Americans’ ambivalent attitudes about sex are on display in the musical Promises, Promises—a cheery songfest about married men screwing their secretaries. It’s a premise that should offend just about everyone; instead, preview crowds on Broadway have been laughing and whooping, and giving the stars a standing ovation. Actress Kristin Chenoweth, angular except for her Barbie breasts, plays Fran, the heroine who overdoses on sleeping pills when her married lover won’t get a divorce. Poor dear, how could he treat her so badly? The audience is meant to sympathize as she screeches out the Burt Bacharach anthem “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.” I didn’t see Tiger Woods in the audience.
He hasn’t gotten her a gift, so he offers $100 and tells her to buy something. The audience hisses—no buying sex! On this stage, as long as a married man is in love with his mistress, she’s morally OK, and he is, too.
Neil Simon wrote the book for the original, which opened in 1968, based on the poignant Billy Wilder movie The Apartment. The hero, a young man trying to rise in a big insurance company, gets promotions by providing his apartment to philandering execs. Lyricist Hal David recently opined in the New York Post that the musical version, which opened Sunday night on Broadway, “feels so fresh” because while it was written in the ’60s, it’s “not about that time period.” In other words, the four executives who dance and sing about needing a trysting place to take their mistresses display a misogyny as relevant today as it was 40 years ago.
Sex with secretaries and other underlings is the given here. And maybe it is in America, too. Reports on rates of infidelity—in or out of the office—vary dramatically, but fairly reliable data say that about 10 percent of people have sex outside their marriages every year. Surveys in magazines tend to suggest 60 or 70 percent stray over the course of a marriage. Hypocrisy doesn’t seem to be a problem. Many Republican leaders who lectured President Clinton about morality and voted for impeachment either had mistresses at the time or were later caught in their own scandals. Sex knows no party affiliation.
Americans oscillate in their opinions of women involved in affairs, seeing them either as villains or victims. (Happy equal partners? Almost never.) Endless lawsuits over sexual harassment deem women prey in need of protection, but the tabloid photos of Ashley Dupre and other femmes involved in celebrity sexual dalliances would suggest otherwise.
The giddy assistants in Promises, Promises don’t think they’re exploited—they frolic and flirt and want sex as much as the men do. The audience loves it. But in one scene, the slick executive J.B. Sheldrake and Chenoweth’s Fran have a rendezvous on Christmas Eve. He hasn’t gotten her a gift, so he offers $100 and tells her to buy something. The audience hisses—no buying sex! On this stage, as long as a married man is in love with his mistress, she’s morally OK, and he is, too. Former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer had a different view, deciding that depersonalized sex with a prostitute was fairer to his family than an emotional involvement. In the new book Rough Justice, author Peter Elkind quotes him as saying: “If I had an affair, I’d still be governor, but I might not be married. In the grand scheme of things, I’m glad I am where I am.”
Broadway doesn’t have sex shops anymore, but the cleaned-up shows still reveal Americans’ carnal confusion. Down the street from Promises, Promises, The Addams Family has so much wrong it’s a shame to pick on it just for the bad sex jokes—but that seems to be the entire script. If Broadway is a slice of life, the only show where sex is based on love and isn’t embarrassing seems to be La Cage aux Folles. And could that be because the women are men?
Janice Kaplan is a television producer and former Editor-in-Chief of Parade magazine. She is the author and co-author of 10 novels, including the bestselling Mine Are Spectacular and The Botox Diaries; her most recent is the mystery A Job To Kill For.