“Actors are agents of change. A film, a piece of theatre, a piece of music, or a book can make a difference. It can change the world.” So says BAFTA, Golden Globe, and Emmy award winning Alan Rickman. Theater is no stranger to controversy, and while one might hum something from RENT or scoff at the idea of seeing Cats again, the avant-garde nature of theater means that some productions push boundaries and buttons. Here is Destination Luxury‘s most controversial Broadway (and Off-Broadway) productions, in no particular order. Fair warning, some subjects discussed here might not be suitable for everyone.
BROADWAY PLAY – CARRIE
While time (and a more recent off-Broadway revival) has been kind for the musical rendition of Carrie – The famous story of bullying and revenge with psychic powers by Stephen King – there’s no denying that the 1988 Broadway production could go down as one of the biggest financial disasters in theater history. Costing upwards of $8 million dollars to produce, the play opened to scathing reviews, causing investor panic: Funding was pulled after only five performances and sixteen previews. While generally regarded as “okay,” the play would find itself a bit of a fan-following and in 2012 was given a proper production run at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.
SPIDERMAN: TURN OFF THE DARK
It’s hard to pinpoint where exactly this play went exactly wrong. Was it perhaps taking a director known for her artful and obtuse use of subject material and asking her to make the Broadway equivalent of a summer blockbuster? Was it the fact that it might hold the record for most injured actors per performance? Was it the major rewrites done after the cataclysmic opening? Was it the Bono? It’s hard to tell anymore, and now that it’s on its way to going on an Arena Tour, there’s not much else to say.
Blasted by Sarah Kane is one of the most violent and shocking plays of all time that has been simultaneously praised and derided for it’s subject matter. Set entirely in a hotel room in Leeds, a rather caustic journalist brings a woman to his hotel room for the evening, when they are stuck in a shocking and brutal terrorist attack. While going into any more detail would remove the sensational, and admittedly terrifying, brutality of the piece, the late Kane’s play created such a stir that it would be over 15 years before it would finally be brought to America, premiering at the Soho Rep in 2008.
While people might remember the 1979 film adaptation being about the Vietnam war and the counter-cultural movement of the time, the original production of Hair was less of a play and more of an experience with music and dancing. Praised as avant-garde and being called “more daring than ever” by Time magazine in 2008, it was the frank discussion of sexual deviancy, the depiction of drug use, and the complete anti-establishment ideology that made the original 1968 Broadway production such a stir.
What happens when you want to talk about sex, feature actors in the nude, and make a pun from the French “O quel cut t’as?” You get Oh! Calcutta!, which holds the record as one of the longest-running shows in Broadway history. Less of a play and more of a revue, Oh! Calcutta! was a collection of short sketches by such greats as Samuel Beckett, Sam Shepard, Jules Fiffer, and Edna O’Brien. Hell, John Lennon even wrote a sketch. The controversy? The whole play is done in the nude and gets down-right graphic about it’s subject material: Sex. While this sounds tame in a post Vagina Monologue world, at the time it was unheard of.
THE CHILDREN’S HOUR
Lillian Hellman is one the most important writers in theater history. That’s not opinion, it’s fact. Back in 1934, when it was illegal to mention homosexuality on a New York Stage, she wrote The Children’s Hour, about two women being accused of being in a lesbian love affair by a student. The play was controversial for the obvious reasons – It was the 1930s, after all, and the very thought of presenting homophobia in a negative light was down-right shocking. However, it was such a success that the law was not enforced. It’s hard to even imagine something being so successful that the law was willing to go “Eh, we’ll let it pass.”
What can only be described as a quarter-life existential crisis with puppets, Avenue Q has become a bit of a staple for the musical-loving crowd with such songs as “I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today”, “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Makin’ Love)” and the ever-amusing “Schadenfreude.” Despite winning the 2003 Lucille Lortel Award for Best Musical, the controversy comes from such simple things as having a character named Lucy The Slut (who caused a stir where she was featured on posters for a touring production in Colarado Springs) and having confused parents thinking they could take their youngsters to the silly puppet play.
How do you frame a frank discussion on homosexuality in the late 90s in the most controversial way possible? Step one: Set it in Texas. Step two: Make it a retelling of the story of Jesus. Step three is redundant because that’s the basic set-up for Corpus Christi: A retelling of Jesus set in modern-day with him and the 12 Apostles being gay men. The Catholic League, which is a watchdog group for the Roman Catholic Church, boycotted and condemned the play for “blasphemy, sacrilege, and anti-Catholic bigotry.” The writer, Terrence McNally, was inundated with death threats as well for such a shocking production. A documentary about the scandal, Corpus Christi: Play With Redemption was released in 2012.
Think there’s any we forgot to include? Let us know in the comments below.