A musical about porn that manages to entertain while making you laugh, think and, yes, sometimes get teary-eyed? It's a tall order, but "Pretty Filthy," billing itself as "a new musical about the other Hollywood," pulls it off with aplomb, using lyrics and verbatim dialogue based on  interviews with people in the porn world, including porn stars and porn directors.

Several years ago, principles from the Civilians, an investigative theater troupe, went to the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, California, for a couple months to interview the subjects who became the composite characters for their current staging of "Pretty Filthy." Director Steve Cosson, composer and lyricist Michael Friedman, Bess Wohl, who wrote the book, and a few additional interviewers sat in on porn shoots and hung out and talked with those in the industry, capturing their stories, in their words, for "Pretty Filthy."

Since 2001, the Civilians, founded by Cosson, who serves as the troupe's artistic director, have created bold productions that examine ways in which theater can reflect and engage with the world around it. The troupe has been described by New York Magazine as "social theater at its best" and by the New Yorker as "top-notch journalists." The Civilians have even restored one New York Times reviewer's faith in "the ability of theater artists to engage meaningfully with the world, here and now."

International Business Times talked to Cosson.

IBTimes: Why did you choose the porn world as the setting for your musical?

Steve Cosson: The Los Angeles Center Theater Group had some funding, and they were really up for commissioning a Civilians project, which is a significant investment. They essentially said, "Hey, we want to commission a new show. Come back to us with ideas." Michael Friedman and I were out there.

I talked to a few of my friends who were in L.A., and I said, "We should do something that’s here in Los Angeles that fits the bill of a Civilians subject, which is something that is meaningful, important, influential and also underexplored in terms of theater -- typically not a subject you encounter in theater. There was one big answer to all of that: porn.

IBTimes: Porn stars call nonporn stars "civilians." It's funny that your theater company is also called the Civilians.

Cosson: The initial inspiration for the name was old showbiz slang. People in vaudeville or old-school showbiz who will refer to people outside of the business as civilians. I’ve heard it used by models and I’ve heard it used by porn people. In a sense, that’s what the name is meant to connote. I’m not sure if most people know that.

PF08(c)Richard_Termine The "cougar" and the starlet. In the porn world, both are welcome. Luba Mason (left) and Alyse Alan Louis star in "Pretty Filthy." Photo: Richard Termine

IBTimes: So, you were actually on porn shoots.

Cosson: Oh yeah, we saw it happen. To do the research, there was a team of us: Me; Michael Friedman, the composer; Bess Wohl, the writer; and a small group of interviewers who worked with us. We essentially split up and did several interviews a day. Different people went to different sets. Cumulatively, for the whole project, we probably visited between 15 and 20 sets. And I went to about five.

IBTimes: Why a musical? What does it lend to the subject and characters to have the characters' speech set to music?

CossonLots of our shows have music in them. The majority of the shows, more are full-fledged musical. This one is a full-fledged musical.

There’s all sorts of reasons to explore a subject through music. One of them is that it can access an emotional truth inside a subject or character or story in a way which is perhaps more visceral or engages the audience in a different way. Hearing something sung as opposed to spoken opens you up in a certain way.

Especially in works like this where we’re portraying real people to an audience who don’t know people like this in real life. Perhaps there’s a certain gap between audience and the people portrayed onstage. When their story or point of view is conveyed in song, it’s hard not to just take it in. It can close up that gap. Not that it has to be sung to do that, but it’s effective.

IBTimes: It gave it a playfulness, too.

Cosson: Adult entertainers are showbiz people. What they do is a kind of entertainment. We think of our show as in a tradition of any number of backstage musicals or musicals about performers where you want show people to put on a show, to sing, perform.

In this show, we can’t really have our characters do the kind of show they do, which is porn, so the singing and musical numbers stand in for that. Not that all the songs are about sex, but some of them, in the overall experience of it, you get the entertainment and the larger-than-life quality of the porn world, but translated into musical theater world.

PF07(c)Richard_Termine Actor Steve Rosen as a certain high-profile porn agent who says he's referred to by his clients as "Jew Hefner," like a Jewish mom, but a man. Photo: Richard Termine

IBTimes: Were there any musicals that inspired you or that you had in mind?

