background and analysis by Scott Miller

Then we’d be free, sexually free,

Free to let each urge

We suppress freely surge

And our inhibitions melt;

Free, sexually free,

Free to cast our seed

On a stone if the need

For a stone should be felt.

Free, sexually free,

Free to follow love,

Though it lead to above

Or below thy neighbor’s belt.

See what it is to be

Satisfied and unfrustrated,

Free and at liberty

To be loved and stimulated.

Be unashamedly

Sexually liberated...

        – "Sexually Free" from I Love My Wife

Though many people still feel great affection for the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, today they are more historical artifacts than living theatre. They had their finger on the pulse of American hopes and dreams and fears during the mid-20th century, and they moved the art form forward, but it’s a different world now and America is a different country.

No longer do we feel a nostalgia for the turn of the last century or for the venerated "rugged individualism" that built our nation. Those shows no longer have much relevance for many of us anymore. The work of Rodgers and Hammerstein doesn’t speak to our very different American zeitgeist. The old-fashioned musicals created during the so-called Golden Age of musical theatre (1943-1964) are as distant and foreign to us now as The Marriage of Figaro or La Bohème. They don’t still give the same experience to audiences today living in an age of information and irony. The world changed in the 1960s, and American culture was quickly and radically transformed as America lost its innocence. Today, American culture can be seen almost entirely as pre- and post-1960s.

Though people may still argue that Show Boat and Carousel are masterpieces, they are pre-1960s. The musicals of the 1960s and 70s changed everything and many of them still seem daring and/or relevant today – Cabaret, Hair, Man of La Mancha, Anyone Can Whistle, Company, The Robber Bridegroom, Chicago, The Rocky Horror Show, Jesus Christ Superstar, Best Little Whorehouse, Pippin, Sweeney Todd, and though it’s not often produced (perhaps because of its very adult content), I Love My Wife, from 1977, is part of that movement as well. Musical theatre got adventurous and ironic in the 1960s, but it got subtextual in the 1970s.

The 60s and 70s were an explosive time for musical theatre as a serious art form and for our national culture. Once the experimental theatre movement exploded in New York in the 60s, commercial theatre began to borrow its devices and philosophy, and Broadway itself became more experimental, with shows like Cabaret, La Mancha, and more than any other show of the period, Hair. The influence of German director and playwright Bertolt Brecht took hold of the musical theatre around this time as well, with shows like Cabaret, La Mancha, Company, Follies, Chicago, and lots of others.

Many of the works of that period are still relevant to us because we’re repeating that social and political history to some extent. The 2008 election echoed 1968 in many ways. Many liberals saw Obama as the new Bobby Kennedy, hoping for a chance to finish the work of the 1960s. America suffered through a recession in the 70s just like we are today (caused mainly by high fuel costs and the money pit of Vietnam – just like today). America was stuck in an unpopular war, just like today. America was politically divided over the fundamental nature and purpose of government, just like today. Technology was advancing quickly and changing the very nature of human interaction, just like today. There was profound tension between the races, just like today. And scary fringe political groups were very visible in the 70s, just like today. I Love My Wife explores that tumult and confusion, mostly subtextually but more directly in the Act II opener, "Hey There Good Times."

Musical theatre, perhaps more than any other art form, records both the historical and emotional aspects of its time. Musicals tell us about the social and political climate of the times in which they first open (even if they’re set in another time: Cabaret, for example). And musicals also tell us about the fears, dreams, aspirations, and mood of their times. The best works maintain that resonance over time, because they speak to issues that are still with us, so shows like Hair and La Mancha and Chicago always connect to us, no matter how distant we get from the source.

I’ve Been Lost for All These Years

I Love My Wife completes an unofficial trilogy of musicals about America’s Sexual Revolution. It’s about the failure of the Sexual Revolution, which in turn jumpstarted the "Culture War" (Moral Majority, Christian Coalition, etc.) that we’re still fighting today. Hair introduced the revolution and its Free Love philosophy, and hinted at its darker side. The Rocky Horror Show exposed the revolution’s dark underbelly, the dangers of unthinking excess. Rocky Horror is a singularly truthful snapshot of early 1970s America, with Frank N. Furter standing in for the chaotic cultural zeitgeist, Brad as terrified conservative America, and Janet as adventurous, liberal America. I Love My Wife completed the trilogy as it showed us the end of the revolution, going out not with a bang but with a whimper, and its eventual irrelevance to much of America. (You could add to that trilogy Company, The Robber Bridegroom, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, as well.)

