Eyen is best known for works at opposite ends of the theatrical spectrum. Mainstream theatergoers became acquainted with him in 1981 when he partnered with composer Henry Krieger and director Michael Bennett to write the book and lyrics for Dreamgirls, the hit Broadway musical about an African American female singing trio. Eyen's career started, however, with avant garde plays and musicals that he wrote and directed off-off Broadway in the early 1960s, which eventually led to off-Broadway success in the 1970s with the controversial nudity-filled performance-art play The Dirtiest Show in Town and Women Behind Bars, a camp parody of women's prison exploitation films.
Eyen was born in Cambridge, Ohio, the youngest of seven children of Abraham and Julia Eyen, who owned a family-run restaurant. He attended The Ohio State University but left before graduating, in 1960, and moved to New York City to study acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Having no success with acting, Eyen worked briefly as a press agent and then began writing. He found a home for his unique outlook on contemporary life in the 1960s at the off-off-Broadway avant garde theatre scene at Caffe Cino and La MaMa Theatre, where he gave Bette Midler her first professional acting roles in his Miss Nefertiti Regrets and Cinderella Revisited (both in 1965, a children's play by day and an adult show by night). With a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, he formed his own company, the Theatre of the Eye Repertory Company, in 1964. The company performed together for a decade, and took Eyen's 1967 play about Sarah Bernhardt, "Sarah B. Divine!," to the Spoleto Festival in Italy in 1967. Eyen is considered a principal proponent of the 1960s neo-expressionist off-off-Broadway movement. The New York Times noted, "His plays are known for emotionally grotesque material combined with sharp satire."
Eyen was prolific, writing and usually directing 35 plays at La MaMa alone in the 1960s and 1970s. Early off-off-Broadway plays, other than those mentioned above, include My Next Husband Will Be A Beauty! (1964), Frustata, The Dirty Little Girl With The Paper Rose Stuck In Her Head, Is Demented! (1964), The White Whore And The Bit Player (1964; revived in 1981 at Corner Theatre ETC), "Why Hannah's Skirt Won't Stay Down" (1964), Can't You See A Prince? (1965), Court (1965), The Last Great Cocktail Party (1965), The Demented World Of Tom Eyen (1965) and Why Hanna's Skirt Won't Stay Down; Or, Admission 10c (1965). The title character has been described as an icon representative of all the crudeness, exuberance, decadence and off-the-cuff profundities of the era. Others included Give My Regards to Off-Off Broadway (1966), Grand Tenement/November 22nd (1967), Kama Sutra, The (An Organic Happening) (1968), Who Killed My Bald Sister Sophie? Or, Thank God for Small Favours! (1968), When Johnny Comes Dancing Home Again (1968), Alice Through A Glass Lightly (1968), 4 Noh Plays (1969) and Caution: A Love Story (1969).
In 1970, Eyen had his biggest commercial success to date with The Dirtiest Show in Town, a satiric response to, but also an example of, the era's plays featuring sexual situations and nude actors, which ran for two seasons with later versions off-Broadway and in London's West End.
This was followed by such shows as Areatha in the Ice Palace; Or, The Fully Guaranteed Fuck-Me Doll (1970), Gertrude Stein and Other Great Men (1970), Lana Got Laid In Lebanon (1970), What Is Making Gilda so Gray?; Or, It Just Depends on Who You Get (1970), 2008: A Spaced Oddity (1974) (with music by Gary William Friedman) and The Neon Woman (1979) starring Divine. According to The New York Times, "Eyen was called the Neil Simon of Off Off Broadway at one point when he had four plays running simultaneously." Eyen wrote the song "Ode to a Screw" with Peter Cornell for the 1971 Miloš Forman film Taking Off".
In 1973, Eyen co-wrote the book for and directed one of Broadway's most notorious flops, the Paul Jabara disco musical Rachael Lily Rosenbloom (And Don't You Ever Forget It), which closed after seven previews. The lead character, a flamboyant entertainer, had been inspired by Midler, who nevertheless passed on the role. Following this setback, Eyen began to commute to Los Angeles to write for television. He contributed scripts to the 1976-78 ground-breaking evening soap opera parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, produced by Norman Lear. In 1978, he earned an Emmy Award nomination for writing Bette Midler's first television special, Ol' Red Hair is Back.
Eyen's campy-disturbing send-up of women's prison exploitation movies, Women Behind Bars, became a major off-Broadway hit in 1975, first with Pat Ast, and then with Divine, playing the lead role of the sadistic matron in drag. The New York Times called it "an extraordinarily interesting work from one of America's most innovative and versatile playwrights." He followed up on this success with The Neon Woman, another off-Broadway play starring Divine in 1978.
In 1980, Eyen directed a film version of The Dirtiest Show In Town for the cable network Showtime, making it the first "made for cable" television movie, featuring John Wesley Shipp.
Eyen and Krieger first worked together on the 1975 musical version of Eyen's revue The Dirtiest Show in Town, called The Dirtiest Musical in Town. Nell Carter's performance in that musical inspired Eyen and Krieger to craft a musical about a black singing trio, which they workshopped for Joe Papp with Carter, Sheryl Lee Ralph and Loretta Devine but shelved in 1978 when Carter took a role in a soap opera. A year later, the project caught the interest of Broadway director-producer Michael Bennett, who asked Eyen to direct a workshop production of Big Dreams, as the musical was then known, with Sheryl Lee Ralph, Loretta Devine and gospel singer Jennifer Holliday as Carter's replacement. However, Holliday left the project, unhappy that her character died at the conclusion of the first act. After several workshops and numerous rewrites, Bennett decided that he needed Holliday, and the team rewrote act two to build up Holliday's character.
