Broadway Musical Time Machine: Looking Back at The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
Country music and Broadway rarely make a successful mix. The fans of Broadway musicals don't typically gravitate to the styles of country, turned off by its twang. There have, however, been successful Broadway musicals that incorporate country music in their scores, none more so than The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. With a score by Carol Hall, a book by Larry L. King and Peter Masterson, ingenious direction by Masterson and Tommy Tune, and unforgettable choreography by Tune and Thommie Walsh, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas was the surprise hit of 1978.
The musical tells the story of a fabled whorehouse on the plains of Texas known as the Chicken Ranch, having received that nickname during the Great Depression when clients bought sex with fowl instead of cash. It’s proprietress, Miss Mona, insists on giving clientele a classy night of banging, so all of her girls are trained in a range of eccentrically practical codes of conduct. Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd is a regular guest at the ranch, having a soft spot in his heart for Miss Mona. It isn’t until a rabid televangelist makes shutting down the whorehouse his top priority. Did I mention that this musical is based on a true story?
The music from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is its greatest asset. Carol Hall composed the music and lyrics, and in the process she managed to create humor, heart, fragility and strength around characters that could have easily been rendered one-dimensional by the subject matter. “Hard Candy Christmas” may be one one of the most touching goodbye numbers ever written for Broadway, and “The Bus from Amarillo” is one of the most finely textured, deeply layered ballads ever written for Broadway. That may sound like hyperbole, but a revisit to the original cast recording will remind you that The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas has a lot more to offer than its salacious title suggests.
There is also a delicious air of pointed wit that shapes The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas into a vehicle for political satire. Almost every politician in Texas has visited the Chicken Ranch at one time or another, yet not one of them uses their pull to keep the televangelist at bay. In fact, when the “problem” reaches the governor, he dances around the issue to the hilarious “The Sidestep”, a musical theatre parody of politicians who communicate in soundbites and survive through evasion of he issues. It’s a song that has been particularly on my mind lately, each time Donald Trump stands at a debate microphone.
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas opened in a Broadway season where Sweeney Todd would eat up most of the Tony wins, though Whorehouse did manage to win a few awards of its own. Carlin Glynn (Miss Mona) and Henderson Forsythe (Ed Earl Dodd) won featured actress and actor, respectively. Again and again there is talk of reviving Whorehouse on Broadway, and season after season goes by and the promise remains an empty one. How about a revival starring Kristin Chenoweth, Sherie Renee Scott, or Laura Benanti?
Some interesting facts about The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas:
- The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas opened at the 46th Street Theatre on June 19, 1978 and ran for 1,584 performances.
- A film version was made of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas in 1982, in a time when movie musicals were mostly considered passé. Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds starred. Parton provided some new songs for the film. Of particular note was “I Will Always Love You”, which would go on the greater acclaim when sung by Whitney Houston for the film The Bodyguard.
- In 1994, the original creative team came together to produce the sequel The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Pubic. It opened on May 10th at Broadways Lunt-Fontanne Theatre where it became one of the season’s shortest “quickies” of 16 performances. An original cast album was recorded.