There Is No Greater Act of Love

A lot of actors tell me that when they play a villain, it's very important for them not to judge the character, just to understand him as much as possible, his worldview, his motivations, his past; then play him as honestly as possible, from the inside. I think the same is true for me with Jerry Springer the Opera, and by extension, The Jerry Springer Show on TV. If I were to come at this show, looking down on Springer and his guests, it would end up a very different production.

And I would be no better than the religious dolts sending us mindless angry emails (only four so far), in which they protest things they've made up, that aren't even in the show...

The opera's writers are alternately saying pretty serious things and telling us not to take this all too seriously. It's the ultimate ironic meta musical. But this is no simplistic frat joke (I'm looking at you, [title of show]), and these writers are no lightweights. As ridiculous and outrageous as the show is, it is also remarkably subtle in many ways.

The real artistry of the show is in how Acts II and III raise the trivialities of Act I to mythic proportions, while simultaneously bringing these mythic Bible characters down to relatable, human size.

I once heard someone say that the secret to all of HBO's dramatic series is that while most TV series show us the extraordinary in the ordinary (i.e., preternaturally witty children, alien house guests, etc.), HBO series show us the ordinary in the extraordinary (i.e., the family pressures of a mafia boss or a bigamist, family life in a mortuary, daily life in a maximum security prison). Traditional TV shows tell us these people look like you, but they're not really like you. HBO shows tell us these people may not look like you, but we're really all the same. 

Likewise, Jerry Springer the Opera tells us in the end that we're all the same, mortal or divine, resident of Heaven or Hell, Catholic or Protestant, Christian or atheist, aspiring pole dancer or tranny. And I think it also suggests that there's more truth and more wisdom out there than can be found in human religion, which is by definition as flawed as its creators.

In fact, in one of the moments in the show that drives angry Catholics crazy is when God sings to Jerry, "Sit in Heaven beside me, hold my hand and guide me." The implication is clear, God needs Jerry's help too. Only Jerry can save mankind. It does not imply that Jerry is God, as some idiots have claimed, but it does imply that Jerry may be wiser and less emotional than God is.

And honestly, after all God's bullshit and temper tantrums in the Old Testament, maybe Jerry is wiser than God. Jerry never told a father to kill his son. Jerry never made up arbitrary, impossible-to-follow rules with horrible consequences. Jerry never drowned all of humanity...

Still, sometimes I wish that all the people who get upset over this show could just see some of Act III in Hell. Yes, some of the language would bother them and some of the jokes too, but maybe they'd see the bigger picture. Act III of Jerry Springer the Opera does for the characters in the Bible what 1776 did for the real people who founded our country. What I love most about 1776 is how real and flawed and contradictory these men are, and how difficult it was for them to bring together so many different kinds of people with so many opinions, all into this single great experiment in self-governance. 1776 teaches us the real lesson of history -- we are the people who move us forward. Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin weren't superhuman, and their superhuman feat is all the more magnificent and inspiring because they weren't.

Likewise, Jerry Springer the Opera takes characters from the Bible, who are little more than cardboard cutouts to many people, gives them full emotional lives, and lets them air their legitimate grievances. Why did "one little apple" have to lead to a life of misery? What an arbitrary and unfair test! And why did Jesus have to go through the horror of the crucifixion in order to redeem mankind? Why didn't God just redeem us without torturing his child? After all, God's the one who makes all the rules, isn't he...?

There's an amazing moment in Hedwig when Tommy questions these things...
What [Jesus] was saving us from was his fucking father. What kind of god creates Adam in his image and then pulls Eve out of him to keep him company? And then tells them not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge? He was so micromanaging! And so was Adam! But Eve... Eve just wanted to know shit. She took a bite of the apple, and she found out what was good and what was evil. Then she gave it to Adam, so he would know, because they were in love.

And that was good, they now knew...!

It all comes back to good and evil.

The one line in the show that may be the hardest to take for religious folks is when Mary enters and the Hell audience of demons and dead people sings, "Raped by an angel, raped by an angel, raped by an angel, raped by God." Now, let's admit it right off, you know the writers put that there mostly for its shock value. And even to me, that's pretty shocking. That word, like many in this show, yanks the audience out of the story as they react to hearing it.