By the end of the 1970s, Cosmopolitan magazine reported that "so many readers wrote negatively about the Sexual Revolution – expressing longings for vanished intimacy and the now elusive joys of romance and commitment – that we began to sense there might be a sexual, counter-revolution under way in America." In 1982, New York magazine published an article called, "Is Sex Dead?" Esquire published "The End of Sex," which said, "As it has turned out, the Sexual Revolution, in slaying some loathsome old dragons, has created some formidable new ones." The divorce rate increase by 42% just between 1970 and 1977, when I Love My Wife was written and when it’s set.

I Love My Wife tells a very funny, truthful story about ordinary people who are out of sync with their culture, back in a time when all culture came through a very narrow filter, a time when the culture often led the public rather than the other way around, a time of Deep Throat and "porno chic," wife swapping, key parties, swingers’ clubs, and lots more. A time as chaotic and baffling as the times we live in today. In Manhattan, right across the Hudson River from the 1977 suburban New Jersey homes of the characters in I Love My Wife, was the famous swingers’ club Plato’s Retreat, at its peak at exactly that same moment. Two totally different worlds, right next to each other, both trying to figure out human sexuality. The absurdity of all this messy, cultural confusion is summed up in one of the most insightful lines in the show: "Then the four of them are pairing up and having a threesome."

Several reviews of later productions have criticized the show for being too tame for a sex farce, for stopping short of fully exploring the topic. And they’re right – the show does stop short and that’s its point. It’s not a sex farce; it’s a serious comedy about American culture. Just as the show stops short of “going all the way,” likewise, these four central characters also stop short of fully exploring their “multiple love experience.” There's a line in the Act II opener that is very telling: “Though it's sexy, it's a family show.” It’s a joke, but it's almost true. After all, the show only contains a single “dirty” word (titties), and not one shit or fuck. Ultimately, this story isn't really about sex or the Sexual Revolution – it’s about the world outside the Sexual Revolution, a world of mainstream normalcy in which most people will never be sexually adventurous. Most Americans are terrified of sex. It’s easy to see why – it’s the most primal, the most fundamentally “animal” act a human can commit. If we acknowledge even one part of us is animal, then we are animal, and the Bible forbids animal urges. Particularly in America, we’re supposed to be civilized and decent.

After all, Alfred Kinsey sent the entire nation into an uproar in the 1950s merely by telling us what we were doing in the bedroom. The Rocky Horror Show is about sex; I Love My Wife is about how, for most people, life isn't about sex. 

When sex is the topic of a show or film, everyone assumes that sexual/moral transgression is the agenda. Often it is. But here is that rare story in which the characters try to make sex the topic but realize that’s a mistake. The opening song, the show’s statement of purpose, has literally nothing at all to do with sex; and the finale only marginally has to do with sex. Because it’s not a show about sex. This script tells us this outright, when Alvin and Cleo are arguing about whether to get a man or women to join them in their threesome, and Alvin yells, “Sex has nothing to do with it!” Again, it’s a joke, but it’s also true. The show tells us explicitly that, whatever you might assume, this is a show not about sexual intercourse, but about relationships being tested by massive cultural change – almost exactly the central theme of Fiddler on the Roof.


Falling in Love

Michael Stewart had already written the book for Bye Bye Birdie (which won him a Tony his first time out), Carnival , Hello, Dolly!, George M!, Mack and Mabel, and The Grand Tour. Later on he would write 42nd Street (with Mark Bramble) and book and lyrics for Barnum. But I Love My Wife was the first time Stewart wrote both book and lyrics. The inspiration for the show came from a French play Stewart had seen, Viens Chez-moi, J’Habite Chez une Copine (Come to My Place, I Live with My Girlfriend) by Luis Regio and Didier Kaminka, in which the actors stepped out of the dialogue scenes to lip-synch songs that commented on the scenes. Minus the lip-synching, this was a device musical theatre had explored before, first in Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, but also in more recent, commercial shows like Company. But by the time I Love My Wife was finished its content held very little resemblance to that French play and appeared to be based more directly – though still loosely – on the iconic 1969 film Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice. Structurally and stylistically, the show owed a lot to both the French play and Stephen Sondheim, George Furth, and Hal Prince’s 1970 landmark concept musical Company.

Pop composer Cy Coleman had already written many hit songs and a battery of successful musicals (several of them built on jazz scores), including Wildcat (1960), Little Me (1962), Sweet Charity (1966), Seesaw (1973), and later, after I Love My Wife, also Barnum (1980), On the Twentieth Century (1978), City of Angels (1990), The Will Rogers Follies (1991), The Life (1997), and Grace, The Musical (2001).

