Nudes Is Good News for Broadway Box-Office

Daniel Radcliffe in promotional stills from the London production of Equus

“Daniel Radcliffe Ready for Broadway – Nude Scene and All”
–(Huffington Post)

“Harry Potter Goes Nude!”
–(CBS News).

“Onstage, Stripped of That Wizardry”
–(The New York Times)

“Daniel Radcliffe Talks About His Broadway Debut – and His Nude Scene”
–(People Magazine)

These are the headlines of some of the many articles that have appeared in conjunction with what is apparently the theatrical event of the decade: Daniel Radcliffe, star of the Harry Potter series of movies, playing the central role in a revival of Peter Shaffer’s Equus.

That Radcliffe did the play in London last year and opened last week on Broadway in a transfer of that production would be news enough insofar as the star of one of the most successful franchises in film history is performing live on stage, in the flesh. But here, the phrase “in the flesh” is especially appropriate: Equus famously includes a full-frontal nude scene for Radcliffe in the role of the psychosexually tormented youth Alan Strang, who develops an erotic fixation with horses and then blinds a stable-full of them with a metal spike when his attempt to lose his virginity with a local girl fails miserably.

It’s scarcely an exaggeration to say that Radcliffe’s nude scene has caused as much excitement as would be engendered if Ethel Merman could be brought back to life and signed to star in new Broadway musical. (Of course, that’s not the same situation, since presumably few would want to see her naked.)

Throughout his journey in Equus, from the media circus surrounding the London run to the slightly less breathless coverage of the Broadway engagement, Radcliffe has maintained his equanimity and a great sense of humor about exposing his private parts.

He recently confided in The New York Times that he has been experiencing what he called the “Michelangelo’s David Effect” onstage, explaining: “[David] wasn’t very well endowed, because he was fighting Goliath. There was very much of that effect. You tighten up like a hamster. The first time it happened, I turned around and went, ‘You know, there’s a thousand people here, and I don’t think even one of them would expect you to look your best in this situation.’”

At least since Hair and Oh! Calcutta! in the late 1960s, nudity has been part of the fabric (if that’s the correct word!) of Broadway. For a few decades thereafter, it seemed that men and women were more or less equally represented among onstage nudists – but in recent years, the scale has definitely tipped towards the male.

An informal survey conducted by The New York Times in 2005 determined that in the roughly 25 productions over the previous 15 years that had featured full frontal nudity, approximately 40 men had appeared in the altogether as compared to only about 10 women. There are a number of reasons for this shift, but it’s no doubt primarily due to the fact that gay men and straight women represent a very large percentage of the New York theatergoing audience, and many people in this subset can be expected to reflexively respond to word of onstage nakedness by whipping out their credit cards and calling Telecharge or Ticketmaster.

High-profile cases of female nudity in the theater are certainly not unknown in our time, as witness Nicole Kidman in The Blue Room or Kathleen Turner in The Graduate. Still, when it comes to disrobing for the ticket-buying public, it’s most often the men who soldier forward.

A very short list of recent Broadway productions in which one or more male performers bared all (or most) of their bodies includes Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion, Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out, Douglas Carter Beane’s The Little Dog Laughed, and the musical The Full Monty. Stanley Tucci was briefly nude in a revival of McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune – oh, and so was his co-star, Edie Falco. Going a little further back, a pre-stardom Jude Law could be seen naked on Broadway in Indiscretions.

Tom Everett Scott and Johnny Galecki in The Little Dog Laughed

It would be unfair to lump all of these shows together, since their nude scenes range from the dramatically chilling, horrifically violent horse-blinding sequence in Equus to the utterly gratuitous nakedness of the actors in Love! Valour! Compassion! And sometimes, nudity is intended simply to express humanity at its most elemental level – as in Hair, which had a very successful Public Theater revival in Central Park this summer. (That production will transfer to Broadway later this season.)


Daniel Radcliffe and other actors who doff their clothing onstage are smart enough to acknowledge that doing so helps sell tickets. Take for example Hunter Parrish, a star of the hit Showtime series Weeds, who’s currently playing the central role of Melchior in the Broadway musical Spring Awakening.

In a promotional video for the show that’s easily found online, Parrish tells his fans: “You guys gotta come. If you’re into Weeds and the intellectual writing there and the artful aspects of how that’s put together, [Spring Awakening] is quite spectacular of a show. And it’s live, and you get to see my butt. So, there you go!”

While bare butts (etc.) almost always mean big box-office, sometimes the opposite is the case. One theory for the relatively brief run of the Broadway musical The Full Monty is that straight men stayed away in droves because they were put off by the title and the ad campaign, which stressed the “naked men” hook of the show despite the fact that the principal actors were fully exposed for only about two seconds in the finale. (Even then, audience perusal of their private parts was made difficult by a skillfully designed and executed lighting effect).

Patrick Wilson in The Full Monty

Lesson for producers: If a large percentage of your show’s target audience is presumed to be straight men, ixnay on the enis-pay. Is anyone surprised that there are no naked men on view in Jersey Boys or Spamalot?