But authors Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee clearly want that. They want to yank you out of your comfort with these ancient stories, to confront the implied questions here. But the point isn't really about rape; the point is how arbitrary most religious doctrine is. Why did God have to impregnate Mary, i.e., why did Jesus have to come to earth as a human, i.e., why did he have to be tortured and crucified in order to redeem us? If you believe all that really happened 2,000 years ago, these four lines in the show force you to confront the arbitrary nature of all these stories. And that really bothers some people.

So what's the bigger point of all this?

Well, first, much of the fun in Act III comes from the comic juxtaposition of these weighty, mythic Bible characters with their petty bitching. But more importantly, it makes a bold statement about The Jerry Springer Show itself, something I believe myself – the guests on Springer's show aren't The Other; they are us. Their problems are just like our problems in most regards. We've all experienced the emotions that are the lingua franca of SpringerWorld, just probably not to that extreme degree. And most of us wouldn't take it on TV.

By taking these ancient archetypes and placing their relationships and conflicts in modern terms, the writers of our opera both illuminate (dare I say, humanize?) these characters and also shine light on our own contemporary lives. Which, after all, is the whole point of human storytelling.

Ultimately, the overriding message of the show is Jerry's last line: "So until next time, take care of yourselves. And each other." Why does that sound familiar...?
"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

"Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others." (Philippians 2:3-4)

"Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you." (Ephesians 4:32)

Yes, that's right, Jerry Springer the Opera is more Christian than the angry people mindlessly protesting it.

In closing, I want to quote 1776, in which Stephen Hopkins says, "Well, in all my years I ain't never heard, seen, nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn't be talked about. Hell yeah! I'm for debating anything!"

Exactly. We open Friday.

Long Live the Musical!

Nothing is Wrong and Nothing is Right

Well, the protest emails have begun. I guess that's the price of getting good advance press coverage.

... and producing Jerry Springer the Opera.

I'll admit, I'm always baffled by the people who get so mean and so angry in the name of Jesus – though maybe that's because I'm baffled by religion and religious belief in general. It seems that for too many people, turning on Righteous Indignation also turns off the brain.

Though Jerry Springer the Opera is incredibly vulgar and obscene and blasphemous, it's also genuinely uplifting. After all, the message of the show is clear and strangely reassuring:
Energy is pure delight.
Nothing is wrong and nothing is right.
And everything that lives is holy.


Yet what's happening...? People are judging this show without seeing or reading it. They are judging without information, without understanding. They are judging out of fear (and perhaps also reflex).

This whole thing is so much like back in 2007, when the archbishop (briefly) shut down our show, Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll, simply because they could not fathom that a show about those three topics could be intelligent, thoughtful, insightful, revelatory. All they could imagine was smut, smut, and nothing but smut. So they went to court and shut our show down without seeing it or even asking any questions about it. As I wrote in a blog post about this at the time:
And I kept wondering – could all this have happened simply because certain self-appointed moral arbiters can't even conceive that intelligent discussion or serious art could ever come from as foul a well as the triplet demons of Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll? And could it be that their assumptions say far more about them than about us or our show? Here's the crux of the whole drama – in their world view these aren't cultural forces worthy of exploration; no, sex is dirty, drugs are evil, and rock & roll is the devil's music. Of course they would assume a show about these naughty things must ipso facto be a naughty show! And of course, they would assume that everyone else would assume their assumptions were entirely reasonable. Quod erat demonstrandum.

Our Springer situation is clearly parallel – maybe all attempted censorship is parallel. The folks who fear Jerry Springer the Opera cannot conceive that a subversive work of art like this might have something intelligent and worthwhile to say, that it might even have an uplifting, life-affirming message. How quickly would these tiny brains explode if I told them the point of Jerry Springer the Opera is something Jesus himself said:
"Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?" – Jesus, in Matthew 7:1-3

I think all of this is a trap laid by our very clever authors. Here is a show whose central message is Don't Judge. How do you make that message even more potent and/or funnier? Catch the audience in the act of judging and call them on it. We just didn't think people would make it so easy...