The show had a rough start – investors backed out right before rehearsals started, producers came and went, director Joe Layton hurt himself very badly and had to be replaced by Gene Saks (who had initially turned the project down), and the reviews out of town were horrible. So they did major work on the material and moved the show’s New York opening earlier, so that it would open ahead of Annie and Side by Side by Sondheim, thereby escaping comparisons with a probable commercial hit and the high art of Sondheim.

After a tryout in Philadelphia, I Love My Wife opened on Broadway in April 1977, starring Lenny Baker, James Naughton, Joanna Gleason, and Ilene Graff, and it ran an impressive 872 performances, closing in May 1979. During the run, the Smothers Brothers stepped into the male leads and gave the show an extended life. Later in the run, the producers installed an African American cast featuring Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs and Hattie Winston (much as Hello, Dolly! had done), which boosted sales again. It opened in London in October 1977 and ran 401 performances.

The New York reviewers really liked the show. In The New York Times, Clive Barnes wrote, "I Love My Wife is bright, inventive, amusing, and breezy. But it is a different kind of musical. It is something of a musical play." In the New York Post, Martin Gottfried called it "a thoroughly disarming entertainment" and said, "I can’t see the harm in a healthy, well-adjusted, sentimental and cheerful musical about sex and marriage. . . It is friendly and charming, beautifully directed and engagingly performed."

I Love My Wife was nominated for six Tony Awards, including best musical, best book, and best score, but only director Gene Saks and actor Lenny Baker took home Tonys. The show was also nominated for eight Drama Desk Awards and won six of them. But I Love My Wife has never had much of a life post-Broadway. Perhaps it’s the very adult content that makes it an unlikely candidate for regional and community theatres – and impossible for high schools to produce. Perhaps it’s the show’s overt sexism. But there’s an argument to be made that the show has transitioned from being dated to being a period piece, exactly as it happened with Hair and Rocky Horror.

What the New York critics couldn’t see – because they were too close to it – is that I Love My Wife is more than a charming comedy about two somewhat uptight suburban couples. It’s a well-crafted, insightful, cultural snapshot of America in 1977, of the wrenching changes the country was going through, the tentative openness about sex, the morphing of gender roles that had been solidly in place since the creation of the suburbs in the postwar years. Like Hair and The Rocky Horror Show, this is a concept musical about America itself, and it uses these two couples as stand-ins. Among these four characters – Alvin and Cleo, and Wally and Monica – we see the whole spectrum of Americans’ comfort with sexuality at this pivotal point in our cultural history. Wally is the most open, the most adventurous (the Hugh Hefner of the story); Alvin is scared but still wants to be "with it." Cleo doesn’t much want to be adventurous, but is afraid of being left out; and Monica is horrified at the adventure laid out before her and its obvious implications.

At its emotional core, this is a story about searching for meaningful human connection amid massive cultural change. When America was mostly small towns and self-contained urban neighborhoods, before there was universally accessible mass media, it was easy to connect to your small community. But by the 70s, the whole country was now your community and genuinely connecting to that proved impossible. Along with being more spread out geographically than ever before, it left people feeling more alone than ever before.

The Sexual Revolution 101

Today, in these times of "social conservatives" and "culture warriors" always eager to legislate issues of morality and sexuality – gay marriage, sex education, contraception, abortion, gays in the military, and much more – I Love My Wife reminds us that sex is as primal a human need as any other and that Americans are by nature curious and adventurous creatures, despite our Puritanism, always fascinated by the forbidden yet often unprepared to handle what we uncover. Every generation has to decide for itself how to strike the balance between sexual freedom and collective morality. And since the 1920s, each generation has answered that question differently.

America’s second Sexual Revolution (after an aborted try in the 1920s) was an outgrowth of the 1960s counterculture. It cast aside traditional sexual restraints and began a decade or more of alternative eroticism, experimentation, and "free love." In part facilitated by the development of the Pill and other contraceptives, Americans in the 60s and 70s broke many sexual taboos, including interracial dating, open homosexuality, communal living, casual nudity, and "dirty talk." Surveys during the 1970s reported that by the age of nineteen, four-fifths of all males and two-thirds of all females had had sex, quite a change from earlier decades. Fashion designers promoted a new sensuality, producing miniskirts, hot pants, halter tops, impossibly tight jeans, and other formfitting clothes designed to accentuate and awaken men’s and women’s sexuality.

