And a great Tune named Tommy

THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS. Book by Larry L. King and Peter Masterson. Music and lyrics by Carol Hall. Musical numbers staged by Tommy Tune. Directed by Peter Masterson and Tommy Tune. Sets by Marjorie Kellogg. Lighting by Beverly Emmons. Costumes by Gary Jones. With Alexis Smith, Larry Hovis, William Hardy, and Marilyn J. Johnson. 

I like to think that, like the salty-tongued sheriff who provides paternalistic protection for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, I have a pretty good bullshit detector. To paraphrase said lawmaker, I know, when it comes to the musical theater, when someone’s pissing on my boots and calling it Singin’ in the Rain. And despite some howling examples of the tuneless doggerel that passes for theater song these days and an occasional spot of gooey sentimentality, I can report that Whorehouse is remarkably free of the aforementioned animal waste.

You’ll note my surprise. Let me explain. Larry L. King and Peter Masterson’s musical, which has been running on Broadway since last fall, sounds awful. Inspired by an article King wrote for Playboy a few years ago, the show documents the last days of a real-life, old-fashioned, small-town Texas bordello, the Chicken Ranch – so called because, during the Depression, patrons short on cash were allowed to pay in poultry. Though the Ranch existed for over a century while officials chuckled and looked the other way, it became, in 1973, the target of a crusading, moralistic TV personality bent on closing it down. And thanks to a legion of outraged church groups and a handful of scared politicians, his campaign succeeded. 

Naturally, I imagined that this titillating tale, turned into a musical, would be one long, sniggering, sexist, dirty joke laced with corny Southernisms: Hee Haw meets Let My People Come. Well, there is an awful lot of “Yee haw!” and “Y’all come back now, hear?” And the book sometimes seems to consist of little more than colorful cowboy cussing. (“I feel like a country dog in the city,” drawls the sheriff under pressure to shut down the Chicken Ranch. “If I stand still, they’ll fuck me; if I run, they’ll bite me in the ass.”) On the whole, though, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, with its well-aimed satirical swipes at media manipulators and hypocritical politicians, is as honest and down-to-earth a musical as has come along in years. How refreshing that, for once, a musical’s fancy dancing, splendid set, and spectacular staging can simply serve as shiny wrapping paper and not have to be the whole gift.


Not that Whorehouse’s satire is particularly subtle or profound, but then, it doesn’t try to be The Threepenny Opera. From the very first scene, in which two newcomers – a virginal lain-Jane and a pimp-battered pro – learn the strict rules of the Ranch from the proprietor, Miss Mona, the moral superiority of the whores to the double-talking office-holders and self-righteous pulpit-thumpers who decry their activities is clearly established. All the ironies are duly noted. Society, by what of Hollywood and Charlie’s Angels, manufactures blatantly sexual images of women meant to make men drool and then punishes women for living them out. As degrading as it may seem to rent one’s body to strangers, prostitution is still one of the few occupations in which women exercise some economic power and control. The men who go in for commercial sex (like Whorehouse’s Senator Wingwoah, who subsidizes a college football team’s victory celebration at Miss Mona’s) are often the same ones who publicly condemn it. Publicity-hungry do-gooders (like Whorehouse’s Melvin P. Thorpe, the television “watchdog”) expend a lot of energy racking up flashy, phony victories over “evils” unlikely to disappear (such as prostitution, homosexuality, and abortion, all of which have replaced communism as targets of knee-jerk moral wrath), while completely ignoring tougher-to-crack issues like unemployment and industrial pollution. And as one newspaperman proclaims when chastised by Thorpe for not editorializing against sex-for-hire, “I don’t give a damn if people want thur ass tickled with a feather. Hell, I lahk to think that’s whut Heaven’s all about!”

None of this gets pounded home with a sledgehammer in Whorehouse. After all, it’s not exactly news; more important, the real auteur of the show is choreographer/co-director Tommy Tune, who achieves the same clever combination of theatrical ingenuity and sex-role satire that characterized his staging of Eve Merriam’s The Club. A dancer himself, Tune seems capable of translating anything into witty waltzing. Here he has politicians literally sidestepping and tap-dancing around issues. In the show’s most scathingly satirical number, “Angelette March” (a devastating parody of the Dallas Cowboys’ jiggling cheerleaders), six all-American beauties perform a precision routine, each supporting on either arm a life-sized doll made of crepe paper and tin-foil. Once they get going, you can’t tell the real women from the ones with pink balloons for tits and asses; by contrast, Miss Mona’s working girls look, in their regulation ballroom gowns, like Sunday-school teachers. And perhaps only a long, tall Texan like Tune could have devised the show-stopping “Aggie Song,” a loose-limbed and genuinely sexy tap dance performed by a football team in cowboy boots. This number also makes the show’s most wickedly interesting point: that sports figures and prostitutes are both involved in all-American forms of flesh-peddling. And it follows that in a less hung-up society, sex might be, rather than a cause for moral indignation, as respectable an occupation as contact sports.

Carol Hall’s music for Whorehouse leaves much to be desires – melodies, for one thing; C&W authenticity, for another. And her lyrics, which attempt to probe the cardboard characters, usually reveal only more cardboard. Miss Mona’s songs expose every carat of her requisite heart-of-gold; the well-intentioned solo for Melvin P. Thorpe, in which he strips off his rhinestone cowboy costume and sadly waltzes with it, tritely portrays him as “Lonely at the Top.” Still, Hall’s score has moments. “Doatsey Mae” is a wry monologue sung by a coffee-shop waitress who reflects that being a respectable “good girl” hasn’t done much for her career or love life; the only way the sexual revolution has come to 909 Watermleon Drive, she muses, is in the packages she orders from Frederick’s of Hollywood for closed-door fantasy sessions. And the bittersweet “Hard Candy Christmas,” which comes late in the show, is what we’ve waited for all along – a real, full-out song, exquisitely sung by Miss Mona’s “boarders.” Its what’ll-happen-if-the- Ranch-closes? premise makes the song Whorehouse’s “What I Did for Love,” but the gang of girl singers made me think of Annie. Specifically it reminded me that I’d rather see a raunchy musical about women considering their job options than a saccharine fairy tale about an orphan who gets adopted by a millionaire. Any day.

The performances in the Boston production are quite good – except that none of the principals can sing. That, however, may not be such a bad thing; how distinctly do you want to hear lyrics like “Girl, you’re a woman now/You’ll survive”? Marilyn J. Johnson, who plays the token black maid, may have a wonderful voice, but her song, “Twenty Four Hours of Loving,” doesn’t do it justice. Anyway, Whorehouse’s strongest requirements are for actors and dancers, and this company meets them. Alexis Smith is hard-bitten and affecting as Miss Mona, and William Hardy could not be better as the beleaguered, big-hearted sheriff; their scenes together are wonderful. Also deserving of mention as Valerie Auslyn as the shy new arrival, Jeff Calhoun as the featured dancer in “The Aggie Song,” and Marjorie Kellogg who designed the sleek, split-level, environmental set. 

Kellogg’s set reminded me of Bob Fosse’s Chicago, another musical that teetered between titillation and sophistication; so did Whorehouse’s chorus of tough women, the song “Lonely at the Top” (cf. “Mr. Cellophane”), and Tommy Tune’s adventurous staging. But as much as I admired Chicago, its people-are-corrupt theme smacked of the sort of glib cynicism that instantly activates my bullshit detector. The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas delivers a message more modest, more mundane, yet somehow more genuine: people are human.

Boston Phoenix, October 9, 1979