On Oct. 27, 1977, a musical comedy with the mildly gamy title of "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" opened at the Actors Studio in New York. Its prospects were not discernibly brighter than those of any other show presented by the studio as a "showcase"--a euphemism for a brief run staged in hopes of attracting investors for a commercial production. Only one of its three collaborators had a significant amount of experience in the theater, its cast was almost wholly unknown, and its subject--the closing of a small-town Texas brothel--was of questionable taste and interest.
One of those collaborators was Larry L. King, a journalist widely and deservedly admired for his magazine articles and books, most notable among the latter being "Confessions of a White Racist." The musical had been spawned by an article he wrote for Playboy about the actual closing of the actual brothel. Although initially skeptical and reluctant, he soon caught a severe case of show-biz fever and plunged himself wholeheartedly, recklessly into a venture that, the realistic side of him well knew, had only a scant chance of success. But sometimes the sun shines most brightly on those who least expect it, and as just about everybody now knows, it lit up King's life. Let him tell it:
"As of November 10, 1981, 'Whorehouse' had played on Broadway for 41 months and, with 1,418 performances, had set a new house record, surpassing 'How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying' to become the 20th longest-running show in Broadway history--and it was still going strong. I have to pinch myself to realize it has lasted longer on Broadway than such old hits as 'Damn Yankees,' 'Carousel,' 'A Streetcar Named Desire,' 'Teahouse of the August Moon,' 'The Pajama Game,' 'Can Can' and 'Annie Get Your Gun'. . . Our three national companies and the Broadway company had grossed $67 million to November 1981--to round it off to the nearest million. We have had foreign companies in South Africa, Australia and England. Later will come all those summer-stock companies, dinner-theater versions and amateur productions. Not bad for a bunch of first-timers who started out in a funky old church building."
As it happens, "Whorehouse" closed on Broadway a few weeks ago, a victim apparently of the outlandish production costs that so grievously afflict the New York theater. But its run was something while it lasted, and the success that it brought to King, who had suffered more than his share of personal and professional losses, was enormously gratifying to his fellow journalists. "The Whorehouse Papers" is his account of the show's germination, gestation and birth; though perhaps the weakest of King's books, it nonetheless will be of interest to anyone who is stage-struck or merely puzzled by how a gleam in someone's eye turns into a multimillion-dollar hit.
The gleam was not in King's eye but in those of Carol Hall and Peter Masterson, show-biz folk who had read the Playboy article and saw the raw material of a musical in it. Soon enough they became King's collaborators: Hall as composer and lyricist, Masterson as fellow writer and, once the show became a reality, director. But King's account makes nothing so clear as that collaboration is no bed of roses. In detail that must be excruciating to the individuals involved, he describes the endless fights he had with Hall and Masterson--and many others who became involved in the production--over everything from lyrics to staging to the actors' interpretations of their roles. It was no longer his show:
"As a musical is shaped, the book writer becomes a relatively useless appendage. Oh, sure, he's called in for rewrites; they beckon him for new scenes, a line here, a transition speech there; but he really is little more than a glorified spectator, save for such patchwork. The work that was the writer's alone, or nearly so, now becomes community property. It is cut, changed, modified, put asunder."
By the time the show was ready for its off-Broadway previews, having found in Universal Pictures the angel that it needed, King had absolutely no sense of its fate: "This was a new experience: In politics I never had been truly surprised by the results of any election I was involved in; with experience, I could tell you almost to the critic or publication how each of my books would be received; on meeting a desirable lady I had not often guessed wrong as to how the adventure might turn out. For 'Whorehouse,' however, I now had no feel."
In point of fact, the show got a lukewarm reception from the reviewers. "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," it turned out, was one of those shows that nobody much loves except the people. Picking up steam by word of mouth, with an occasional assist from the gossip columns, it went on to compile a record that few shows have exceeded.
King tells this rags-to-riches story with good humor, an occasional touch of malice and an uncharacteristic sloppiness. His prose, tight and original in his previous work, here too often is tired and cliche'-ridden; he makes a verb out of "agenting," which suggests too much time spent in show biz, and tosses around exhausted adjectives ("posh," "chic," "stately") as if he'd just discovered them. Though he issues a disclaimer about name-dropping, it remains that he is given to compiling lists of those in attendance (at the theater, at dinner, at bars) that bear no clear relationship to his narrative and serve primarily to demonstrate the illustriousness of his friends and acquaintances; he's entitled, but it's gratuitous.
The virtues of "The Whorehouse Papers," by contrast, are its candor and its cold-eyed depiction of the theatrical life. King came to love that life but also to perceive, without blinkers, the price it exacts of those who wish to live it. His sympathy for the people of the theater is attractive and infectious, as is his sheer pleasure in suddenly finding himself basking in the sweet, bright light of an honestly earned success.