America had been going through very strange times for much of the twentieth century, first with World War I, then the excesses of the Roaring Twenties, then the Depression, and then World War II. As early as 1913, Current Opinion declared it was "sex o’clock" in America, writing, "A wave of sex hysteria and sex discussion seems to have invaded this country. Our former reticence on matters of sex is giving way to a frankness that would startle even Paris." Sex in America seemed to blossom in the 1920s. As unprecedented prosperity and sweeping social change dazzled the public, the restrictions of the Victorian nineteenth century vanished, and many of the institutions, ideas, and preoccupations of our own age emerged. America became, for the first time, thoroughly Modern. Joseph Moncure March wrote his famous book-length poem The Wild Party in 1926, though it took him two years to find a publisher brave enough to publish it. A kind of obscene, more nihilistic take on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this notorious, streetwise poem painted a vivid picture of a decadent and deadly all-night party in late 1920s Manhattan, capturing the potent cocktail of bewildered innocence and sexual cynicism, poised at the fiery peak of the Jazz Age.

But the Depression put an end to that as America returned to Puritanism during the 1930s and 40s. Then in 1948, Alfred Kinsey published his world shattering Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, which declared that more than 90% of American men had masturbated, more than half had had affairs, 69% had used prostitutes, and 39% had reached an orgasm with another man. Not surprisingly, the book was an overnight bestseller. Of course, Kinsey hadn’t changed sex in America; he had just told us what we were all doing, especially the things no one talked about. Suddenly, almost overnight, Americans were talking about sex – in detail – over their kitchen tables. Politicians immediately denounced all this as immoral and shocking and announced that it would mean the end of The Family (just as religious extremists today tell us that gay marriage will destroy the American Family). Needless to say, none of these folks were happy when Kinsey published his next book in 1953, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. This study revealed that 33% of American women were not virgins when they married, 13% had had sex with more than six partners, and 69% of unmarried women who’d had premarital sex had no regrets about it.

Still, the women who had learned during World War II that they could work, that they could participate actively in society, that they could have lives outside the home while their men were away – and that they did not have to be economically dependent on men – were all now thrust back into the roles of wife and mother after the war. After having discovered genuine independence and freedom, they were now put back into their old repressive roles. A newly repressive government, cranking out new enemies and fears every day, tried to forge a parallel in a renewed sexual repression. After decades of social chaos and after some real sexual freedom during the war, the already puritanical American society became even more repressive to try to restore the pre-war social order, desperate to find some kind of calm, some kind of safety and predictability, trying to return to the Victorian moral standards of the previous century, putting women back in the home, back in the kitchen, back in metaphorical chastity belts, and back on repressive pedestals, all of which was, of course, impossible. The genie could not be put back in the lamp. As there had been during other times of social upheaval (like the turn of the century and the Depression), there was a real friction between the demands for conformity and conservatism, versus the instinctive human need to express oneself, made even worse by the taste of freedom women had gotten while their husbands and boyfriends were off fighting in Europe and the Pacific.

In postwar 1950s, the media told us that women were expected to be mothers and wives first, and women second. Their worth was judged in terms of how happy their husbands and children were. Women were told to be involved in their children’s lives but not to smother their sons for fear of turning them into homosexuals. The television show Queen for a Day taught women that housework was their highest calling and that if their lives were miserable and sexless, it was all for the best anyway. At the same time, Elvis Presley appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show thrusting his hips provocatively, inviting women across America to acknowledge their sexual desires, even though they could never act upon them.

In direct response to reinforced efforts at sexual repression and demonization, Hugh Hefner published the first issue of Playboy in 1953, with a then unknown Marilyn Monroe on the cover and naked inside. In 1962, Harper’s Bazaar published a full page color ad featuring the famous model Christina Palozzi, completely nude. Perhaps the Powers That Be could have tamped all this down a bit had it not been for the explosion of rock and roll which took America by storm in 1954 and the years following. The times, they were a-changin’ and in 1957, in response to a pornography case, the U.S. Supreme Court finally officially acknowledged that sex "is one of the vital problems of human interest and public concern," finally dispelling the notion that sex equaled pornography. Standards were loosening.

Teenagers became more promiscuous than ever but had not learned enough about birth control. Twenty percent of teenage girls who had sex were getting pregnant. But in 1960, the world changed forever with the invention of The Pill, the first oral contraceptive. For the first time, women had control over when they got pregnant, which allowed them to enjoy sexual experimentation outside of marriage with no dire consequences. Within its first six years, five million women began taking the pill. In 1962, Helen Gurley Brown wrote her subversive sex manifesto, Sex and the Single Girl, also a bestseller, which said it was okay to have sex outside of marriage and, even more subversive, that it was okay never to get married at all. In Rocky Horror, Janet’s famous lines, "Toucha toucha touch me, I want to be dirty!" represented a generation of woman eager to explore and celebrate all the things their mothers had condemned as dirty and un-ladylike. Conventional wisdom on sex and the female body was being called into question and at the same time, Betty Friedan’s 1963 book The Feminine Mystique persuasively and controversially attacked the myth of the "happy homemaker." In 1966, William Masters and Virginia Johnson, two sex researchers, published Human Sexual Response. Until then, many people honestly did not know what the clitoris did. So Masters and Johnson told them (most notably in a 1969 Playboy interview) and it changed everything yet again. By the end of the 60s, many states had stuck down their adultery and sodomy laws, and eight million women were taking the Pill.

