David Yazbek and Terrence McNally's musical version of the 1996 British film The Full Monty opened on Broadway seventeen years ago tonight. For some reason, that makes me feel older than saying it opened thirty-seven years ago, mainly because I recall seeing it for the first time with the kind of freshness reserved for something new, exciting and as up-to-the-minute as last week. The film, a genuine "sleeper," with a superb screenplay by Simon Beaufoy, was a major financial success worldwide, grossing $258 million on a $3.5 million budget. The musical was also a hit, running 770 performances on Broadway (roughly two years).
Love the slogan: Six men ... with nothing to lose ... who dare to go ... THE FULL MONTY."
I actually saw the musical in July of 2000 (which is slightly more than seventeen years ago) at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, which effectively served as its launching pad. After an extended, sold-out run there, it moved immediately to Broadway's Eugene O'Neill Theatre, where it opened three months later. Little needed to be fixed, so not a whole lot was done between San Diego and Manhattan. Not one cast member was replaced and the musical was warmly received on Broadway, chalking up good reviews and good business.
The plot of Full Monty concerns six unemployed factory workers in the small town of Sheffield, England, who are struggling to make ends meet. They are frustrated and emasculated, with most of them forced the indignity of collecting unemployment (or being "on the dole," as the British phrase goes) and are facing all sorts of impending consequences for their inability to find work. The most timely being that of the leading character, who will lose all visitation rights to his son—whom he loves dearly—if he can't come up with his monthly child support. How they come up as a group with the idea of performing a one-night-only strip at the local club, usually reserved for much better looking and far better-in-shape (not to mention actual dancers), is convoluted at best. Yet it works, not only as plot, but as a means of their earning the much-needed dough. And even though the setting was changed by playwright McNally from the far outer reaches of London to Buffalo in upstate New York, the switch worked perfectly.
The essential plot device, saved for both versions, is that the gents know there is only one way to pack the house for their big show—and that is for them to go "the full monty." This phrase, unknown to Americans when the film came out, is best a facsimile of what we refer to as "the whole nine yards" or "going all the way." In the film, we don't see the moment when the guys strip down to their essentials full frontal, due to the camera's ability to cut and for us to see the audience reaction (and be that audience as well). For the musical, many went to see it with an eagle eye (or both), giddy in anticipation of how the creative team would handle the ultimate and final moment of the show. I don't think anyone, be they male or female, felt cheated by the solution, which was pretty ingenious in its simplicity. All that was required was for the final second, just before removing their policeman hats off their nether regions, a BLINDING light went off, thereby removing any chance of our seeing what was revealed. With the music building, and anticipation in the audience growing, when the blackout came it had both an exhilarating and hilarious effect.
At the time Full Monty opened, McNally was already the recipient of four Tony Awards, two for back-to-back Best Plays (Love! Valour! Compassion! and Master Class), and two for crafting musical books from pre-determined source material (Kiss of the Spider Woman and Ragtime). But it was David Yazbek, then a pop songwriter, who was a total theatre unknown. Best known at that point for co-writing the theme to PBS's Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? with Sean Altman of Rockapella, he has since gone on to write three other Broadway scores, all of them excellent, and all completely different in terms of their variety, setting and execution. 2004's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was Yazbek's second hit, with a mix of traditional Broadway and pop; Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, with its bouncy Latin rhythms, though unsuccessful in 2010, has since gotten numerous second chances at redemption via other productions around the world, and Yakbek's current musical The Band's Visit (exquisitely lyrical) is in previews now at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre and opening November 9th.
In terms of its initial timing, when The Full Monty opened on Broadway it had the play of the field for awhile, with little competition so early in the season. The only other new musical, Seussical, limped into town a month after, seriously wounded after a rough time in its Boston tryout. But everything changed in April when a little show called The Producers blew in from Chicago, where it had received some of the best pre-Broadway reviews in theatre history. When the Tonys were handed out in June, The Full Monty lost every one of its ten nominations to the record-breaking twelve that The Producers took home that evening. It's always impossible to predict, but had Full Monty been up for those ten either the year before or the year after, it might easily have won Best Musical, in addition to a number of other categories (Patrick Wilson and the late Kathleen Freeman were especially award-worthy).