The New York theater has always been more daring than movies or television. When Hollywood was censoring itself with the Hays Office in the 1930s, Broadway was tackling then-scandalous topics like homosexuality. Before she hit it big on screen, legendary sex symbol Mae West was raising eyebrows along with her skirts in plays she wrote and starred in. Religion is another hot topic that playwrights and composers have been unafraid to explore, with depictions of an unconventional Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary making the stage. Just because the theater is ready, doesn’t mean the rest of the country is, and many of these productions caused controversy with protestors picketing, police raiding and even death threats being made. While the list of eyebrow-raising productions is a long one, here are our picks for the 10 most scandalous productions of the past 100 or so years, both on and Off-Broadway:
Opened: April 26, 1926
Theater: Daly’s 63rd Street Theatre
Mae West wrote (under the pen name Jane Mast) and starred in this scandalous sex farce about a Montreal prostitute. The New York Times called it a “crude, inept play, cheaply produced and poorly acted,” but audiences loved it. Ten months into its hit run, acting mayor “Holy Joe” McKee had the police raid the show for indecency. The entire cast was arrested, and West told reporters she wore silk underwear during her eight days in prison on Welfare Island. West went on to write another shocking show, Pleasure Man, about an actor who seduced showgirls, which was also raided in 1928. She went to Hollywood in 1932 and became a screen sensation, but she had to tone down her double entendres when the Hays Office began heavily curtailing sexual film content in 1934.
The Children’s Hour
Opened: Nov. 20, 1934
Theater: Maxine Elliot’s Theatre
Lillian Hellman’s hit drama about two teachers accused of lesbianism by a spiteful student had the potential for trouble. At the time, any mention of homosexuality on the stage was forbidden by law. But the play was so well received by audiences and critics, no one involved was arrested. It was banned, however, in Boston, Chicago and London. When the story was filmed by William Wyler as These Three in 1936, all references to same-sex attraction were eliminated and replaced by a straight affair between one of the unmarried teachers and her doctor boyfriend. It wasn’t until 1961 that a more faithful version was brought to the screen, starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine as the beleaguered schoolmistresses.
Tea and Sympathy
Opened: Sept. 30, 1953
Theater: Ethel Barrymore Theatre
Like The Children’s Hour, Robert Anderson’s play was set in a boarding school and frankly deals with a false accusation of homosexuality. The story centers on young Tom Lee who is suspected of being gay because he went swimming in the nude with a male teacher, dislikes sports, and is just a bit too sensitive. In the midst of his torment, Tom develops a crush on a faculty wife who suspects her macho husband is in the closet. The play’s climax was shocking for its day. The wife embarks on an affair with the student and utters the classic line, “Years from now when you speak of this, and you will, be kind.” The movie version of The Children’s Hour eliminated all references to homosexuality, while the 1956 film edition of Tea toned them down: the gay slurs against Tom start when he is seen knitting with the faculty wives rather than skinny-dipping with the instructor.
Opened: April 29, 1968
Theater: Biltmore Theatre
Every hot-button topic of the raucous 1960s was pressed in this smash-hit musical about the flower-power generation. The Vietnam War, pollution, race relations, promiscuous sex, the generation gap, and homosexuality were all openly sung about. But the most controversial element was a brief nude scene with the entire cast that ended the first act. The show opened on Broadway after a successful run Off-Broadway. Despite protests outside the theater, audiences flocked to see what the hippies were up to. To show how times had changed, when the show was revived in 2009, the nudity and other once-outrageous topics barely caused a ripple of controversy.
Opened: Feb. 6, 1971
Theater: Belasco Theatre
Performances: 610 overall performances after 704 Off-Broadway performances
This erotic revue went even further than Hair with the entire cast in their birthday suits for much of the show. British theater critic Kenneth Tynan conceived the sexually explicit presentation and solicited contributions from such writers as Samuel Beckett, Sam Shepard, Jules Feiffer and John Lennon. Sketches covered such risqué topics as wife-swapping, fetishism and orgies. A 1976 revival went on to become one of the longest running shows in Broadway history. Tourists, mainly those from Japan where onstage nudity was forbidden, became the main audience. Producers played to this market by advertising in Japanese publications and offering a simultaneous Japanese translation. Business fell off during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and there were waves of negative publicity when the show’s producer Norman Kean murdered his wife, actress Gwyda DonHowe, and then leapt to his death from their apartment rooftop. The cast threw in the final towel in 1989 after almost 6,000 performances in a revival run. It was estimated between the various productions that the show grossed more than $350 million and had been seen by 85 million people around the world.
