The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: The Last Five Years

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas

July 23, 1982,  Universal  114 minutes

Here's another show by Bway amateurs, Texans all, and more evidence as far as I was concerned that The Big Street was going to the dogs the year I left town. It seemed a sort of musical for people who don't like musicals, carried by its open salaciousness and Grand Ole Opry-ready score; something more suited for audiences in Atlanta, Tulsa or Vegas. But Whorehouse broke the Bway jinx on shows about Texas, and ran an unbelievable four years. And even Hlwd took notice.
I don't know if it was a project actively lobbied by Colin Higgins, or if he was simply contracted. He was as hot as he was ever going to be coming off his 1980 blockbuster, Nine to Five and could write his own ticket. His career began with Harold & Maude, a script written as his Master Thesis at UCLA, and his quick ticket to Hlwd. But the film's initial failure dampened his prospects, and it took several years--and a long Parisian exile (where H&M was embraced, and turned into a long-running stage hit) before he wrote another movie. Silver Streak earned him access to the director's chair for his follow up, Foul Play--and tho both were modest hits, Nine to Five, was a smash; the year's #3 movie--grossing over $100 million at a time when that was still a rare feat. But Whorehouse, which grossed a robust $69 million, proved to be his next and final film. Undoubtedly he would have continued a studio career had he not been felled by AIDS, dying just a few years later at the age of 47. For one who started with such a quirky, and for some, off-putting sense of humor, his style quickly tapped into facile mainstream tropes, his writing more sitcom than sophisticated. Whorehouse was based on journalist Larry L. King's Playboy article about a real-life Texas bordello, which in collaboration with actor Peter Masterson, became a libretto for a Bway musical, and later, screenplay (with Colin Higgins). The tale concerns the demise of a local "institution" at the hands of a hypocritical moralist. And the ending is a downer--softened, barely, by the show's best song, "Hard Candy Xmas" a sort of dustbowl "Anatevka"--only less poignant; after all these are whores hitting the road, not the diaspora, but gals who need to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start all over again. On Bway there wasn't even romance. The Sheriff and the Madam (Miss Mona & Ed Earl) had a fling long ago, but that was it. You'd think at least one of the girls would be involved with a young cowboy john--but no. And not a lot of laughs either. What comedy there was came from the obnoxious media maven, out to destroy the show's title establishment--its very reason for being. Even worse, in the end the villain wins. But the show itself cannot pretend to a moralistic victory given its cavalier attitude toward sex. No coy wink-wink here, it pretty much spells out there's a whole lot of fucking going on at the Cadillac Ranch. But it's just a good ole wholesome lube shop (no drinking allowed!--or is it "aloud"?), a respected local business;  a prize  field-trip for  the  winning  football 
team. But it isn't only those free-range Texan hunks in need of getting their poles greased, the show wants to be an equal opportunity sexualizer; giving a late-middle-aged black housekeeper (the updated Hattie McDaniel spot) a vulgar lyric like "24 Hours of Lovin' " listing  the various  sex  acts  she's planning on leave with her boyfriend. It's kinda gross. Carol Hall's score is on keel with the book, which is to say serviceable and entirely unmemorable. But there's no underestimating the contribution of the fourth Lone Star native on the creative team, Michael Bennett's protege & pal, Tommy Tune (who  already had a Tony for  his  role  in  Seesaw)   making  his  Bway  staging   debut. 
Combining his Texan roots with Bway showmanship, Tune brought the audience to its feet more than any other element. As a tune, "The Aggie Song" is negligible, but Tune turns it into a testosterone fueled, casually homoerotic jamboree. He was the last in the line of great director/choreographers who bloomed thru the Golden Age, and he had the '80s entirely to himself. His run of hits (Nine, My One & Only, Grand Hotel, Will Rogers Follies) came to a screeching halt in '94, when the quartet returned to produce a sequel called The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public. The public went for just two weeks. (Yet I find Carol Hall's score superior to the original--which helps justify Tune's return as well.) But sequels to musicals are virtually always disasters--a narcissistic exercise in milking the cash cow; attempts to recapture past glories. In this case there wasn't much glory to begin with.
Madam Mona is a definite star part, but neither Bway production was cast with much of a known commodity (Carlin Glynn, who won a Featured Actress Tony, and Dee Hoty in the sequel), but Alexis Smith was recruited for the national tour, and in 2001 another road company rode on Ann-Margret's  name across a  wide swath of the  country. 
She was sixty then, and would've been a creditable Mona 20 years earlier for the movie. But no one could fault the casting of Dolly Parton who had recently crossed into features with Nine to Five, keeping her unique personality intact. Whorehouse wasn't exactly an acting stretch, but Dolly found the way to meld her Tennessee charms with Hlwd glamour. She confidently sashays in Theodora van Runkel's dresses, tailored to her curves like no one since Diamond Lil. The hair is all Texas, which combined with the '80s, approachs parody--or Mae West. 