In the early 1970s, the hardcore pornography industry exploded in America, cranking out more porno films than ever before, including several that attracted curious, mainstream audiences – Deep Throat, Behind the Green Door, and The Devil in Miss Jones. The surprise hit Deep Throat, the first mainstream, commercially successful porno film, was made for $25,000 and grossed more than $10 million, just from theatre exhibition, not including later profits from video. This wasn’t a complete surprise since mainstream films like Midnight Cowboy, Carnal Knowledge, Bob and Ted and Carol and Alice, and Last Tango in Paris were becoming more sexually explicit. Porno films were interesting because they were a kind of post-modern cinematic form; the actor and character could no longer be separated because when the character was having sex, so was the actor, and everybody knew it. There was no line between reality and fiction. Porn became not only a threat to "polite society," but in a strange way, its own new art form. But it also helped to end the Sexual Revolution, transforming it from a movement into a business. With the incredible commercial success of Deep Throat and other films, sexuality was now a commodity, more so than it had ever been before. And that ended the idealism about sex that the 1960s had embodied.

The Sexual Revolution brought America to a dark, sometimes destructive vision of sexuality, and that can be seen so clearly in the films of the period, including Dressed to Kill, Cruising, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, and just a few years later, Fatal Attraction.

I’m Almost Sure…

But I Love My Wife is not really about the Sexual Revolution; that’s merely its context and its backdrop. There’s a difference between the action of a story and its point. As an example, Fiddler on the Roof isn’t about Jews losing their homes in czarist Russia – that’s just what happens in the story. What that show is about is the difficulty of hanging on to beloved traditions in a changing world. Likewise, Cabaret isn’t about people’s lives falling apart in Weimar Germany; it’s about the profound price of doing nothing in the face of evil. The Wild Party is about how if all you care about is winning, you’ll end up alone and lost. High Fidelity is about how you have to grow up yourself before you can have an adult relationship.

In any well crafted show, the opening number announces the central theme of the show, and the closing number summarizes it. (Think about the opening and closing numbers in Company.) Sometimes, this is very subtle, very subtextual; sometimes it’s right there on the surface. The central theme of I Love My Wife is about the intersection between the Sexual Revolution and these longstanding friendships. This story shows us two couples surviving the rough cultural terrain of the 1970s – specifically, the Sexual Revolution – specifically because they have these strong friendships that are based on lots of shared experience. They have found real human connection (something that Bobby in Company struggles to find). The show’s opening number, "We’re Still Friends," is all about how different these people are (both the couples and their Greek chorus friends), how unlikely it is that they would all end up being friends, but that they’ve had all these shared experiences, in college and in the years since then, which has made them "tied by links that can’t be denied, bound by years of palling around, glued by all the memories [i.e., shared experiences] accrued," to quote the opening. They are connected. And then the lyric tells us, "in other words," that shared experience, that connection, is what defines friendship. That’s what the opening – and the whole show – is about. And then the show proceeds to tell this story about this wild, crazy shared experience in which these four characters connect to each other in a way that scares them all.

And even this early in the show, Michael Stewart is showing off his facility with complex, interior rhymes:

If two, you say, is

Better than one,

Than logic guarantees

What two can

Do can

Better be done

By threes...

Just in this short section at the beginning of the song, he’s got two almost hidden rhymes, matching “better than one” with “better be done,” and also rhyming, in quick succession, “two can” with “do can.” This announces to the audience that this is a show they have to really listen to. In terms of both content and form, the audience can’t be passive or they’ll miss a lot.

We know that, in the end, these friendships will survive this experience because they’re just that strong. That’s not to say the final little mini-scenes aren’t full of tension and unease and regret, but both the women and the men make plans for tomorrow. No matter how unsettling this has been, no matter how strained things may seem for a while now, these people will remain friends – which is why Stanley and Quentin sing a quote from the opening number during the finale. In fact, the title of the opening number tells us how our story will end: "We’re Still Friends."

The Act II opener, "Hey There, Good Times," is a more generalized version of this same idea. The two couples have the shared experience of their sexual adventure, but the Greek chorus guys have a less specific shared experience, of just living through the fucked up 70s – the energy crisis, recession, cultural upheaval, etc. – and they will survive it because they have these solid friendships. These guys’ shared experience provides the context for the two couples’ shared experience. Every song in the show is about shared experience and human connection, in one way or another.

