From a provocative sex farce appropriately called Sex that ran in 1926, to one-woman play depicting the Virgin Mary as a doubting Thomas, these 10 shows have ruffled some serious feathers over the years -- even inciting death threats and police raids.
The New York theater has always been more daring than movies or television. When Hollywood was censoring itself with the Hays Office in the 1930s, Broadway was tackling then-scandalous topics like homosexuality. Before she hit it big on screen, legendary sex symbol Mae West was raising eyebrows, along with her skirts, in plays she wrote and starred in. Religion is another hot topic that playwrights and composers have been unafraid to explore, with depictions of an unconventional Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary making the stage. Just because the theater is ready, doesn't mean the rest of the country is, and many of these productions caused controversy with protestors picketing, police raiding and even death threats being made. While the list of eyebrow-raising productions is a long one, here are our picks for the most scandalous productions of the past 100 or so years, both on and Off-Broadway:
Opened: April 26, 1926 Theater: Daly's 63rd Street Theatre Performances: 376 Mae West wrote (under the pen name Jane Mast) and starred in this scandalous sex farce about a Montreal prostitute. The New York Times called it a "crude, inept play, cheaply produced and poorly acted," but audiences loved it. Ten months into its hit run, acting mayor "Holy Joe" McKee had the police raid the show for indecency. The entire cast was arrested, and West told reporters she wore silk underwear during her eight days in prison on Welfare Island. West went on to write another shocking show, Pleasure Man, about an actor who seduced showgirls, which was also raided in 1928. She went to Hollywood in 1932 and became a screen sensation, but she had to tone down her double entendres when the Hays Office began heavily curtailing sexual film content in 1934. (Photo Caption: Mae West, Postcard for Sex, photos: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division/New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Maewest.blogpost.com)
Opened: Nov. 20, 1934 Theater: Maxine Elliot's Theatre Performances: 691 Lillian Hellman's hit drama about two teachers accused of lesbianism by a spiteful student had the potential for trouble. At the time, any mention of homosexuality on the stage was forbidden by law. But the play was so well received by audiences and critics, no one involved was arrested. It was banned, however, in Boston, Chicago and London. When the story was filmed by William Wyler as These Three in 1936, all references to same-sex attraction were eliminated and replaced by a straight affair between one of the unmarried teachers and her doctor boyfriend. It wasn't until 1961 that a more faithful version was brought to the screen, starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine as the beleaguered schoolmistresses. (Photo: Postcard for The Children's Hour)
Opened: Sept. 30, 1953 Theater: Ethel Barrymore Theatre Performances: 712 Like The Children's Hour, Robert Anderson's play was set in a boarding school and frankly deals with a false accusation of homosexuality. The story centers on young Tom Lee, who is suspected of being gay because he went swimming in the nude with a male teacher, dislikes sports and is just a bit too sensitive. In the midst of his torment, Tom develops a crush on a faculty wife who suspects her macho husband is in the closet. The play's climax was shocking for its day. The wife embarks on an affair with the student and utters the classic line, "Years from now when you speak of this, and you will, be kind." The movie version of The Children's Hour eliminated all references to homosexuality, while the 1956 film edition of Tea toned them down: the gay slurs against Tom start when he is seen knitting with the faculty wives rather than skinny-dipping with the instructor. (Photo: Playbill for Tea and Sympathy, photo Playbill Vault)
Opened: March 24, 2011 Theater: Eugene O'Neill Theatre Performances: Still playing When the creators of the racy TV cartoon South Park are involved, can controversy be far behind? Even loving descriptions of it have included the words "vulgar" and "profane." Yes, organized religion comes in for a drubbing in this razor-sharp tale of two Mormon missionaries seeking to convert the inhabitants of the poorest village in Uganda. When the idealistic young men are confronted with the devastating poverty, war lords and the villagers' indifference, socially-challenged Arnold interjects elements from his favorite sci-fi movies into Mormon scripture, and golden-boy Kevin applies for a transfer to his favorite place on earth, Orlando, Florida. The most outrageous number is Kevin's "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream," which features Adolph Hitler, Genghis Khan, mass murderer Jeffrey Dahmer and O.J. Simpson's defense lawyer Johnny Cochran alongside an electric guitar-plucking Satan. Get tickets! (Photo: The Book of Mormon, credit Joan Marcus)
Opened: April 22, 2013 Theater: Walter Kerr Theatre Performances: 16 Fiona Shaw played the mother of Jesus in this one-person play not as a virgin saint, but as troubled woman who has serious doubts about her son's divinity. As they did with Jesus Christ Superstar and Corpus Christi, religious groups objected to a humanization of the holy family and launched protests. Author Colm Tiobin did receive a Best Play Tony nomination, but lukewarm reviews and audience indifference caused a quick closing. (Photo: Fiona Show in Colm Toibin's The Testament of Mary, credit Paul Kolnik)
This piece was written by David Sheward.
Follow NewYork.com on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@newyorkcom