Garrett Morris, a go-go dancer, a giant phallic rat, a gruesomely extended death scene and a voodoo curse on the audience: Put them all together and you get the most shocking performance in the history of the Tony Awards. Those who think that Broadway is edgier now than it was 50 years ago need only watch this selection from the 1971 musical Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death to correct that view.
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By then, writer-director Melvin Van Peebles had already carved out a space for himself in black history as the auteur of the proto-blaxsploitation classic Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. In Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death, he brought his message to a Broadway audience. The medley from that show on the 1972 Tony telecast was nine minutes long, and Tony producer Alexander Cohen thought it important enough to include, even though—in a decision destined to infuriate Broadway archivists for decades to come—none of the other Best Musical nominees that year were invited to perform. (They were three little shows called Follies, Grease and Two Gentlemen of Verona.)
The entire sequence is historically fascinating—look for future Saturday Night Live star Garrett Morris's lengthy ode to a sexy dance at 1:30—but the climax, which begins at 6:50, is breathtaking in its audacity. After a young man is shot to death by a policeman, an elderly woman in rags turns out to the largely white and affluent audience to deliver a searing curse. "May all of your children end up junkies, too!" she proclaims, before naming other catastrophes she is calling upon them. Among them: "Your young daughters give rich old dudes head in limousines too!" Did the ABC censors even know what that meant? Watch and wonder.
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