Source: Toronto Tonight!, February 9–23, 1989.
You’re flipping through the entertainment options for a night on the town in 1980s Toronto. Let’s see…a cabaret musical about sex that employs a double-entendre for its title…and it has nudity…and it features tunes like “Fellatio 101” and “I’m Gay”…and it hasn’t been shut down by the morality squad yet.
Nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more?
Let My People Come was unveiled in New York in January 1974. Shows at its Off-Broadway venue quickly sold out, and soon there was a cast album, touring productions, and interest from film producers…yet the show never officially opened, as local theatre critics were never invited to the production. As Mel Gussow of the New York Times noted after he snuck into a performance, it had “all the earmarks of success except for blurbs in ads.”
The Toronto production sold out during its opening night at the Basin Street Cabaret at 180 Queen Street West on February 16, 1981. Local critics weren’t dripping with praise. Wilder Penfield III of the Sun seemed most engaged with the show, finding it more sweet than scandalous (he recommended that “connoisseurs of extravagant bodies and fantastic fantasies should head back towards Yonge Street”). He noted that “only the masochists, the deaf-and-blind, and the criminally stupid among us could have possibly been shocked by what followed,” and that the cast “take off their clothes with the innocent exuberance of skinny-dippers, and when they play at being wicked, you don’t believe them for a moment.” The Star’s Bruce Blackadar found it “totally unerotic, sometimes juvenile, faintly musical, and right out of the Sixties’ ethos. It was like going to watch a bunch of high-schoolers—although reasonably talented ones—take off their clothes while singing The Pirates of Penzance.” Ray Conlogue of the Globe was the least impressed—”While Hair had counter-culture optimism, and Oh! Calcutta! had Kenneth Tynan’s acerbic wit,” he noted, “Let My People Come had only the odour of opportunistic insincerity…supposedly celebrating the joys of sex, its songs are imbued with a penetrating joylessness.”
Another unimpressed observer was Ann Stirling Hall, president of the Canadian Association of Burlesque Entertainers. Her main beef was that the actors appeared to be able to get away with nudity while the city’s erotic dancers risked arrest if they removed their g-strings. “Do you know what would happen to me,” she told the Sun, “if I walked on stage, took my clothes off and said ‘this is my costume?’ I’d be laughed out of court. I’m not jealous. I think the entire idea behind the play is fantastic. But I just don’t understand Toronto. There are these tons and tons of regulations, and some people seem to feel the weight of the rules more than others.” Hall registered complaints about the production with the Ontario Human Rights Commission, who dismissed her discrimination case, and the Metropolitan Toronto Police morality squad.
Several members of the morality squad showed up for the February 19 show and issued a warning to the cast and producers that if they didn’t cover up they could face charges for violating the public-nudity section of the Criminal Code. The cast responded by wearing ballet slippers during the next performance. In preparation of any legal hassles, the producers had set aside ten thousand dollars for a lawyer. A spokesperson for the venue noted that earlier Toronto productions with actors in the buff (Equus, Hair, Oh! Calcutta!) had not faced problems and there had been few complaints so far. Attempts to shut the show down failed and it ran at several venues around the city over the rest of the decade. The show bared all for the last time in July 1989 at the venue shown above, now the location of the Drake Hotel.
Curious to hear what all the fuss was about? WFMU’s Beware of the Blog has the full Off-Broadway soundtrack for your listening pleasure.
Additional material from the February 19, 1981 edition of the Globe and Mail, the May 7, 1974 edition of the New York Times, the February 19, 1981 edition of the Toronto Star, and the February 18, 1981 and February 19, 1981 editions of the Toronto Sun.