She also brings the bonus of her musical chops, adding a couple of songs including one from her catalog, "I Will Always Love You," before Whitney got her pipes around it. As her partner in victimless crime, Burt Reynolds was equally suited and at the peak of his film career; the duo were a solid commerical pairing. And the screenplay was rightly revised to give them an ongoing (if secret) romance, with a trysting scene set to a Parton song, "Sneakin' Around with You," that recalls the hootenanny yell of Sid & Babe's "There Once Was a Man" in Pajama Game. As well as Dolly in frilly lingerie and hirsute Burt (recently Cosmo's centerfold) cavorting in boxer shorts. Less obvious, but delightful bit of casting was Charles Durning for the "side-stepping" Governor. The well-loved character actor tickled many with his fleet-footed turn in his one musical solo, so much that he earned a highly unexpected Oscar nomination--the film's only Academy recognition. But the choice of making Sheriff Ed Earl's dim-witted deputy, Fred, the film's narrator, and then casting him as Gomer Pyle--er, Jim Nabors--was doubly bad. Nor was Burt Reynold's pal, Dom DeLuise a fortunate choice for TV henchman, Melvin P. Thorpe. In his awful Buster Brown wig, the manic, loud-mouthed comedian takes the role into utter buffoonery; his scenes an ordeal to sit thru. As the house mammy, Theresa Merritt (The Wiz's Aunt Em) smiles a whole lot, and herds the girls like cats, but happily spares us her solo, "24 hours of Lovin'." And Lois Nettleton (the other Joanne Woodward) is given the scraps of Ed Earl's other woman--the respectable one. Likely the combination of Texas and the '80s has something to do with why I don't find any of the house girls appealing--nor does the script give them any definition or storylines. And while a black and Asian girl fill the diversity quota, there seems a curious, even insulting, lack of Latinas for Texas. Nor are there any among the Aggie footballers, two of whom are future Bway choreographers, Jerry Mitchell & Jeff Calhoun. But the boys are an eyeful for sure.

The film opens with a visual history of the eponymous "house," narrated by Nabors and scored to "20 Fans." It's an amiable beginning that shows greater promise in short order with the introduction of Dolly who launches into "A Li'l Ole Bitty Pissant Country Place," a surprisingly well-built number, in several stages of time & place. The next scene finds Burt & Dolly, "Sneakin' Around" in towels and bustiers and a pair of snap-on briefs the boys call a Japanese sling shot. But the film starts to nosedive with the entrance of Don DeLuise's Thorpe. We're forced to endure two versions of "Texas Has a Whorehouse in it"--
with intentionally tacky staging (which even if it's parody makes it no fun to sit thru); and a slapstick bit being run out of Ed Earl's town. But Mona & Ed Earl make an intersting couple and Dolly & Burt generate a warmth in their chemistry. He's friendly with Jewell, too, the black house matron, whom he calls affectionately "Porky"--which sounds rather offensive to me. There's a welcome highlight in "The Aggie Song"--a lockeroom strip that follows the showers with a robust jig in cowboy boots. These boys are 

smokin' and the sequence works all thru their arrival at the Chicken Ranch, their backyard twirls with the ball-gowned whores peeling off to their Victorian Secrets, and the subsequent raid by Thorpe, scattering all sorts of bare-assed and tittie-exposed folk running hither & yon to the sound of plucked banjo strings. The movie drops half a dozen songs from the musical (including 3 of Mona's alone: "Girl, You're a Woman," "The Bus from Amarillo," and "No Lies"). Upon Thorpe's filmed exposé, the legal decision on the bordello's fate falls to the Governor, Charles Durning, whose "Sidestep" number is also smartly filmed & edited--proving Higgins had a good eye for movement and narrative in a number, which by the time of "Hard Candy Xmas," we've come to expect. But instead of that being the finale, Dolly gets an 11 o'clock number, her own "I Will Always Love You"--the movie's only hit song. I confess I was expecting another disaster of Annie proportions, so it surprised me that the musical sequences are not just well-executed, but about the only real points of interest, in what is otherwise a minor story with a bummer ending.