Produced on Broadway in 1981, Dreamgirls' was the biggest success of Eyen's career. It was nominated for thirteen Tony Awards, including two for Eyen: Best Book and, as lyricist, Best Original Score. The show won six Tonys, including Best Book. It also earned Eyen a Drama Desk Award nomination for Outstanding Lyrics. The original cast album won Eyen a Grammy Award as lyricist, and one of the show's songs, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going", sung by Holliday, became a top hit.
When a film adaptation of Dreamgirls by writer/director Bill Condon was released in 2006 by DreamWorks and Paramount Pictures, the soundtrack became a number one hit, and two of Eyen's songs from the soundtrack, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going", sung by Jennifer Hudson, and "One Night Only", sung by Beyoncé Knowles (credited as Deena Jones & The Dreams), became hits again. To promote the film's release, DreamWorks and the licensee of the musical, The Tams-Witmark Music Library, paid the licensing fees for all non-professional stage performances of Dreamgirls for 2006. As a result, more than fifty high schools, colleges, and community theaters staged productions of Dreamgirls in 2006.
Eyen's 1984 attempt to duplicate his Dreamgirls success with Kicks:The Showgirl Musical, a collaboration with composer Alan Menken about members of the Rockettes during World War II, never made it past the workshop stages, though individual numbers from the show are often performed in concert.
Eyen died of AIDS-related complications in Palm Beach, Florida at the age of 50. A memorial service was held at the St. James Theatre in New York City on September 23, 1991. In 1993, he posthumously received the Jerome Lawrence & Robert E. Lee Theatre Research Institute Award at The Ohio State University, where his papers are archived.
During this time, openly gay artists were writing and presenting their work without the interference of mainstream producers, managers, or curators. This new wave of theater, film, and art emerged in urban areas with thriving lesbian and gay communities. Caffe Cino, a Greenwich Village coffee house founded by Joe Cino, was the first off-off-Broadway theater. Joe Cino began by producing dramatic readings, but soon moved to presenting works by homosexual writers such as Oscar Wilde, Thornton Wilder, William Inge, and Terence Rattigan in ways that brought out their coded subtext. The radicalism of Caffe Cino and other companies that followed—Judson Poets’ Theater, Ridiculous Theater Company in 1964, the Cockettes in San Francisco in 1968, and New York’s Hot Peaches in 1969—was in presenting plays with explicit gay content in an openly gay environment. Major American playwrights such as Robert Patrick, Al Carmines, Lanford Wilson, Tom Eyen, Charles Ludlam, Jean-Claude van Itallie, and William M. Hoffman all emerged from this setting. --Bronski, Michael (2011-05-10). A Queer History of the United States (Revisioning American History) (Kindle Locations 4151-4158). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.Further Readings:
Caffe Cino: The Birthplace of Off-Off-Broadway (Theater in the Americas) by Wendell C. Stone
Paperback: 264 pages
Publisher: Southern Illinois University Press; 1st edition (June 8, 2005)
Amazon: Caffe Cino: The Birthplace of Off-Off-Broadway
“It’s Magic Time!” That colorful promise began each performance at the Caffe Cino, the storied Greenwich Village coffeehouse that fostered the gay and alternative theatre movements of the 1960s and launched the careers of such stage mainstays as Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, Robert Heide, Harry Koutoukas, Robert Patrick, Robert Dahdah, Helen Hanft, Al Pacino, and Bernadette Peters. As Off-Off-Broadway productions enjoy a deserved resurgence, theatre historian and actor Wendell C. Stone reopens the Cino’s doors in this vibrant look at the earliest days of OOB.
Rife with insider interviews and rich with evocative photographs, Caffe Cino: The Birthplace of Off-Off-Broadway provides the first detailed account of Joe Cino’s iconic café theatre and its influence on American theatre. A hub of artistic innovation and haven for bohemians, beats, hippies, and gays, the café gave a much-sought outlet to voices otherwise shunned by mainstream entertainment. The Cino’s square stage measured only eight feet, but the dynamic ideas that emerged there spawned the numerous alternative theatre spaces that owe their origins to the risky enterprise on Cornelia Street.
Queer Theatre and the Legacy of Cal Yeomans by Robert A. Schanke
Hardcover: 262 pages
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan; 1 edition (July 15, 2011)
Amazon: Queer Theatre and the Legacy of Cal Yeomans
A forgotten yet award-winning playwright, Cal Yeomans was one of the founders of gay theatre whose work was fueled by gay liberation and extinguished by the AIDS epidemic. Exploring both sex and sexuality so candidly, he burst the boundaries of what was considered acceptable. His writings were not only manifestations of the sexual liberation of the times, but were also attempts to overcome what he had been raised to despise. Schanke's examination of Yeomans' life and legacy allows a rare exploration into the pivotal moment of gay American history between the Stonewall riots and the AIDS epidemic.
Not in Front of the Audience: Homosexuality on Stage by N. De Jongh
Paperback: 236 pages
Publisher: Routledge (May 14, 1992)
Amazon: Not in Front of the Audience: Homosexuality on Stage
A pioneering study of the theatre's treatment of homosexuals and homosexuality from the 1920s to the present day. Only in the 60s did theatres confront heterosexual prejudice and in the wake of AIDS, the issue is once again highly charged.
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