Broadway Musical Orgasms and Afterglow
A few weeks ago, some friends and I were chatting about songs from Broadway musicals that are sung in the throws of passion or in the glimmer of afterglow. Sex songs, so to speak. Sex is often a life-changing (or at least mood-changing) event in our lives and in musical theatre terms, such an experience deserves a song. Indeed, many of us would probably do a tap dance or fan kick it’s been so long, so we can understand the impetus for musicalization. If you look back over the history of musical theatre, the coital and post-coital song is there more often than you think. This blog entry in a celebration of the songs that came with heavy breathing or a concluded with a lit cigarette (so to speak).
“Happiness” from Passion
I have to admit that I am not the biggest fan of Passion. The musical leaves me emotionally cold and I know I am in the minority on this. I will not, however, forget the opening number “Happiness”, nor will I forget sitting in the eighth row of the Plymouth Theatre and seeing the lights come up on Jere Shea and Marin Mazzie, fully nude with carefully placed linens, as they sung this exquisite ditty. Yes, my first response was to wonder where they were hiding the microphones, but once that was cleared up, I was drawn into this passionate song of sexual delusion. Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics expressed the moment beautifully, with just a touch of sadness to keep it from becoming too lusty or audacious. Despite its loveliness, it foreshadowed things to come.
“Moments in the Woods” from Into the Woods
The Baker’s Wife, given no more of a name than that which indicates she is first and foremost a married woman, dreams of having a dalliance with a handsome prince. In Act II of Stephen Sondheim’s and James Lapine’s Into the Woods, she is given that opportunity, albeit with the very fickle and very married Cinderella’s Prince. Taking a much-needed sex break from hunting a giant, Cinderella’s Prince sweeps the Baker’s Wife up into his arms and carries her off into the woods for the royal screwing of a lifetime. In the afterglow, and after the prince’s abrupt departure, The Baker’s Wife is left to assess the damages that came with having her wish fulfilled. “Moments in the Woods” is her moment of reasoning, an attempt to make a case for her infidelities, but also a song that leads to her eventual conclusion that life is not a fairy tale and that one chooses what one needs over what one wants or wishes.
“The Miller’s Son” from A Little Night Music
I’m beginning to see a pattern here. Sondheim likes to use sex for epiphanies, as well as thematic and character development. Thematically, he does his best with “The Miller’s Son” from A Little Night Music, a delightfully quirky monologue for a maid to comment on the social mores of sex and class in Sweden c. 1900 (but really they are universal mores that continue to be handed down through time). Having just had a jolly good romp with a butler on the forest floor, Petra the maid imagines a world where she could marry a miller’s son, a businessman or the Prince of Wales, exploring all possibilities, each version moving her up society’s ladder. Unafraid of venality and unfettered by social constructs, she asserts that she will experience everything before she dies.
“Barcelona” from Company
Poor Bobby Baby from Company. He is afraid of commitment and afraid of being lonely. His solution: to systematically eliminate a battery of women from his prospective choices by sleeping with them, making them feel like he’s interested, and then emotionally detaching. Nowhere is this more apparent than in “Barcelona” from Company when he beds the flight attendant April who must leave for an early morning flight. He teases her, begging her to stay, she finally agrees and he shuts down because he’s not sure he wants her to. It may be one of the coldest and heartless moments in a Sondheim musical, but very effective in illustrating how sex and love do not necessarily equate, and in showing what a mess Bobby is when it comes to commitment.
Now that the best of the Sondheim Sex has been explored, let’s look at some other examples:
“Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” from Pal Joey
One of the earliest examples of an afterglow monologue through music is from the 1940 Rodgers and Hart classic Pal Joey. Married, middle-aged socialite of the upper crust Vera Simpson is not above having an affair on the side. Nightclub dancer Joey Evans is not above playing the gigolo when the price is right. She finances his career; he keeps her feeling young and vital. Vera, after a good rogering from Joey, sings “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”, a song with very provocative lyrics for 1940. The song was, in fact, considered so explicit that it had a hard time getting radio play despite being the musical’s biggest hit. “I’m vexed again, perplexed again, thank god I can be oversexed again” was apparently teetering on the indecent. Subsequently, for new recordings, lyrics were revised and tamed down so that they would not offend. We have to remember, though, that this was a declaration of infidelity and the tryst was enjoyed. In 1940, that was pretty brazen.
“What More Can I Say” from Falsettos
For all of his frantic melodies and tongue-twisting lyrics, composer-lyricist William Finn can certainly find exquisite moments to slow down and get at the heart of the matter. One of his most touching songs is “What More Can I Say?” from the musical Falsettos (introduced in Off-Broadway’s Falsettoland) sung in bed by the complicated, ever-complaining Marvin to his sleeping male lover Whizzer. Marvin, who makes everything in his life more difficult than it needs to be, marvels at how he can so completely love someone and trips and stammers over trying to express how confused he is by his happiness. It was one of the first times that a Broadway musical actually captured, without caricature, what it was like for two men to be in love.
“Changing My Major” from Fun Home
Thank you to Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron for giving us Fun Home. For me, it’s the first time Jeanine Tesori’s music really spoke to my heart, and Lisa Kron’s lyrics echo from such a well of honesty and raw nerve. We need more voices like this in the musical theatre. For me, one of the best songs in the score is “Changing My Major” The character of Alison has gone to college (her character is known at this point as “Medium Alison”) and she begins attending the Gay union and meets this woman named Joan. Unsure of where she stands sexually, she and Joan connect and eventually make love. As Joan sleeps beside her, Alison recounts the joy and trepidation she found in her first lesbian experience, ending the song by declaring that she has changed her major and that new major is Joan.
“Younger Than Springtime” from South Pacific
Considering how family-friendly everyone considers Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals to be, not everything was exactly PG-13 in South Pacific. Lt. Joseph Cable, newly arrived at a military base on an island in South Pacific, falls in love with a local native girl named Liat who, according the script, is “about 17”. After the two have a romp around the island and presumably make love under each coconut palm, Cable sings “Young than Springtime.” It’s a song that celebrates the new vigor he has found with this girl that he has barely had a conversation with and who is essentially being pimped-out by her mother. It’s one of the more troubling moments in South Pacific (by today’s standards), but the song captures that youthful exuberance brought about by the possibility of great romance celebrated in the afterglow of great sex.
“Contact” - Rent
Probably the most salacious of all sex songs found in a Broadway musical, “Contact” from Jonathan Larson’s Rent might be the most bacchanalian of all. The cast of characters, a bunch of disenfranchised artists struggling to survive in New York City at the height of the AIDS epidemic, all sing of the allure of sex while in a frenzied performance piece under a writhing bed sheet, appear as if they are in the throws of passion. Onomatopoeic words punctuate each thrust and orgasm even as the character of the drag queen “Angel” makes a plea for love in its purist form. The song ends abruptly and Angel has died from AIDS. Nothing in Rent was more starkly effective and eerily astonishing as this song and its penultimate orgasmic climax of death.