Like the songs in Company, all the songs in I Love My Wife operate as commentary on the cultural and political zeitgeist as much as commentary on the story. The songs sometimes relate directly to the action in the book scenes, but they never grow out of the dialogue organically, like songs in most musicals do. They rarely move the plot forward. They explore ideas. They offer context. They step out of the story.

The song "Monica" – essentially set to stripper music – is about sexism, about men objectifying women. This was the first time in American history when that wasn’t okay. Wally’s song "By Threes" helps to move the plot along, but it also gives authentic voice to the "pro-sex" forces in America who preached the gospel of Sexual Liberation. Their rallying cry was, "If it feels good, do it." Sex often replaced emotion as a means of connection. It’s no accident that Wally works in Public Relations, still a trendy, new industry that forced connections and incidentally, an ironically funny label for group sex!

The song "A Mover’s Life" doesn’t immediately suggest its relevance to the story, but it does give us cultural context. It describes what America had become in the 70s, nomadic, rootless, disconnected, a nation of people grasping for connection, not yet culturally evolved enough yet to match our social and technological evolution. It’s a song about change – disorienting, tectonic change – and impermanence. Moving is one of the most stressful events in a person’s life, and yet by the 1970s, Americans were moving more often and further away than ever before, often disconnecting from family (and this is before airplane flight was as common as it is now). This song is all about how sad and apprehensive all this furniture is (standing in for us disconnected humans), but these movers gently bring all of it to some new place that’s warm and safe. That’s also what these guys do structurally in the show, as a Greek chorus, for the couples and for us, the audience. They move us through this treacherous adventure, step by step – and of course, they also move the set pieces.

But it’s also a character song in disguise. We can boil the point of this song down to five words, which also describe the entire plot of the show. “Change is hard and scary.” Alvin is trying to change his entire worldview – and change his wife’s at the same time – in order to become something he doesn't even really want to be, but he feels he has to, to keep up with “the Times.” When he sings “A Mover's Life,” Alvin is talking about furniture, but he's also talking about himself. He doesn't want to be “the sink left behind.” He is literally trying to “bring happiness to some” (by doing what his best friend wants) but he will also bring “strife” to others (like his wife). Both Cleo and Monica are the "baby grand [who] cried like a kid." Alvin’s lyric describes in metaphor the chess game that Wally is playing with their lives:

Each piece he moves

A tale to tell;

For some it's hope,

For some it's hell.

Some wanna go,

Some wanna stay.

 . . .

Each piece we move,

Emotion feels.

Some dash ahead,

Some drag their heels.

That's the whole middle scene of Act II in a nutshell. And though he promises over and over to protect the vulnerable, this adventure of theirs might just be the “wrecker's ball” that ends one of these marriages.

The song "Love Revolution" is Cleo’s moment to try and convince herself to go on this adventure. But it also characterizes many Americans at that time. They didn’t necessarily believe in what they were being told, but they didn’t want to be left out either. Since the invention of the suburbs, Keeping Up with the Joneses had become an important social duty. If everyone else was doing it, no one wanted to be the only one who wasn’t. In this song, Cleo examines her lonely, empty suburban life and, when she compares it to the adventure being offered to her, her life seems even emptier. Until now, she didn’t know she was missing anything until now. Maybe she wasn’t.

In "Someone Wonderful I Missed," we see the two women questioning lifelong monogamy, a question that was part and parcel of the Sexual Revolution. Was it natural to be monogamous? All the rules were in question. In the Act I finale, "Sexually Free," they sing the praises of sexual freedom, except... The entire lyric is phrased in terms of "if." If they could do this, if they could think this way, if they could just forget about that, then they’d be sexually free. The trouble is, most people can’t get through all those ifs. Here at the end of Act I, bookwriter and lyricist Michael Stewart is already telling us how the story is going to end.

Hey There, Good Times…?

The second act opens with another song that doesn’t immediately seem like it belongs in the show, "Hey There, Good Times." But when you really listen to the lyric, you hear that these guys are begging the Good Times to show up, so they can no longer be "out there where the bad times blow." This song is a funnier, brighter companion piece to the very dark "Let the Sun Shine In" from Hair. Both songs have the same basic agenda, to end the bad times and bring on the good times. But while "Let the Sun Shine In" is asking the audience to end the darkness of war and death and hatred, "Hey There, Good Times" is talking about tough economic times and cultural confusion. The 70s was a tough decade and these guys are trying to fight the "malaise" that was bringing the country down. There was a dissatisfaction, a disillusionment, a restlessness. Like "A Mover’s Life," this song is part of this larger snapshot of America, and at the same time, it also describes the emotional state that has led these four characters to this crossroads.