We've already gotten two protest emails, apparently from women so unsure of their faith that the mere fact of our show in their city plunges them deep into irrational fear and loathing. Here's the first one:
Good evening:
As a Catholic, I vehemently protest your hosting "Jerry Springer: The Opera." I have read a description of this play and am shocked at its blasphemous representation of things absolutely sacred to my faith and others'. Moreover, your center receives tax dollars!
This production deeply offends God and Catholics. I urge you NOT to host "Jerry Springer: The Opera" and to apologize for scheduling this terrible offense to God's honor.
This play is trash not art!
M------ D------

Speck, meet the Log Lady.

She's upset because apparently she read a blasphemous description of our show (she has antecedent trouble). It doesn't even occur to her that if she doesn't want to see this show, she doesn't have to. The solution to her upset is so simple, though the Easily Outraged never think of that. I also find it amazing that she can speak for God. I'm going to start responding to these emails by writing, "Actually, God has spoken to me about this, and she thinks the show is really funny."

Of course, I'm way more offended that her church gets subsidized by taxpayers, than she is that New Line gets government grants. And for the record, our government grants all went to Bonnie & Clyde, so no tax dollars are being spent on Jerry Springer the Opera.

I'll admit it, we're all in the same game – churches and New Line – telling stories to teach people about themselves and about life. The difference is we don't think Cry-Baby Walker and Leaf Coneybear actually lived.

I couldn't help myself – I had to write back and mock her. So I replied:
Fascinating how you can judge something without seeing or reading it. Are you magic? There's a really easy way to not be offended by it – don't go see it. However, as you know, you don't get to tell other people what they get to see. Many people actually like to think for themselves, whether that scares you or not.

Then we got our second protest email:
I feel that at this present time in our world,with the holocaust of christians,it's in poor taste to show this musical.this production will only bring heartache & financial demise to your company.bad timing,really gauche,very dissappointed [sic].

Apparently this woman is no fan of using spaces after punctuation or spell check. This one helpfully identifies herself as a wacko with the "holocaust of Christians" reference. Note to conservatives – never talk about rape, secession, Hitler, or the Holocaust. You always end up shooting yourselves in the foot. The funniest part of this one is her prediction of "financial demise" for New Line, when our tickets sales are already higher than any recent show except Rent.

Weirdly, the next day we got a third email, a word-for-word copy of the second. So we did a little Googling, and it turns out they're just copying a protest letter against a production of this show in Ohio in 2011, created by a religious group called America Needs Fatima. (No, what America obviously needs is more atheists!)

There's so much in the show that would seriously freak these women out, so I'm glad they won't be coming. Even more than the adult language, even more than the fucked-up religious symbols, I think the thing that would most mindfuck people like this is the message the show leaves us with, that "Nothing is wrong and nothing is right." It's okay to eat pork, handle leather, and pay your employees monthly, even though the Bible says those things are terrible, horrible, no good, very bad things to do.

It's also okay to be gay, which the Bible doesn't really ever address, even though the simple-minded pretend that it does.

Some religious folks will hear this lyric and think it means that there is no such thing as morality. I don't think that's what William Blake meant (in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell), and I don't think that's what the Springer authors meant when they quoted him. I think they meant that nothing is inherently wrong or right, that no single person or source can decide that for each of us. Life is way more complex than that. As much as the Religious Right rages, morality is not fixed.

In India, it's immoral to eat beef; in St. Louis it's not. In Biblical times, husbands "owned" their wives; today that would be called slavery. Even just 60-70 years ago, most American thought it was immoral to marry interracially; today only a small minority still believes that. A hundred and fifty years ago, many people believed it was not just okay but Biblical to own African Americans, and to beat them and lynch them if they misbehaved. Today, only a few dead-enders in the South and the Republican Party still believe that. And likewise, the "morality" of gay marriage has changed drastically for many Americans, just in the last 5-10 years.

Nothing is wrong and nothing is right. And everything that lives is holy.

Yes, even frightened bigots are holy. Even Jerry Springer, and all his guests. Even Satan. In other words, shut the fuck up and keep your eyes on your own paper.

Significantly, quite a few of our actors and musicians are Christians, and they grappled with all this stuff before accepting the gig. In the last couple days, several of them have written quite eloquently about why their faith is not hurt or endangered by our wacky little satire. Perhaps they're more secure in their beliefs than are our rabid email writers...

We open Springer this week and I guess we'll find out soon enough what people think about our show who have actually seen it...

The adventure continues.

Long Live the Musical!

