Some people like things clean and safe. Yet some others like to see how far they can take an issue or subject they feel important. When artists do this, we call it “pushing the boundaries” and we have to admit, this technique more times than not gives us some of the best art we’ve ever experienced. Here are some controversial musicals that pushed the contemporary boundaries of their time.
1. The Book of Mormon
It is difficult to have a list of controversial musicals without including the creators of Southpark Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Along with writer Robert Lopez, these creators came up with a musical that would touch on so many untouchable topics with humor and music.
It all begins at a Missionary Training Center in Utah for the Church of the Latter-day Saints, or Mormons. We meet Kevin Price, a soon to be Elder in the church, who is not only loyal to his faith but confident to a fault. His goal is to be transferred to Orlando, Florida, where he can use his abilities to convert people to the Mormon Church.
Unfortunately, missionary Price is shipped off to Uganda with Elder Arnold Cunningham, who is not only self-doubting and terrible at converting people. Price looks at the opportunity to do something great with his life while Cunningham is just happy to have company and a friend.
Controversial or not The Book of Mormon was nominated for thirteen Tony Awards in 2011 and took home nine trophies that year. Some of the categories won by this production include Best Musical, Best Book of Musical, Best Original Score, Best Direction, Best Scenic Design, Best Lighting Design, and Best Sound Design.
2. Hedwig and the Angry Inch
This musical that pushed its gender-bending boundary buster centers around Hedwig, an east German band singer who is genderqueer. Hedwig chooses to become a woman so she can wed an American man and then leave East Germany. The operation is unsuccessful and Hedwig is left with an “angry inch” in the groin area.
The musical piece tackles the themes of sexuality, gender identity, and homosexuality. We have to say that is pretty provocative. It opened Off-Broadway in 1998 and was given an Obie Award and an Outer Critics Circle Award that year.
Opening at the Belasco Theatre in April that year this alluring musical took home the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. This production would close on September 13, 2015. It is set to be staged at the Golden Gate Theatre in October of this year in San Francisco.
Reproductions have been staged all over the world including the UK, Italy, Canada, Austria, Germany, The Netherlands, Brazil, Turkey, the United States, Thailand, the Czech Republic, and in Mexico. This proves that the provocative topics addressed are of interest to the global community.
Mitchell is quoted as saying the lead character is not trans but genderqueer. “She’s more than a woman or a man,” Mitchell has said, “She’s a gender of one and that is accidentally so beautiful.”
3. Oh! Calcutta!
This boundary-pushing work consists of many other plays in one was originally performed Off-Broadway in 1969 but eventually appeared on Broadway in 1976. Four years ago the Broadway revival was the second longest-running revival in Broadway history. The reason this play was considered controversial because of its sexual content and excessive nudity, which was an ideology that was just coming into its heyday in the seventies. Introduction into free love and nudity had just come along in the late 1960’s.
Falling under the genre of musical revue Oh! Calcutta! consists of thirteen scenes in two acts, including a prologue and a finale. After Samuel Beckett’s “Breath” was performed in the beginning of Act 1 we move to a scene titled Taking Off the Robe where the performers do just that. They take off their robes to a song by the same title.
One scene we meet Jack and Jill, two children, played by adults, that meet at a playground. Jack persistently attempts to beguile Jill but she is scared of him because he is a boy. Eventually, Jack rapes Jill and leaves her unconscious.
Another scene we move on to Dick and Jane. Jane is a prude and neurotic until Dick teaches her a lesson in relaxing after he gets fed up with her lack of passion. Will Answer All Serious Replies is the scene where we see a couple of young lovers. They have put out an ad for another couple to “swing” with and it is answered by a curious middle-aged couple.
Delicious Indignities is a scene where a virtuous woman is pursued by a man who wants to have sex. After some time put in, the man learns that this woman is not as virtuous as she has led him to believe. Finally, the last scene in Act I is titled Was It Good for You, Too? and is centered around a gentleman who decides to partake in a study about sex. This scene is comical and slapstick in nature.
This rock musical by James Rado, Gerome Ragni, and music by Galt MacDermot, was a result of the hippie counterculture that took hold of the country and the world during the late 1960’s. With anti-war themes and sexual openness Hair was indeed pushed many boundaries.
The plot centers around a “tribe” of hippies who are active in political protesting. They live an artist lifestyle in New York and are opposed to the war in Vietnam. We have Claude, Berger, and Sheila. The trio finds that harmonizing their youthful existences with sexual revolutions and a desire to stop the war.
The parents in this musical are conservative in nature, everything opposite of what the “tribe” represents. Claude is considering dodging the draft like other friends have but this would be a grave disappointment to his parents.
This musical premiered in 1967 at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater and had a run directly following that one at the Cheetah nightclub until January of 1968. In April of that same year, Hair opened on Broadway and ran for nearly two thousand shows. Following that the show was syndicated all over the country and to Europe for coinciding shows.
Since 1968 Hair is continually staged all over the world. Numerous recordings of different casts performing, as well as the original Broadway production, have been released. Several songs from Hair have made it to the Billboard Top 10 list, including “Age of Aquarius.” A full-length feature film was produced and finally released at the end of the 70’s.
Also, this musical is parodied many times in pop culture, one time including the closing sequence to 40-Year-Old Virgin where Steve Carrell, Paul Rudd, Set Rogen, and the rest of the cast dance in a hippie like manner singing “Age of Aquarius.” Time magazine published this line, “Today Hair seems, if anything, more daring than ever.”
Cover photo shows Microscópera Carioca, a Brazilian musical mixed with opera, and you can watch the entire piece (with subtitles) here!