Cosson: Once we had a draft and made revisions, we’d talk about these classical musicals about performers as touchstones: "A Chorus Line," "Gypsy," or "Cabaret." And sometimes you talk about them to see why something’s working or not working in your show.

IBTimes: Talk about your incorporation of people's verbatim speech in your plays. 

Cosson: I started working this way with Les Waters, my graduate school professor. He conveyed the way of working with a theater company called Joint Stock, which was active in London in the '70s and '80s. Les shared their techniques, philosophies and ways of working. And that’s what inspired me when I thought about having a theater company of my own and what to do with it.

IBTimes: Is it all verbatim speech? Modified verbatim speech? It felt intimate and authentic.

Cosson: It depends on the show. A great deal of 'Pretty Filthy' is verbatim. It’s also very adapted. We fictionalized some of it order to have a tighter group of characters for the audience to follow, and to give storylines and arcs. To make it a more unified experience. But almost everything from the show that’s real content comes from someone’s mouth.

IBTimes: I have to ask this: Did you interview porn star agent Mark Spiegler?

Cosson: We did. Yes. We didn’t identify in our interviews who comes from who. For the ones who weren’t anonymous we’ll say who we interviewed, but that’s as far as we’ll go.

IBTimes: Has anyone you interviewed seen the musical?

Cosson: We’d love to do the show in Los Angeles. It will be a lot easier for those in the adult industry to see it. I know a lot of them would like to.

IBTimes: Your tagline is "the other Hollywood." What’s the biggest difference between Hollywood and the porn world?

Cosson: I don’t really know how things work in Hollywood, but I now know really well how things in the porn world work! The question that was very much alive in the porn world was: Precisely how are we going to make money in the work we’re doing? In Hollywood, there are similar questions about how content becomes monetized and how to work and live in such a fast-changing landscape. Mainstream Hollywood has lots more options for how to make money than the porn world. What has been going on in the porn world is probably more parallel in music or journalism. It's now everywhere, and it's more accessible and everyone’s seeing it and using it. But, the people who are making it are not getting paid. And these things are happening at the same time.

PF10(c)Richard_Termine Porn parodies are a thing in the world of porn films -- pictured: a scene in "Pretty Filthy" featuring a "Star Trek" porn parody with cast members (left to right) Steve Rosen, Marrick Smith (red), Jared Zirelli (yellow) and John Behlmann. Photo: Richard Termine

IBTimes: Did you have preconceived notions about the porn industry that your visits and talks dispelled? Or something interesting you learned that you can share?

Cosson: Before I went out there, I rented and watched about five documentaries about porn. I watched some TV interviews with Diane Sawyer -- interesting to watch -- Diane Sawyer made Belladonna cry! But that’s why Diane Sawyer gets the big money. I watched a bunch to get a handle on the subject and what’s interesting about it and where I might come in.

I was worried, because everything I watched was really boring! And particularly these performers seemed to give these really canned answers, and they seemed by and large to be not so thoughtful, not so interesting, not so introspective. What everybody thinks about them -- that they’re blonde, have fake boobs, shallow, boring and pretty people -- that was the big fear. 

The big surprise was that, in fact, the vast majority of people were really interesting to talk to. Most makers of porn documentaries are just not making very good documentaries. As a result, what you see on film, a TV interview or whatever is porn people giving the PR version of themselves. Which is part of their jobs, but it’s a fiction. The advantage that I think we have as a theater company is that we’re not filming them. In many cases, it can be anonymous. It’s more like, we’re going to hang out in your kitchen and talk for three hours.

You have to spend the time to knock around in a world long enough to figure out who to talk to. I just think there were so many engaging personalities, so many people with interesting perspectives on life, and really funny. Another thing about porn vs. Hollywood that I read about a lot -- that of all the people in the entertainment businesses, porn people are the nicest and most down-to-earth and friendly and accessible. And I thought that was totally true.

IBTimes: "Pretty Filthy" is running until March 1 at The Abrons Arts Center in New York City. It’s getting great reviews. What’s next for this musical?

Cosson: Right now we don’t know what the next step is. We hope there will be one. We hope the show can continue to run and happen in other cities.

IBTimes: It would be great to see it on Broadway.

Cosson: Anything’s possible!