on DVD.

Nudity has had a checkered history in art and culture. The ancient Greeks and Romans celebrated and even revered nudity in their art. Sexuality was a relatively open aspect of society. In ancient India, similarly, naked gods and goddesses, all overly endowed--they were divine, after all--adorned temples that still stand today. Not to mention the Indian Kama Sutra, which indicated that in order to have great sex one had to be a Cirque du Soleil contortionist and acrobat even before there was such a thing as Cirque du Soleil.

The Renaissance reinvigorated the nude form in art, rescuing it from the Dark Ages. Even the religious and biblical art of this time was not afraid to show revered figures in their bodies made flesh, so to speak.

With the onset of the Victorian age, nudity went underground, not vanishing, but becoming the domain of shame and subterfuge. Ironically, as visible, celebrated nudity went into hiding, what emerged was copious Victorian porn, wonderfully aided by the then-new medium of photography.

And then there’s us, who just a few years ago engaged in a collective, national hissy fit when Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunctioned during the Super Bowl half-time show, giving rise to a new term and new meaning to the concept of hypocrisy. All the leftover neo-Puritans were bemoaning how their children had been permanently scarred by having to witness Jackson’s breast, which was so far away and so minute on the screen you’d need a telescope to actually see it. Or Tivo, by which more people saw the “malfunction” than actually noticed it live.

So, when a musical like Naked Boys Singing becomes some sort of a cult hit, one has to understand the historical, social and cultural underpinnings of nudity and our relationship to it--or lack thereof--to it.

Jackson’s malfunction or Britney Spears’ recent panty-less escapades notwithstanding, there is not much shock value left to nudity, especially in the arts. Hair (1967), which became the first legitimate stage piece to feature full-frontal male and female nudity was noteworthy.

Around the same time there was Oh! Calcutta! (1969), a Broadway revue of bawdy, rather immature humor that featured male and female nudity live on stage. That show, which lasted on the road until 1991, was actually quite unerotic for all the breasts and penises and simulated coitus on display.

These days, Broadway has made nudity de rigeur. In the last decade, naked bodies have been strewn across Broadway stages like bad decisions at a Lindsay Lohan post-rehab day on the town. Kathleen Turner doffed it all in the stage version of The Graduate after the height of her fame, perhaps in an attempt to regain some. Jude Law bared all in Indiscretions long before he was well known.

Then there’s the plethora of gay plays on Broadway where nudity (solely male) became, it seemed, the only way to get a play on the Great White Way. In Terrence McNally’s Love! Valor! Compassion! costume designing became just a bit easier and cheaper since many of the performers spent a lot of stage time in little to no clothing. Richard Greenberg’s powerful take on homosexuality and homophobia in pro sports in Take Me Out had extensive scenes of the baseball team showering, fighting and exchanging barbs, all sans clothes. Even heavy-hitter Angels in America found a way to make its point with some exposed penises.

In the light of all this, Naked Boys Singing is hardly revolutionary, hardly necessary in the march forward, away from pseudo-Puritanism, towards a more collective and individual healthy sexuality.

I have seen the stage versions in New York and the one in Columbus put on by Reality Theatre a few years ago. Both were competent productions that entertained me somewhat. What I have always found a bit baffling is all the talk around the show about its meaning, its poignancy, it taking a stand about Puritan attitudes towards nudity in America.

While it is true that there is much Puritanism in our cultural norms, especially towards male nudity, Naked Boys Singing is hardly the vehicle of mass awareness towards social change. It is what it is--a nice excuse to see young, naked men sing songs and dance a bit. (To prevent hernias, the choreography needs be somewhat tame. Flying jettés and spinning pirouettes would be painful to do and watch).

The songs are passable--some more memorable than others, some more witty than the rest, others a bit banal. It’s nice entertainment if the stagehands’ strike has shut down all the better fare on Broadway.

The film version left me baffled and bored to tears. I hate writing negative reviews because I know there are real people at the other end who have sweat, blood, and tears, not to mention hard-to-come-by money invested, especially in independent productions which have a hard time getting made and an even harder time getting noticed.