Jesus Christ Superstar
Opened: Oct. 12, 1971
Theater: Mark Hellinger Theatre
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera on the last seven days of Christ’s life was greeted with hurrahs by young fans for depicting the Messiah as in a human light, but religious groups considered it blasphemous and staged pickets outside the theater. Jewish organizations also voiced their displeasure with the portrayal of Hebrew priests as a principal cause of Christ’s crucifixion. Tom O’Horgan’s avant-garde staging added to the charges of irreverence to religious institutions (critic John Simon in New York magazine, said of it, “The entire production looks rather like a Radio City Music Hall show into whose producers’ and designers’ coffee cups the gofer had slipped some LSD.”) As with Hair, changing attitudes have softened reception to the show. Broadway revivals in 2000 and 2012 did not inspire any major protests.
Opened: Oct. 13, 1998
Theater: Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center
Terrence McNally’s play lit a firestorm of controversy when it was announced for an Off-Broadway production at the Manhattan Theater Club. Its depiction of Jesus Christ and the Apostles as gay men living in Texas sent religious groups like the Catholic League into a furor. The theater received threats of violence, and there were large protests outside during its planned two-week run. Audience members had to pass through metal detectors to make sure no one was carrying a weapon. Subsequent regional productions have also sparked controversy, including a student play at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas, which was eventually canceled for “safety concerns,” but the state’s Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst’s words that “No one should have the right to use government funds or institutions to portray acts that are morally reprehensible to the vast majority of Americans,” likely had some influence.
Opened: July 31, 2003
Theater: Golden Theatre
Performances: Still running Off-Broadway at New World Stages
It’s likely the first Broadway musical to depict puppets having sex. A touring production sparked a controversy in Colorado Springs where a poster depicting the cleavage of muppet character Lucy T. Slut was banned from bus shelters. According to Jeff Moore, in an interview with the Colorado Springs Gazette, “If I have to explain it to my 4-year-old or my grandmother, we don’t put it up.” This perky tuner mixes Sesame Street-style muppets with adult themes and is the winner of three Tony Awards including Best New Musical After a long run on Broadway, the show moved Off-Broadway where it is still playing. Get tickets!
The Book of Mormon
Opened: March 24, 2011
Theater: Eugene O’Neill Theatre
Performances: Still playing
When the creators of the racy TV cartoon South Park are involved, can controversy be far behind? Even loving descriptions of it have included the words “vulgar” and “profane.” Yes, organized religion comes in for a drubbing in this razor-sharp tale of two Mormon missionaries seeking to convert the inhabitants of the poorest village in Uganda. When the idealistic young men are confronted with the devastating poverty, war lords, and the villagers’ indifference, socially-challenged Arnold interjects elements from his favorite sci-fi movies into Mormon scripture and golden-boy Kevin applies for a transfer to his favorite place on earth, Orlando, Fla. The most outrageous number is Kevin’s “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” which features Adolph Hitler, Genghis Khan, mass murderer Jeffrey Dahmer, and O.J. Simpson’s defense lawyer Johnny Cochran alongside an electric guitar-plucking Satan. Get tickets!
The Testament of Mary
Opened: April 22, 2013
Theater: Walter Kerr Theatre
Fiona Shaw played the mother of Jesus in this one-person play not as a virgin saint, but as troubled woman who has serious doubts about her son’s divinity. As they did with Jesus Christ Superstar and Corpus Christi, religious groups objected to a humanization of the holy family and launched protests. Author Colm Tiobin did receive a Best Play Tony nomination, but lukewarm reviews and audience indifference caused a quick closing.