Otherwise, it’s great business sense to bring on buff guys in the buff. Funny story: Terrence Howard appeared nude at the top of the recent Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and though he was standing upstage with his back to the audience, that was enough to cause an overjoyed female audience member at one performance to shout, “This is what I paid my money for!”

If nudity has been common on Broadway over the past 40 years or so, it’s even more common Off-Broadway, in scores of shows ranging in quality from Edward Albee’s The Play About the Baby to amiable fluff (pardon the expression!) like Paul Rudnick’s The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told.

There has also been a subset of shows marketed specifically to gay men of a certain age, giving them the opportunity to see taut, young male bodies nude (or semi-nude) onstage. For a while, the Cute Boys in Their Underpants series played to appreciative niche audiences at the Sanford Meisner Theater. (One of the most amusingly titled entries in the series was Cute Boys in Their Underpants Go To France.)

But the long-run champ of this genre is Naked Boys Singing, which also wins the "Truth in Theater Advertising Award" hands down. However, it’s fascinating to note that, while this show’s audience was initially made up almost exclusively of gay men, word is that it now consists mostly of bachelorette parties!

The cast of Naked Boys Singing

Nudity can be and has been used to sell the most unlikely of shows. Just recently, New York theatergoers were treated to “a daring, completely nude interpretation of Walt Whitman’s epic Leaves of Grass" at The Cell on West 23rd Street. Conceived and directed by Jeremy Bloom, the show featured “a chorus of 25 diverse and fully nude performers.”

In a press release, Bloom insisted that “staging nudity in the context of Whitman’s text is the most honest approach,” because "each succeeding line, passage, and turn of phrase celebrates the bare human form as an intersection of nature and industry." A more cynical observer might put it this way: If you want to have a prayer of selling tickets to a poetry reading, you’d damn well better make sure that all of the actors are naked.

Just how much of a positive effect can male nudity have on the financial success of an off-the-radar show when word gets out? Consider Ascension, a play that ran Off-Off-Broadway in 2006.

Brandon Ruckdashel in Ascension

The three-character, low-budget production was scheduled to play for three weeks, but the run was extended and the ticket price tripled when Anita Gates reviewed it for The New York Times. Though she praised the show in general, it was almost certainly her commentary on the nudity of 23-year-old star Brandon Ruckdashel – who, in her estimation, possesses "the intense blond good looks of a young Brad Pitt with a soupçon of James Dean" – that caused all that commotion at the box office.


Says Ruckdashel, who may be seen this season on here! TV’s The Lair and who is currently filming the Cinemax series Co-ed Confidential, “I think nudity on stage is fine. I don’t suggest making a habit of it, but I think it can be part of the art. In Ascension, the nudity wasn’t vulgar; it’s natural that, after sex, two individuals would be lounging around nude. It was never, like, ‘Okay, let’s have a nude scene.’ The playwright did a great job of setting it up. Did it boost our ticket sales? Yeah, it probably did. We had the trench-coat Mafia in the audience, that’s for sure! From the time that the review came out, we sold out the rest of the initially scheduled three-week run in six hours flat. But I think what did it was the fact that the Times reviewed us at all. It still has the power to come in, anoint a show, and make it a hit.”

Well, maybe. There’s no way of determining how much the Times review would have spiked Ascension’s ticket sales if Gates hadn’t happened to mention that the play featured a gorgeous young man totally naked, just as no one can say whether the demand for Equus tickets would be less frenzied if the public wasn’t aware that Daniel Radcliffe goes starkers in that show.

Generally speaking, it seems that most theater artists have little or no problem with onstage nudity, but they are understandably miffed when the press and/or the public focus on that aspect of a show above all else.

Peter Shaffer, the venerable author of Equus, has made no secret of his displeasure at some of the press reaction to Daniel Radcliffe’s nudity in his play. “Childish, absolutely childish and hateful,” Shaffer told at the opening night party for the Broadway production. “All they could talk about was his c*ck. It was ludicrous — as if I was writing porn and Daniel was latching onto a pornographic event. ‘Harry Potter waves his other wand.’ Is that all they could say about our attempt? They should respect people who are trying to do good work.”

Perhaps the last cogent word on this hot-button issue should be given to Drama Desk Award-nominated actor Vince Gatton, who has appeared in his birthday suit in three separate Off-Broadway shows, including the gay comedy Party. “One of the things about Party was that it was more funny than sexy,” Gatton remarked when I interviewed him in 2002.

Vince Gatton (right) and John Kevin Jones in an Off-Off-Broadway production of
The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told

“As I said at the time, if you wanted a genuine turn-on, you could pay a lot less money to rent a video — or to rent certain boys — than you’d pay for a ticket to our show. The shows that have involved nudity that I was not interested in doing were the ones that aimed to be a turn-on for the audience. If that’s the goal, go find a prostitute and leave me alone! I hope I have other skills to offer. And there are certainly guys with better bods than me, guys with six-pack abs and big arms and all of that. If what you’re looking for is visual hot-cha, you’d better try to find it elsewhere.”