When Lara Teeter says he has "some really hot women" for Fullerton Civic Light Opera's upcoming revival of "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," he's not pandering so much as striking a blow for freedom of expression.
Teeter, a prize-winning Broadway performer who is directing the show, has had to cut some of the vulgar words from the script because "the producers are worried they're going to get letters about the language." Therefore, he adds, "I intend to make sure that the letters they get are about the women."
Having appeared in the original Broadway production, the 39-year-old director has a special affection for "Best Little Whorehouse." He maintains that Larry King, who co-wrote the script with Peter Masterson, "would have a fit" if he knew about the cuts.
"I'm sure he would say, 'If you don't like the words, don't do the show,' " Teeter asserts. "Part of me feels that way, too. So I'm making the women really sexy. If I can't have one, I'll have the other. I'm going to give the audience something to look at."
Jan Duncan, the light opera's co-producer and artistic director, justifies toning down the language for this production, which will run tonight through July 31 in Fullerton's Plummer Auditorium, strictly as a concession to patrons whose conservative sensibilities might be offended by four-letter words.
"You know what our audience is like here," she said. "We didn't change any of the four-letter words in 'A Chorus Line,' and we got bombarded. We had all kinds of hate mail. We have people who thought 'Zorba' was too sexy. They thought John Raitt (who played Zorba) was 'fornicating' on stage with an old lady. I received a complaint about 'live sex' on stage in 'Oklahoma.' Live sex?
"We may get tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail for this show."
Apparently they're willing to take their lumps over some saucy costuming.
Because the troupe presumed that many of its roughly 8,000 subscribers would have scant tolerance for risque material, it advertised "Best Little Whorehouse" in a season brochure as "adult entertainment" and made the production an optional offering "for the brave and daring."
About a third of the season ticket-holders chose not to subscribe to the show, which certainly bears out the accuracy of that presumption. But it also means the two-thirds who did subscribe are a self-selected group willing to take their chances on being offended.
In fact, "Best Little Whorehouse" has been "one of the top 10 shows our audience would like to see ever since we started balloting years ago," Duncan said. "And last year it was third on the list."
Why, given the support of such a solid majority, is the company running scared? Because the conservative minority is not just vocal in its opposition to fare it dislikes; it is also a loyal audience for shows it likes, going back a long way with the light opera.
Because a small shift in audience loyalty is all it takes to make the difference between success and failure at the box office, Duncan and her co-producer husband, Griff, maintain they can't afford to alienate the minority.
Accordingly, their programming choices tend to take the path of least resistance.
Teeter understands all that but intends to challenge the audience anyway. Even without four-letter words, he notes, this revival of "Whorehouse" will make its point.
He worked closely with costume designer Mela Hoyt-Heydon for the look of the show and took ideas from Playboy and Vargas, the master of sultry drawings of partially clad women.
"Mela really gave me what I want," Teeter said. "I want to see some of those bodies. I want to see those long legs and still make it Texas fun. We stayed true to the period, bell-bottoms and halter tops, that kind of thing. But we did a little Vargas. We did a little bit of lingerie, a little bit of leather.
"There was a Playboy edition that came out with all these girls in chaps and Texas wear. We picked out certain things that were really delicious-looking. And we put some girls up there who look delicious. There's one girl who likes leather. I sort of stepped on the line with her. But for me, that's where the focus is in this production."
The show, which originated off-Broadway in 1978 and ran for more than 1,500 performances on Broadway, is based on a real incident in the history of a famous Texas brothel dubbed the Chicken Ranch (because Depression-era customers were allowed to pay with poultry).
Dating back to the 1840s, the Chicken Ranch was an accepted institution catering to clients from all walks of life. In 1973, however, a television preacher went on a crusade against it with his vigilante-style "Watch Dogs" and managed to close it down.
"The Chicken Ranch was a very respectable place," Teeter said. "There was no alcohol allowed. They had old-fashioned values. It was a very clean joint, so to speak. But you can't get around the fact that it was a whorehouse.
"What you get from the show is an inside look at these girls and their dreams. You get a real cross-section of ethics and morals, what's right and what's wrong. It succeeds in showing that whores are people, too."
Teeter, a native Oklahoman and the son of a Methodist minister, landed his first job on Broadway in the dance chorus of "Best Little Whorehouse" as one of the Aggie football players serviced by the Chicken Ranch. (He describes himself as an eccentric dancer who can act and sing.)
Several seasons later, he won an Outer Circle Critics Award and a Tony Award nomination as best featured player in a musical for his performance in a George Abbott revival of "On Your Toes." (Teeter re-created the role of Junior Dolan, which was originated by Ray Bolger in 1936.)
"I feel blessed that I got to work for Mr. Abbott on that show," he said, referring to the 107-year-old director-producer-writer. "He was 97 years old when he directed me, and he had more energy than everybody in the room."
Teeter, who now teaches musical theater at Cal State Fullerton, has starred for the Los Angeles Opera Company as Will Parker in "Oklahoma" and has played a variety of key roles for New York City Opera (Herman in "The Most Happy Fella" and Silas Slick in "Naughty Marietta").
Though Teeter won't be performing in Fullerton's "Best Little Whorehouse," he predicts that the big Aggie number, which brought down the house on Broadway and earned Tommy Tune a Tony for choreography, will do it again in Fullerton.
"We're restaging his original choreography for that," Teeter said. "It's a guaranteed show-stopper."
Eileen Barnett of "Knots Landing" fame, who starred on Broadway in "Nine," will play Miss Mona, the ranch's madam. Darrell Sandeen, who also has major Broadway and television credits, will play Sheriff Dodd. And B. W. Wiff, last seen with the light opera company as Pappy Finn in "Big River," will play "Watchdog" Thorpe, the televangelist preacher.
"One thing I learned from Tommy Tune is to surround yourself with people who are better than you are," Teeter said. "I've got some really hot women in this show. That's what I wanted, and that's what I've got."
* Fullerton Civic Light Opera's "The Best Little Whorehouse" runs today through July 31 at Plummer Auditorium, 220 E. Chapman Ave, Fullerton. $13-$26. (714) 879-1732.