Everything That Lives is Holy

Rehearsals for Jerry Springer the Opera are going really well, and I think I've pretty much figured out every big practical issue that needs figuring out. We're well on our journey. From here out, we just run the whole show at every rehearsal. Our actors will settle into the physicality of the show and then they'll have time to dig down into the interior lives of these characters.

So now my brain turns to more artistic, more esoteric matters, like what's the Big Picture point of Jerry Springer the Opera? Why did Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee write this wildly unique show? It's clearly more than just an elaborate goof. There's real weight tucked away amidst the vulgar, high-energy lunacy.

At one point in Purgatory, Baby Jane tries to save Jerry from going to Hell, by telling Satan:
Wait, Prince of Darkness, punish him not.
Jerry is not to blame.
With or without Jerry's show,
We'd all end up the same.
Men and women, black and white,
Transsexual girls and boys,
The burned and crippled, blind, the maimed.
Distorted, destroyed.
For society has an ugly face,
Contorted, smeared with shit.
Jerry did not make it so.
He merely holds a mirror to it.

It's a legitimate argument, right? Does Jerry create that culture or just pander to it? Or is it really some of both? Satan clearly thinks Jerry controls his guests and his show, but the real Jerry would be the first to admit he's just a ringmaster, not God. In another of the show's quirkier moments, Jerry takes his show back, despite being on enemy turf, and he gives Satan, Jesus, God, and the others a good talking-to, just as he might on his real show:
You're never gonna agree about everything. And what’s so bad about that? Satan, you're never going to get your apology. God, you just don't get a shoulder to cry on. And Jesus, grow up for Christ's sake and put some fucking clothes on. Haven't you people heard of yin and yang, love and hate, attraction and repulsion? It's the human condition we're talking about here.

Energy is pure delight. Nothing is wrong and nothing is right. And everything that lives is holy.

The cast then repeats those last few lines as a chorale. It's a beautiful piece, but it's there for a reason. After an evening of such crazed, vulgar, wackiness, there is a serious point to be made here about it all. We've given the audience two hours of crazy people to look down on, and then we call them on that judgment. Doesn't seem quite fair, does it...? The writers elevate Jerry to wise man here at the end, as he quotes poet William Blake in those last lines. Maybe it's not till this moment that we realize Jerry is the Wise Wizard of a whole bunch of Hero Myth stories in this show. Jerry is Ben Kenobi to all his guests, including Satan. Of course, the Wise Wizard figure doesn't usually survive to the end of the story...

In his Final Thought at the end of Act III, Jerry says, "I've learned that there are no absolutes of good and evil, and that we all live in a glorious state of flux." Nothing is wrong and nothing is right. Life just is. Accept it on its own terms, Jerry's telling us. It's all beautiful. Everything that lives is holy. These people who come on Jerry Springer are not less deserving of our respect or consideration just because they have different values and live different lives from us. Who are we to judge, after all? Dwight, Peaches, Tremont, Montel, Baby Jane, Shawntel, Chucky – they're all "holy" merely because they live, because they're human, because they're here. Because energy – life – is pure delight.

Here in the latter part of the opera, the writers invoke the English poet William Blake and his eighteenth-century work The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (which is also the title of one of the songs in the opera), another literary work in which the author descends into Hell, in imitation of Dante's Inferno. In the show, the cast sings:
Let poets through the ages tell
How Springer united Heaven and Hell.

How did he do that? In Blake's poem and in our opera, Heaven and Hell are united simply by the realization that the bright dividing line between good and evil is arbitrary and doesn't really exist. Jerry unites Heaven and Hell by erasing the line between these artificial constructs, by showing them/us that good and evil are just parts of the same whole. Only Jerry has the wisdom (like the Wizard of Oz) to show us what we already know deep down inside. We are all both Heaven and Hell. To live fully, we must embrace both the Heaven and Hell within each of us.

According to Wikipedia, "Blake's theory of contraries was not a belief in opposites but rather a belief that each person reflects the contrary nature of God, and that progression in life is impossible without contraries. Moreover he explores the contrary nature of reason and of energy, believing that two types of people existed: the 'energetic creators' and the 'rational organizers,' or, as he calls them in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, the 'devils' and 'angels.' Both are necessary to life according to Blake:
Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate are necessary to Human existence. From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy. Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.

