Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Theatrical sins of the Best Little Whorehouse

Broadway World has a new review of the Playhouse San Antonio production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas up: Playhouse's BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE Entertains Despite Lackluster Material. This review falls into a pattern I've seen repeated over and over again with reviews on this musical, namely, the reviewer spends much of the "review" complaining about the play itself (the premise is terrible, the music is terrible, the book is terrible, the whole thing is terrible) and bemoaning the fact that it remains popular with audiences across the country. Once that is out of the way, they invariably go on to say despite all that negative baggage, this version is really quite fun and entertaining and would be highly recommended apart from the fact that it sucks.


I have struggled to get my head wrapped around this attitude. There was a little bit of this early on, when Whorehouse first opened off-Broadway, but by the time it made the jump to the big time, reviews were overwhelmingly positive for the most part. Yet the dismissive, condescending reviews have continued. For a long time I assumed stems from the notion that prostitution is an unworthy subject for a musical comedy (and I think that lies at the root of much bias, whether the reviewer admits it or not). "Prostitution should not be glorified in such a manner!" Well, if that's the case, should Sweeny Todd (the musical that beat out Whorehouse for Best Musical at the 1979 Tony Awards) be condemned for glorifying cannibalism?

I've come to realize there's more to it than that, however. The reviewer linked above provides a laundry list of offenses the play commits, and it's pretty clear that pretty much every aspect of the musical is at fault:

  • The main protagonist and main antagonist never meet.
  • The first twenty minutes are spent introducing two characters who are barely seen or heard from again.
  • Not one but two of the show's best songs are given to cameo characters.
  • Most songs and scenes don't advance the thin plot or develop the weak characters.
  • While the goals of the main characters are clear, the motivations behind them are not.
  • Of the romantic leads, one has only one song and the other goes a full hour between songs.
  • There's almost zero attempt to develop the relationship between the two protagonists/romantic leads.
  • The two romantic leads don't have a duet.
  • The romantic leads barely have any scenes together.
  • Neither protagonist has enough stage time or enough to do (this is exactly why the roles were eligible for Tony nominations in the Featured vs. Leading categories).
  • It's a sex comedy/satire with not enough sex, comedy, or satire.
Wow, that's quite a laundry list. There's some valid critique here, no doubt. Shy and Angel are set up as entry point characters for the audience, characters who the audience learns through. That's a common trope in writing, be it for theatre, television, movies or prose. Unfortunately, neither really gets a character arc--they're in the background most of the time, and by the end of the play, Shy has become a confident, throw-caution-to-the-wind prostitute ready to seek her fortune in Las Vegas, whereas the hardened, streetwise Angel has decided to put her sordid past behind her and dedicate herself to being a mother with a legitimate career. That's a dramatic role reversal, but the audience doesn't get to see it happen.

Beyond that, it seems the reviewer wants to watch a play that is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike Best Little Whorehouse. That there's almost no attempt to develop the relationship between the "romantic" leads is kind of stunning. It's very, very clear that there is no romance here. That's kind of the point--Mona carries a small flame for Ed Earl stemming from a weekend in Galveston years before, but Ed Earl barely remembers it. And Ed Earl's elegiac song, "Good Old Girl" makes it clear he admires Mona for not ever developing feelings for him despite his gruff affection for her, showing he's utterly and completely misunderstood their relationship through the years. So, from that perspective, not having many scenes together and not singing a duet makes perfect, logical sense. Curiously enough, these "failings" were addressed in the cinematic version of Whorehouse, with Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton having a lot more scenes together and yes, even singing a duet. I've yet to meet anyone who defends those changes as making the film superior to the play.

The rest of the complaints, to the best of my reckoning, amount to a disapproval of the play not following formula. Now, formula is popular because it's convenient and enables playwrights the use of shorthand--the audience expects certain things according to formula, so those things can be presented without additional explanation. Whorehouse, however, never lent itself to formula. It was based on real events, after all. Sure, Larry King, Pete Masterson and Carol Hall took broad liberties with the material, but the gist is still there. Marvin Zindler, the ego-maniacal newsman threw all of his stones from afar and didn't stick around. Governor Dolph Briscoe didn't exactly dance "The Sidestep," but he did squirm, briefly, in the media spotlight. The Chicken Ranch was indeed closed with a simple phone call. Yes, some of the most entertaining songs are delivered by essential cameo performances, but I've seen much the same in Chicago and the handful of other musicals I've enjoyed in person. Whorehouse seems to have a few more of these than normal, but unless the book's going to radically change from reality, it doesn't make much sense to have the Governor sing "Girl, You're a Woman" or Melvin P. Thorpe sing "Bus from Amarillo." Whorehouse is best viewed as an ensemble piece, one comprised of a series of character vignettes that occur in the venerable brothel's final days. It could easily have been titled "Scenes from a Texas Brothel," although I doubt that would've generated as much business as the one actually used. Could the characters have been used better? Sure. Doatsy May could've been expanded on early on, so that her solo doesn't come so unexpectedly out of the blue. Shy and Angel could stand to be beefed up in the middle sections of the narrative. Melvin, despite his dramatic entrance and raid on the Chicken Ranch, is largely absent in the second act. The second act sags a bit, but this is a problem with many plays--it's easier to set up a situation than to resolve it and maintain that vibrant energy throughout.

But to argue Whorehouse is not funny or sexy enough... well, I've always found the first act pretty damn funny. A heck of a lot funnier than the movie version, for sure. as for not having enough sex, well, I've never heard that complaint before. Earlier this summer I read an article about a collegiate production of Whorehouse being staged in Great Britain. The director said the students were initially taken aback by the amount of nudity the play required, but had to get over it to fully inhabit the characters. To which my reaction was, if your version of Whorehouse has nudity in it, you're doing it wrong. It's not a play about sex. It's not a play about prostitution. It's a play about hypocrisy, and anyone who doesn't grasp that might as well be watching Cats.

For the record, Whorehouse isn't my favorite musical. That'd be Man of La Mancha. I have to say Spamalot! is pretty great, too, and The Rocky Horror Show--fully staged as opposed to people acting out the film as it's shown--is amazing. But you know what? The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas resonates with audiences because it's an absurd piece of theatre based on an absurd piece of history. It's easy to empathize with the characters, brief sketches though they may be, and the music (which didn't generate any hits until Dolly Parton released her own version of "Hard Candy Christmas") isn't infectious earworm material, it still keeps the audience engaged when it needs to. It's funny, entertaining and doesn't tie everything up with a neat bow for a happy ending. Sometimes that's enough.

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