"Lovers on Christmas Eve" is an important song in the score. Two-thirds of the way through the show, this is the first song about romance. And the realization of that makes the events of Act I even more unsettling. But this song also contributes to the big picture. As people in the 70s felt less and less comfortable with the Sexual Revolution, many couples revolved 180 degrees and decided to tune out all the cultural bullshit, focusing instead on having a loving, nurturing relationship, something the culture around them made very hard. Lots of self-help books for couples flooded the market. Like the opening number, this songs suggests that Wally and Monica are very different, even seemingly incompatible, but they are connected.

The song "Scream" describes both the 70s zeitgeist and these two couples – jumpy, confused, anxious, frustrated, scared. This song is interesting partly because the music does what the lyrics describe, plowing through the weirdest chord changes, the jumpiest melody line, and literal primal screams at the end. Likewise "Everybody Today is Turning On" shows the bafflement more conventional folks felt over marijuana and the other now more socially acceptable drugs, along with the nostalgia they felt for "simpler times." But the times, they were a-changin’. Up until this time, drugs were for hippies. But now the hippies were grown up, and for the first time, lots of adults were smoking pot. For those who weren’t, this was a very disturbing development. All their lives they were told how deadly marijuana was; now suddenly their next door neighbor is smoking every night. What do they make of that?

"Married Couple Seeks Married Couple" is a funny commentary on the (then) new invention of personal ads for sex. But as they sing, we see they’re doing all this not out of adventurousness but out of boredom, or even worse, some kind of obligation to The Times. Our high energy, senses-assaulting, high speed culture creates citizens who need constant stimulation. (Within a few years after this, MTV would make it even worse.) Normal, conventional, old-fashioned lives now seem boring. Like the title character in Pippin, these couples seek "fulfillment" and don’t know yet that they aren’t going to find what they’re looking for in the place where they’re looking.

In the finale, "I Love My Wife," Alvin finally figures out what he really wants, an emotional connection rather than a physical one. Just as "Lovers on Christmas Eve" is the only song in the show about romance, this is the only song in the show about deep, serious, emotional connection. After a fast-paced evening of sex farce, suddenly in this last number everything slows down. We take a breath. Alvin has found the understanding he has been seeking and he is okay. There is peace. Balance. The story ends with a easy jazz waltz.

Sexually Free

The virtuosity of Michael Stewart’s lyrics is evident in every song in the show, but a closer look at one song, "Sexually Free," offers a mini-master class in internal rhymes, subtext, and tone. This is the Act I finale. Alvin, Cleo, and Wally have just decided that, along with Monica (who’s notably absent here), they will have a sexual foursome. As mentioned earlier, the first thing you notice in this song is the many ifs. It’s an entirely conditional lyric, and because of that, it functions as a great cliffhanger. This story divides neatly into two parts, if (Act I) and then (Act II), and this lyric explicitly tells us that:

If we could loose the ties that bind…

The first line of this song is a direct threat to the first line of the show, "Tied by links that can’t be denied." In other words, if they could just ignore their longstanding relationships, sex would be far less complicated. We’ll find out in Act II whether they will or not.

If we could liberate the mind,

If all the rules that hold us fast,

We could eliminate at last…

This was the whole reason for Wally to sing "By Threes" to Alvin, to get him to reject the "old-fashioned" rules of relationships, of love, of sex. It’s a new world now, sexually speaking, and Wally has been trying to get Alvin to accept that.

If passions into which we’re swept,

We could accept

Without misgivings…

This is the conclusion Cleo comes to, though tentatively, in her song, "Love Revolution." In other words, they all have to let go of the fear and guilt over the decision they’ve made and give themselves permission to break all the rules of morality they’ve always lived by, in order to find the fulfillment they all think they lack. In "Love Revolution," Cleo encourages herself to "join in the action, just lead me to it, get satisfaction, seek and pursue it, and do it now."

…and moreover,

To Aphrodite give her due,

A pleasant hour – or maybe two –

Without forsaking what is due

Unto Jehovah…

With this line, Wally makes the dubious case that they can break the accepted rules of sexual morality without becoming generally immoral. They can have "multiple love experiences" without breaking their marriage vows or diminishing their love for their spouses – a dilemma Cleo and Monica sing about in "Someone Wonderful I Missed." Of course Wally also sneaks in there a commercial for his own stamina with his line, "a pleasant hour – or maybe two."

Then, after all these ifs from Act I, the chorus of the song offers up the potential prize ahead in Act II:

Then we’d be free, sexually free,

Free to let each urge

We suppress freely surge

And our inhibitions melt;

(At least enough for all four to get in bed together…)

Free, sexually free,

Free to cast our seed

On a stone, if the need

For a stone should be felt.