My own life at that time was anything but a bummer. After two rocky years adjusting to my ruptured life in SF, I was flush with my bookstore "salary"; happy in my Nob Hill apartment; disciplined in my writing habits; fully engaged in my ever-expanding cultural education. I met TC Murov at a party on Valentine's Day in '81. We soon became friends & lovers and over the years he funneled more good friends into my life than any other single being. These were good years. During the week I was happily on my own; on weekends we socialized with friends, lined up for first run movies and frequented up & coming restaurants, like Zuni Cafe. In November I took TC to NY for the first time. We caught Merrily We Roll Along in its brief run on Bway--a flop that was anything but, in our minds. Still planning a stand-up career (if only half-heartedly) we took Laura to Caroline's comedy club, where a rowdy waitress named Reno stole the evening with her tableside manner, and soon entered our life as Laura's girlfriend. A Latina orphan raised by WASPs out of an Albee play--her mop of black curls adding to her image as a Li'l Orphan Anita--(Karen) Reno was volatile handful, who gave us plently of agita, laughter and excitement in years to come. A month later TC & I went to Tahiti, where I spent my 29th birthday in a thatched cottage on Moorea--and subsequent days on Bora Bora, Raietaia and Tahaa' cast a deep hypnotic spell on me. Riding along Moorea's coast in a Jeep I could imagine the strange juxtaposition of paradise and war--the exotic allure of South Pacific. Tho I was ready to return immediately, to this day I have yet to go back. The following September we spent a week in Puerto Vallerta, mostly in our open-air full-floor suite at a hillside fantasy called Ocho Cascades. where each in-room pool cascaded into the one below. I was living under the radar, but living the High Life, temporarily at least. It seemed a fitting complement to the bloated Reagan years.

It was to New York that I returned with frequency--tho not specifically for Bway. I went alone in April '82, when I was able to first catch Dreamgirls, and again in October, seeing Nine, Little Shop of Horrors and yes, I admit it, Cats; along with a number of plays, including Agnes of God, Torch Song Trilogy and Angels Fall--I seemed to follow Lanford Wilson's career more than any other over those years. TC accompanied me for my 30th birthday in December, when we saw Nine, Eva LaGalliene's strangely antique Alice in Wonderland, and William Gibson's valiant if unappreciated sequel to The Miracle Worker, in which a twenty-something, Helen Keller becomes a Member of the Wedding to Annie Sullivan's late-life romance. Jane Alexander and Karen Allen gave beautiful performances, but Monday After the Miracle lasted just two weeks.

My ambitions at the time were torn between theater and film, and tho I was pleased with my first screenplay, High Fidelity, I hadn't any clue or connections to move it further along. Which made a return to playwriting the best viable option. I plugged away at my East Village-Election-night '80 opus, State of the Art., while struggling on the side to come up with a standup set that might launch me upon a career trajectory like Woody Allen's. His film that summer--A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy--the first with his new muse, Mia Farrow, was a letdown after Manhattan & Stardust Memories. Nor was my other hero, Paul Mazursky's Tempest as enchanting as I wanted it to be. But no amount of passion from my corner could make One from the Heart, anything but Coppola's downfall. Another fave of '82, was the manifestation of an idea I'd been mulling over for some time about the early years of live television. Tho I had envisioned a faux I Love Lucy setting,
My Favorite Year took a fictional Sid Caesar variety show and ran with it--beautifully. (A decade later Ahrens & Flaherty turned it into a musical, opening on my 40th birthday--but even with Tim Curry, Andrea Martin & Lainie Kazan (repeating her blowsy Bklyn mother role) the show somehow didn't enhance the movie, and lasted only a month.) I had but nominal respect for Steven Spielberg up to then, but E.T. was hard to resist. An instant children's classic on par with The Wizard of Oz, I thought, but with the deluge of kids films in the decades following, I'm not so sure how it's regarded these days. E.T. wasn't only that summer's runaway movie and the year's top grosser, but flew past all records to take the All-Time title. With E.T. and Best Little Whorehouse, Universal was having a banner summer, with money raining on the studio in buckets. But Whorehouse stands no chance of classic status, 30+ years on it plays like a relic of its time, as marginal (not to say negligible) as Moon Over Miami, The Court Jester or Viva Las Vegas.

Next Up: The Pirates of Penzance

Report Card:  The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
Overall Film:  B
Bway Fidelity:  B
Songs from Bway:  7
Songs Cut from Bway:  7
Worst Omission: "Good Old Girl"
New Songs: 2 (by Dolly Parton)
Standout Numbers:  "The Aggie Song"
     "A Li'l Ole Bitty Pissant Country Place"
Casting: Hlwd Country
Standout Cast:  Charles Durning
Sorethumb Cast:  Dom DeLuise, Jim Nabors
Cast from Bway:  None 
Direction: Competent, musically vibrant
Choreography: Country swing & whoop-de-do
Scenic Design: TX location & backlot whorehouse
Costumes: Gussie gals & prairie guys
Titles:  Over opening song, "20 Fans"
Oscar noms:  1:  Charles Durning

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