It may seem a strange time for men to disrobe on any public stage. Yet, while we reckon with the terrible men who violate colleagues by exposing themselves (and far worse), male nudity increasingly pervades the culture we consume.
Given the long history of women’s objectification in every arena, each male buttock on screen has come to feel like a small win in the push toward gender parity in entertainment.
Maybe Hollywood could take inspiration from New York stages, where you can hardly wave your ticket around these days without seeing buff men in the buff.
Of course, this is nothing new: on Broadway, The Full Monty in 2000, Take Me Out in 2003, and the equal-opportunity nude scene in Hair, last revived in 2009, all come to mind. But recent seasons have seen a surge of skin, from Tony contenders to off-off-Broadway. And with a few exceptions, including Emilia Clarke in 2013’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, most of it has belonged to men.
While the opposite is true on screen, why are naked men far more common on stage than nude or even topless women? Is all this skin just meant to sell tickets, or does it indicate a broader cultural shift? And why now?
“Women have literally been objectified for centuries, so I think it’s nice to see the roles reversed,” says Tom D’Angora, longtime producer and one-time performer of Naked Boys Singing, the off-Broadway revue very much true to its title. Given the immediacy and intimacy of theatre, the sort of female nudity we’ve grown inoculated to watching on screen would feel exponentially more charged and exploitative — too much like the strip clubs you can visit down the block. “I just don’t think any civilized human being would want to see [Naked Girls Singing],” D’Angora says.
For being more rare and surprising, male nudity is also more dramatic. “It carries more weight,” says S. Asher Gelman, writer and director of Afterglow, a new play off-Broadway about a love triangle between gay men who frequently appear nude, including at the top of the show. (The show's tagline: “The climax is just the beginning.”)
“There are certain things that don’t stop moving when the music stops,” Gelman says, borrowing a favorite phrase from the world of dance. “The penis is an external organ, our eyes are drawn to it in a different way. Breasts we see all the time.”
Male nudity — and the promise of it in marketing materials — also appeals to core theatergoing audiences.
“The nudity gets them in the door,” D’Angora says of Naked Boys Singing, which has been drawing primarily women and gay men since first premiering off-Broadway in 1999. “The thing we hear more than anything else is, ‘Oh, it was so funny and I forgot they were naked after the first couple numbers,’” he says of the show, which is more silly than sexy.
“We knew that the nudity would be a draw for the people who would most appreciate [the show],” says Gelman of Afterglow. “I like to joke that Afterglow is ‘Naked Boys Showering’ And hopefully people will see it as more than just that. But if that’s all that they come for and all they get out of it, they won’t be disappointed,” he says.
The show, which opened in June, will play its 200th performance this month and has tickets on sale through March 2018.
“It’s a very competitive industry and It’s very hard to survive, especially when you’re doing smaller commercial shows off-Broadway,” D’Angora says. Naked Boys Singing also cuts costs by performing only one show a week.
Another off-Broadway venture, this fall’s all-male production of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, also enticed ticket buyers an oft-shirtless cast, both in promotional materials and by word of mouth (the London transfer fittingly landed in the gay neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen). But the production’s gun show subsumed its story, which was often unclear despite being well known. It closed on December 2, a month earlier than scheduled.
“I really do feel that nudity has to be justified, particularly on stage because it’s immediately so charged,” Gelman says. “Ultimately it needs to support the work that you’re doing, otherwise it’s just a gimmick.”
In Afterglow, which Gelman admits is semi-autobiographical, a gay couple in an open relationship find their bond shaken by a third man — as the play begins, they’ve just finished an audibly satisfying threesome.
“When dealing a story that so much centers around sex and sexuality, and frankly is based on conversations I’ve had while nude myself, I felt like to slap underwear on them or have the show open with them underneath the sheet just felt disingenuous” Gelman says.
The Loft at the Davenport Theatre, where the play is running, is set up with audiences facing each other on either side of the intimate stage. “I wanted audience members to feel like they were in the room with them, experiencing a real conversation and a real situation. That just doesn’t happen clothed in those situations,” Gelman says.
Andy Halliday’s Up the Rabbit Hole, a coming-of-age play about a gay twentysomething grappling with addiction and relationships in Manhattan, took a similar approach this fall at Theater for the New City, not shying away from showing characters undressed in intimate situations. The promotional art for the show also featured a blurred-out image of a man in his underwear.
In other recent instances, the entrance of a naked man has served as a pivotal moment of surprise. In this spring’s revival of John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, a nude hustler tumbling out into a posh Manhattan living room — then pinning down and straddling the man of the house on his own chaise lounge — jolted the production with a visceral shock.
It was the first indication that the guest who this couple invited into their home, and who later brought home a trick in the middle of the night, was not who he seemed.
David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly, revived on Broadway by Julie Taymor this season, is perhaps the prime example of a drama that wholly pivots on a moment of revealing the bare body.
Hwang’s riff on Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly centers on a French diplomat (played by Clive Owen) who falls for a Peking opera singer (Jin Ha) whose sexual identity remains ambiguous until the penultimate nude scene. (Due to slow sales and mixed critical reception, the new production closed early on December 17.)
Just as Hwang’s drama plays on anxieties about race and gender identity, there’s a way in which the increasing visibility of naked men speaks to the cultural moment, in both allaying conventional anxieties around sex and sexuality and reacting against conservative norms.
For Gelman, the political implications of putting nudity on stage can feel like a nice bonus. “When you have a regime that is so fixated on telling us what to do with our bodies, for us to publicly say, ‘Well, we’re going to do whatever the fuck we want, and if that means being naked on stage and it pisses you off, then great.’”
The timing and conception of Naked Boys Singing in the late ‘90s was no coincidence.
“We came around at a time during the gay rights movement when a show like this, as silly as it is, was actually very needed,” D’Angora says, noting that it helps foster understanding and acceptance of gay sexuality among diverse audiences. “It was about the movement, too, what went on in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the judgement of gay men in America. Naked Boys Singing celebrates pride in our bodies, pride in our community, and pride in ourselves.”
More than that, “It ends up teaching the lesson that people are more than what they look like,” D’Angora says, a simple moral with profound ramifications when you step back and think about it. “Sometimes it’s like that,” D’Angora says. “There are a million different ways to go about changing the world.”