Chances are you haven’t seen Pretty Filthy. Despite being a New York Times Critics Pick, Bess Wohl (Small Mouth Sounds) and Michael Friedman’s (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) musical about the porn industry went largely unnoticed during its brief run at Abrons Arts Center in 2015. “Unfortunately, when our show came out it was the same year as Hamilton. At the award shows, it was like a snuff film,” original cast member Steven Rosen joked in front of a mid-size but passionate crowd at Feinstein’s/54 Below on last week.
Rosen served as master of ceremony for a rousing hour of songs such as “Waiting for Wood” and “Squirting 101” to celebrate the release of the cast album. “Speaking of capitalism, I want to show you what our commodity looks like,” he quipped while brandishing a copy of the brightly colored cd early on in the program. Rosen plays a talent manager who doubles as a performer and talks with a heavy New York accent. In the opening song “Names,” he confesses a first draft for his porn name was Long Island.
The intimate cabaret room’s loud yet cozy décor felt quite fitting for a show that doles out smut and sentiment in equal measure. Drawn from interviews conducted by the writers and members of investigative theater company The Civilians, the dialogue and lyrics favor raw emotions and excited bursts of thought over well-made witticisms but humor finds its way.
During the discovery ditty “Squirting 101,” singer Eric William Morris recounts how he discovered the “g spot.” Upon the utterance of those words, a table of conservatively dressed women with big hair erupted in laughter. Director Steve Cosson had a series of fountains shooting streams of water on cue in the original production while the concert had to make due with lighting cues. “I’m so glad there’s a cast album because now it can be shared with schools around the country,” Cosson joked after the song ended. His last show, The Undertaking, was rumination on death and our ability or lack thereof to come to terms with it, so he seemed particularly gleeful to share in this lighter evening.
Book writer Bess Wohl introduced “Waiting for Wood” with the sly directive, “use your imagination for that one.” The song, performed by a quartet of male singers, captures the expendability of men in the world of straight porn. The chorus begins, “when you’re a man in America, you’re really just a prop,” which can be taken literally but it also touches on a deeper feeling of being a cog in the system. In “Porn Capitalism” a producer played by Maria-Christina Oliveras bluntly explains the economics and ethics of the business: “Do we exploit porn workers in a capitalist sense yes but do you exploit them sexually? No.”
The concert like the musical begins and ends with Becky (Alyse Alan Louis), a young ingénue who discovers her sexuality as she learns how to commodify it. She sings “What If I Like It” at the beginning of the show and the title song at the end in which she asks, “Do you think I’m pretty? Do you think I’m filthy? Do you think I’m real?” It’s a question left for the audience to decide.