Yet Naked Boys Singing the film leaves so much to be desired. The film is essentially an almost exact recording of a stage performance. Except here we get to see the penises from different angles.

Whoop-tee-doo-o-o! It’s like watching a glorified taped version of any play where the immediacy of the theatrical experience is mummified and where the grandeur of the live event is boxed in, literally and otherwise.

Had the directors and producers found a way to reconceptualize the musical, creating a film that was distinctly separate from the stage rendition, Naked Boys Singing could have soared, might have risen to the occasion and actually been relevant. That takes more money, more time, and mostly a better vision than is on display from the creative team here.

The film could have benefited from real locations, a conceptual or metaphorical through line--other than the nudity--to unite the film into something cohesive, something a bit more daring.

As it is, the film, even replete with nudity, is tame, quite un-sexy, and yes, I am going to say it, limp! Where have the creators been all these years? Have they been blind to a culture where tits, ass and dick are increasingly used to lure us to part with our dollars in search of entertainment, consumer satisfaction or just plain old sexual voyeurism and libidinous gratification?

The talent of all the actors--Andrew Blake Ames, Jason Currie, Jaymes Hodges, Joseph Keane, Anthony Manough, Ethan Le Phong, Joe Souza, Kevin Stea, Salvatore Vassallo and Vincent Zamora--is worthy of mentioning here. They sing well, they act with nuance, and their performances hold up well. The lip-synching is particularly well done, as is the overall sound work, given that the songs are dubbed like in most cinematic musicals. Of course, even if they had wanted to record the music while filming, there is that pesky little conundrum of where to hide the mikes.

There is a sweetness to some of the songs (“Nothing But the Radio On”) and even an innocent poignancy to others (“Kris, Look What You Missed”).

The place where my ire got to boiling was watching the DVD’s behind-the-scenes featurette on the making of Naked Boys Singing. The directors, especially Troy Christian, extol the virtues of how their musical and their cast celebrate the diversity of the male body type. That’s a downright lie at best and bullshit that is insulting to even a brain-dead person at worst.

If these men are the spectrum of body-types, then what are those of us above a 34 waist? Not men? Not human? Please, Mr. Christian, we know that Hollywood and Broadway are all about looks, about perfect abs and depilated pecs. We get it. We’re even somewhat okay with that. But don’t tell me that these men represent a celebration of all sorts of body types. That’s perpetuating body fascism at its worst. Stop pretending that your film of Naked Boys Singing is the Mother Teresa of lost, hopeless, destitute male body images. Stop asking audiences to believe that these men represent the entirety of body images in the gay or any other culture. They don’t, unless Heidi Klum, Julia Roberts, Paris Hilton, and Kate Moss represent the entire spectrum of female body types.

It is possible that the actors in the film don’t think they’re perfect. That’s understandable. But that doesn’t mean that they represent the rest of us. If these men have body image anxiety and issues then the rest of us may as well pack it in and call it a life! We know that the film would never have been made with anyone over 250 pounds, anyone with a spare tire around the waist, or an actor with unruly body hair.

Let’s be totally honest. Those actors would have not made it to the audition line up. Not to mention that these are boys and not men, as the title implies. There is a built in body preference in the title, feeding into our Peter Pan syndromes, the fetishization of the perfection of youth beyond what is healthy. That itself requires some serious scrutiny because, I bet, Naked Men Singing would just not have sold as well. It is clear that what the musical is beguiling us into consuming is sexy, young, fit, approaching-perfection naked boys! Who just happen to sing and dance a bit. The fact that the filmmakers seem to feel compelled to justify this piece by layering it with cultural or political significance, indicates that they are somewhat uncomfortable themselves with nudity for nudity’s sake.

Ultimately, it is this pretense of Naked Boys Singing, being more than it really is, that is baffling and unmitigatedly annoying. There’s a song about gratuitous nudity in the musical. There’s nothing wrong in saying that we know people like to see naked men live or on film. So let’s fulfill that need, that want for gratuitous nudity, in our audiences. That’s all.

No political grandstanding, no pretend messaging of body-type inclusivity, no bullshit! That would be truly revolutionary. Truly naked



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