They're Men...They're Naked...They're Singing...
The boys of the Off-Broadway musical Naked Boys Singing are experts -- well, buffs -- on being bare on the boards.
"No wonder we're all the rage, we give new meaning to a bare stage," sings the cast of Naked Boys Singing as each actor's formerly private part swings to the exuberant beat of "Gratuitous Nudity," the show's exultant opening number. Having celebrated its six-month anniversary on January 24 at The Actors' Playhouse, the little show with the, uh, big gimmick continues to attract attention from both mainstream and gay audiences. "This show blurs the lines of sexuality," explains co-star Glenn Allen, whose wife gave birth to a son two weeks after the revue's opening night. "Some of the songs have nothing to do with being gay or straight. The show has tremendous crossover appeal!"
Featuring a program of 16 songs, Naked Boys Singing humorously explores circumcision, locker room antics, pornography, exhibitionism and man's favorite pastime (and it's not football) from a penile point of view. "The nudity is secondary," claims another cast member, Trance Thompson, who first appeared in the show during its sold-out run in Los Angeles. "Since opening last July, the attitude towards us has changed. We're more than just 'that gay nudie musical.' We're being accepted as a legitimate production. People love it!"
Audience adoration aside, it's fair to say that no actor can be fully prepared to discover that his 'plumbing' is being critiqued in the pages of The New York Observer. After all, it would be wholly improper to comment on the proportions of Annie Get Your Gun costar Tom Wopat's pistol or wonder what's down under Dame Edna's girdle; but, for the cast of Naked Boys Singing, such observations are a nightly occurrence. But if having The Village Voice praise or ignore one's natural endowment isn't worrisome enough, the commentary of theatergoers can be positively unnerving. "One night, during my solo, I could overhear two guys in the front row whispering about my body," recalls Allen, modestly. "I wanted to run off stage and hide!"
"Someone should start a support group for actors who have appeared naked on stage," suggests actor Tim Burke, jokingly. The idea, however, is not far-fetched - judging from recent seasons, the potential "member" roster would be rather large. And just not comprised of men, either: Judith Light, who disrobed nightly during her run in Off-Broadway's Wit, also recently stopped by to applaud "the boys." The naked boys themselves also support each other, providing a knowing empathy whenever a fellow cast member faces a uniquely awkward situation. "We protect each other," remarks Thompson. "We've seen one another through a lot of firsts - first time naked on stage, first photo shoot, first public appearance wearing only a g-string...."
And then there's the occupational hazards of living life nude on stage: "dirty feet!," or so exclaims the cast in unison. Traipsing about the stage and green room barefooted can create soles filthy enough to turn off even the most ardent foot fetishist. "To keep our feet clean, we have several boxes of baby wipes backstage," says one ensemble member. Then there's the problem of what happens when the air outside drops below freezing and a certain kind of shrivelling, uh, shivering chill becomes pervasive cast-wide. "Temperature control is a very touchy subject," confesses Allen.
So as long as they are given proper warmth, clean feet, and are blessed with flaccidity (!), one gets the impression that, for these actors, performing unclothed does have its advantages. "Nothing else scares me!" boasts Thompson. "I have a unique sense of confidence during the show and in auditions." For Daniel C. Levine, the show's "Perky Little Porn Star," the exposure has become commonplace. "The nudity feels like a costume," he admits. Even the apprehensive Allen acknowledges, "Backstage, I forget that I'm naked!"
Their relaxation about nudity, however, often stands in contrast to ticket buyers, many of whom don't know how to react. "Audiences are naturally apprehensive," contends Allen. Along with its large gay following, Naked Boys Singing also attracts its fair share of female theatergoers. "Women are very responsive," says Allen. "They really have a good time."
In fact, since the Naked Boys... are rather ideal candidates for performing at bachelorette parties, the show frequently turns its spotlight on a blushing bride or unsuspecting patron. "You did it to my stepsister the other night," reveals one actor, referring to a moment in Act II when costar Levine proudly flashes his dancing dong to a fortunate (or unfortunate?) person in the front row. Truly, Naked Boys Singing gives new meaning to the old showbiz adage, "follow the bouncing ball."
Yet aside from its bare-essential allure, the show's long-running success can also be attributed to its director, Robert Schrock, and a group of acclaimed writers. "If it's the title that draws audiences to the theater, it's the content that keeps them there," maintains Burke. Thirteen writers, most notably Stephen Bates, David Pevsner, Mark Winkler and two-time Emmy Award-winner Bruce Vilanch collaborated on the challenge of "taking the taboo out of being naked." According to understudy Patrick Herwood, Schrock allows each performer to interpret the songs in his own individual style. "Unlike standing in for an established role, I have the leeway to be myself," he says, adding that his favorite song is the bawdy showstopper, "Perky Little Porn Star": "It's the only song in the show that's really dirty," he says.