Free, sexually free,

Free to follow love,

Though it lead to above

Or below thy neighbor’s belt.

See what it is to be

Satisfied and unfrustrated,

Free and at liberty

To be loved and stimulated.

Be unashamedly

Sexually liberated...

It’s all about Freedom. And what’s more American than that? The idea here is that if these characters can just throw off everything they’ve ever been taught about love and sex, something wonderful awaits them. But is the prize worth it? That’s what we’ll find out in Act II. The second verse of "Sexually Free" continues in the same vein:

If we could drop the binding reins,

(in other words, marriage)

If we could sever all our chains,

(in other words, friendship)

If what the Puritans forbid,

("the Puritans," meaning mainstream but old-fashioned Americans)

Just ev’ry now and then, we did,

If musty codes we learn to shove

(in other words, the Old Testament, specifically Leviticus)

And look at love

Without that worn-out mystic aura,

(in other words, religion and morality)

If we cut loose and have a ball

With orgies relatively small,

(in other words, a foursome)

Because it’s Trenton, after all,

And not Gomorrah…

In these last four lines, Alvin points us ahead toward Act II, when our four main characters will indeed attempt an "orgy relatively small." And he also rejects Old Testament judgment.

The second chorus offers up even more incentives:

Then we’d be free, sexually free,

Free to lose our guilt,

Live it up to the hilt,

Be a Libertine or bust.

Free, sexually free,

Free to drop the pins;

There are just seven sins

And the best one is Lust.

Free, sexually free,

Free to go for broke,

Making love till you croak,

Or your parts begin to rust…

See what it is to be

Satisfied and unfrustrated,

Free and at liberty

To be loved and stimulated.

Be unashamedly

Sexually liberated...

. . .

Long as I’m here,

Let my time here

Be sexually free

Let me be sexually free!

And with this last line, these characters entreat, beg, pray that they can overcome all these ifs before the end of Act II.

By the Book

The dialogue scenes also take Company as a model. Much of what’s actually going on between these characters is underneath the dialogue. When these characters have a conversation, what they’re talking about on the surface is often not what they’re really talking about – just as it can be in real life. All the most important stuff in this story is subtextual.

The script also has a unique style and energy. Though it has the structure and content of a post-modern concept musical, it also has the energy and pacing of an old-school musical comedy, and Michael Stewart was a genius at writing musical comedy. In William Ball’s excellent book A Sense of Direction, he writes about how to play a show like this one:

I believe it was George S. Kaufman who maintained that for a comedy to be successful there should be sound – relentless sound – for the entire length of the play. He repeatedly required actors to make all the words butt up tightly one to another. If there were a pause of any kind Kaufman would thrust some noise into the silent space: a door would slam, a phone would ring, a cash register would clang, someone would knock at a door, slap on a table, stamp a foot, crumple a paper, shake a martini, ring a gong, fire a gun, beat a drum; or someone would cry, sigh, scream, sing, mumble, cheer, grunt, gasp, giggle, or groan. Great comedic director that he was, he realized the enormous value of the momentum gained by a relentlessly uninterrupted flow of words. And if the words had to be stopped, some other agency of sound would slap, bang or clatter to keep the comedic rhythm cracking. Then, of course, on those few occasions when he introduced a moment of silence – for a double take or for a slow burn – the effect was like a train wreck.

The pacing is very similar to the very best classic sitcoms, many of which were much more like one-act stage plays than like the modern sitcom – All in the Family, Barney Miller, Cheers, Friends, Mary Tyler Moore, The Bob Newhart Show, Seinfeld, Good Times, etc.

Alvin is the central character of the story, the one who takes the most extensive journey and who learns the most. He's the one who follows the primal Hero Myth, the story form behind Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, Bat Boy, High Fidelity, Legally Blonde, Wicked, Cabaret, Tommy, Les Miz, Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar, and many others. The story begins with him and it can't end until his conflict is resolved. He starts in balance, is thrown out of balance by Wally and the Scheme, and then at the end he finds his balance again. Alvin finds his Zen – and therefore, contentment – at the end of the show when he starts to sing "I Love My Wife," very much like a similar moment in Sunday in the Park with George when George and Dot sing "Move On." The trick for actors and directors is getting Alvin to that moment honestly and believably. Throughout the whole story, the show’s title seems like an ironic joke – these two husbands keep claiming they love their wives, but their actions sure don’t support that – but in those last few moments, we realize the show’s title is the very sincere, central point of the show.   


Copyright 2010. From Scott Miller's book,  Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals. All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre, Deconstructing Harold Hill, Rebels with Applause, Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR, and From Assassins to West Side Story.