After applauding profusely for the cast and creative crew behind Pretty Filthy, I stepped out into the wintery New York air, still with a big smile on my face and laughter in my heart. An older lady trotted over to me and asked if I knew where the subway was, and I said I didn’t, so we set off, with a few other folks, in shivering search. On the way, I asked her what she thought of the show, an energetic, beautifully performed musical about the lives of porn stars, directors, and camera folks, and she looked up at me and declared that, despite the humanizing light the show cast on porn, the whole industry should be done away with.
I chuckled politely and nervously, and breathed a sigh of relief when she found the subway and disappeared. Her stance on porn, even after the musical, reminded me how misunderstood the industry is, and how easy it is to reduce the people behind a huge and influential section of media to subhuman sex automatons who apparently erode wholesome society. This musical dispels such a polarized view.
Pretty Filthy, created by the investigative theater company The Civilians and helmed by Michael Friedman (music and lyrics), Bess Wohl (book) and Steve Cosson (direction), brings audiences into the lives of agents, girls and boys next door, more experienced performers, and camera crews. There’s a porn veteran who’s also a mother (a heart tingling portrayal by Luba Mason), a porn agent who accuses the audience of hypocrisy (Steve Rosen being movingly hilarious), a brief appearance by the Italian star of the very first squirting films (John Behlmann elegantly smarming away), and a big ol’ porn house (Lulu Fall and Jared Zirilli inhabit it and, like the rest of the cast, play other parts to stellar, sensual perfection). Plus all the characters, true to Civilians form, are based on actual humans from pornography.
The show covers many thematic elements of the porn universe, including porn names and identities, finding oneself through sex, and the idea that people aspire to be in porn. In one of the first numbers, the female protagonist, Becky (Alyse Alan Louis outdoes Meg Ryan’s “I’ll have what she’s having” performance in a later song), muses “what if I want it,” before cheerily stumbling into a community in which, as one character sings, “you can fuck the world!” Pretty soon, her boyfriend Bobby (played with awkward bravado by Marrick Smith) follows and becomes a porn star as well, and the two attempt to balance their off-camera romance and their dual identities as Taylor St. Ives and Dick Everhard. In the number “Becky & Bobby & Taylor & Dick,” the two wonder “which one [of them] is the fantasy,” the porn actor or the porn persona.
Not only does identity come into question romantically, the physicality of porn causes all manner of existential crises. In “Waiting for Wood,” a hilarious number that focuses on Bobby/Dick’s inability to get hard during a shoot for a Star Trek parody – there was actually an unplanned moment of acknowledging silence for the late Leonard Nimoy – it’s revealed how one flaccid wang can make or break a man’s porn career. Bobby sings, “I’m just a prop,” before ending up in gay porn, and gaining a perspective and meaning he never thought he’d experience within the industry.
Pretty Filthy gives the audience a chance to empathize with porn stars and pornographers alike, presenting the characters as quirky, multifaceted, tragic, confident, insecure, everything we feel in our lives but strip from the seemingly illicit world of pornography. “Porn is the island of misfit toys,” sings one of the residents of the porn house; the truth is that the adult media community isn’t living a shadowy lifestyle, but surviving alienated because of their relatable choices and desires. Like anything, porn can bring you together or tear you apart.
One of my favorite ideas posited in the musical is that if people think porn is universally exploitative, then the assumption becomes that women don’t like sex, as expressed in the number “Porn Capitalism” (Maria-Christina Oliveras plays the intellectually volcanic Carrie, a female director). Demonizing the whole porn galaxy is to demonize sexual openness, exploration, and desire in many of its forms.
At the end of the show, Becky’s making a living performing on chatrooms after the San Fernando renaissance has reached its close, and the director of the musical – that’s right, it’s a meta Adaptation-style musical with the underlying presence of writers of a musical, reflecting the creative team’s own experiences in the San Fernando Valley – asks if she’s ok. Instead of spinning a tale of woe, she simply declares, “I’m free.” This is not a meditation on the evils of pornography, it’s a vibrant and enthusiastic – not to mention expertly written, composed, and performed – story of people fighting for recognition and for identity, that proves that there’s emotional humanity in an industry that’s spent too long in the shadows.
There’s no information out yet about future runs of the show, but in an interview with Friedman, the composer mentioned a cast album and possible future staging, so there’s hope indeed for more people to laugh big, shed a tear or two, and enjoy getting Pretty Filthy.
Top image: Pretty Filthy Photoshoot, Photographer: © 2015 Gregory Costanzo