Oh! Calcutta!

Oh! Calcutta! is a musical revue of unorthodox nature. It shares the same name with a city and a famous restaurant, but it’s totally unrelated. This avant-garde theatrical revue consists of sketches on sex-related topics. Created by British drama critic Kenneth Tynan, Oh! Calcutta! debuted on off-Broadway in 1969, and then in London in 1970. The revivals had longer runs, including a Broadway revival that ran from 1976 to 1989, making it the longest-running musical revue to have ever played on Broadway.

The show’s title was taken from the famous painting by French artist Clovis Trouille, which features a tattoo on the behind of a well-endowed young woman. “Oh! Calcutta!” is a wordplay on the French phrase “O quelcul t’ as,” which means “what an ass you have.” Due to its sexual subject nature, adult humor, and extended scenes of total nudity for both male and female actors, the show sparked a lot of controversy at the time.

Production History

The idea of creating an erotic revue came to Kenneth Tynan in 1966. He had sketches featuring a naked cast written by John Lennon, Samuel Beckett, Leonard Melfi, Edna O’Brien, Sam Shepard, and Jules Feiffer, among others. The composers for Oh! Calcutta! included Peter Schickele, Stanley Walden, and Robert Dennis – the trio known as The Open Window composers.

Off-Broadway production

The musical opened off-Broadway at the Eden Theatre in June 1969. It closed in 1972 after a total of 1,314 performances. It was directed by Jacques Levy and choreographed by Margo Sappington. The original cast included:

  • Bill Macy
  • Alan Rachins
  • Leon Russom
  • Margo Sappington
  • Raina Barrett
  • Mark Dempsey
  • Robert Dennis
  • Katie Drew-Wilkinson
  • BoniEnten
  • Peter Schickele
  • Nancy Tribush
  • Stanley Walden
  • George Welbes

West End Production

In London, the musical premiered in July 1970 at The Roundhouse, then transferred to the West End Royalty Theatre after two months. The show ran until February 1980 for a total of 3,918 performances. Michael White produced the London production.

Broadway Production

A Broadway revival of Oh! Calcutta! opened on Broadway at the Edison Theatre in September 1976 and ran until August 1989 after 5,959 performances. Again, the show was directed and choreographed by Levy and Sappington. The revival became Broadway’s eighth longest-running show and the longest-running revue in Broadway history. The Broadway cast included:

  • Haru Aki
  • Jean Andalman
  • Cress Darwin
  • Dorothy Chansky
  • John Hammil
  • Cy Moore
  • Pamela Pilkenton
  • William Knight

Plot Overview

Oh! Calcutta! does not have a plot. The whole show consisted of many short acts or segments known as sketches, which highlight sexual freedom and hang-ups. Most of the sketches deal with sexual topics and adult humor, while a couple of sketches also have nude interpretative dances by the performers. The sexual themes featured in the show include stripping down, rape, sexual preferences, loosening up, trying a swingers lifestyle, sex research, and masturbation.

Songs and Sketches

The Oh! Calcutta! musical revue was created in the form of sketches, and for each sketch comes the title of the song.

  • Prologue
  • Taking Off the Robe
  • Jack and Jill
  • A Suite of Five Letters
  • Dick and Jane
  • Will Answer All Serious Replies
  • Delicious Indignities
  • Was It Good for You, Too?
  • Who, Whom
  • Life Is Over Much Too Soon
  • One on One
  • Rock Garden
  • Four in Hand
  • Finale

Audience and Critics’ Response

Before Oh! Calcutta!, the world has not seen anything like this show before. For the first time, the audience witnessed on-stage nudity at a large scale and in on respectable venues. Debuting from 1969 to 1970, the show was a bold decision from Tynan to create that kind of show. Performers also had a rare kind of guts and courage to perform a play like this. To their surprise, the show lasted and became one of the longest-running productions on Broadway, along with shows like A Chorus LineChicago, and The Phantom of the Opera.

Many people were against the show because they felt that all the nudity leaves nothing to the imagination. Still, many people liked the show, finding it hilarious and also meaningful.

A New York Times critic’s review in 1969 states that the show is “likely to disappoint different people in different ways,” noting that the material is weak, and the humor is “so doggedly sophomoric and soporific.” Another critic in The Times in 1970 stated that Oh! Calcutta! is a “ghastly show: ill-written, juvenile, and attention-seeking.”