Jerry has clearly read Blake.

I think the point of Jerry Springer the Opera is the same as the point of Zorbá, one of my favorite shows, a little-known Kander & Ebb gem, which New Line will produce at some point. The opening song, "Life Is," is a kind of Hal Prince mission statement for the show. Part of the lyric, sung by an anonymous woman "Leader," goes:
Life is what you do while you're waiting to die;
Life is how the time goes by.
Life is where you wait while you're waiting to leave;
Life is where where you grin and grieve.

Having if you're lucky, wanting if you're not,
Looking for the ruby underneath the rot,
Hungry for the pilaf in someone else's pot,
But that’s the only choice you’ve got.

Life is where you stand just before you are flat;
Life is only that, mister,
Life is simply that, mister,
That and nothing more than that.
Life is what you feel till you can't feel at all;
Life is where you fly and fall.

Running for the shelter, naked in the snow,
Learning that a tear drops anywhere you go,
Finding it's the mud that makes the roses grow,
But that's the only choice you know.

Life is what you do while you're waiting to die.
This is how the time goes by...

Kander & Ebb are the masters of the mission statement. Notice that the title of the song, "Life Is," embodies the song's ambivalence. Life is neither good nor bad; it just is.

Many people think Zorbá is depressing, but I think it's utterly joyful, even empowering. I think the point of Jerry Springer the Opera, Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and Zorbá is that you can't be a whole person if you love only the good parts of life. You have to love all of it, the "yin and yang, love and hate, attraction and repulsion" of it. Zorbá teaches Nikos to embrace every bit of life, and that's also what Jerry teaches us, to not divide the world up into good and bad, us and them. Only oppression (like religion, for example) comes from doing that.

We're all "us."

In fact, you might argue that the Springer Megamix ("Finale de Grand Fromage") at the end is more than just superfluous reprises. You might argue that this is when we see that these people have learned Jerry's lesson, and they celebrate their new enlightenment. As they revisit each of the guests' stories in this medley, they find connection there and they celebrate these lives of quiet desperation. They see that we're all crazy, we're all high maintenance, we're all contradictory, we're all vindictive, we're all lonely, we're all confused, we're all weird, and we all just want to be loved. And what a fun way to make that point on the way out...

I should note that the writers wrote this megamix as bows music that's sung, but I think there's an argument to be made that the story is not over until these people celebrate their newfound wisdom and perspective on life. It's no accident that they finish this finale with a verse of "This is Our Jerry Springer Moment" – significantly, the song is no longer called "The is My Jerry Springer Moment." Now it's about this community of misfits who finally see their place in the world and their connection to the rest of us.

I should also note that the script says the entire cast dresses as Jerry for the finale. We've been talking about that. I'm not sure if we'll do that or not. It seems to me if we treat the finale as the end of the story instead of as bows music, then it should be this same community of people who celebrate here. They don't actually become Jerry; they just learn from him.

It strikes me as I write this, that at the beginning of the show, Jerry is the audience's surrogate, our way into the world of the show; but at the end, it's the guests we identify with. Very sneaky.

An interesting (at least, to me) side note to all of this... Sondheim has often said that he prefers writing musicals to operas, partly because he really loves the yin-and-yang interplay between spoken and sung text; and probably unintentionally, Thomas and Lee have written an opera that would satisfy Sondheim. They use that interplay between spoken (only Jerry and Steve) and sung (everybody else, including the studio audience), to place Jerry "outside" the crazy world of these Jerry Springer Show guests. He doesn't sound like the rest of them; he "speaks" a different "language." As in real life, he's just an observer (at least, in Act I). That dichotomy between spoken and sung text is a very effective device, which mirrors the show's central themes, of the duality in everything.

Content dictates form – again, Sondheim would be pleased.

As you can see, Jerry Springer the Opera is insanely funny and outrageous, but it's also a whole lot more than that. And that's really cool.

The adventure continues...

Long Live the Musical!

Going Down with Me

We're in Hell. But in a good way.

Act I of Jerry Springer the Opera was easy to block, as long as I kept the TV show in my head and let that guide me. We're using fewer stage devices than the original in London, just telling the story as straightforwardly as we can. But Act II (well, Acts II and III, really) when we go to Purgatory, then Hell, isn't quite so obvious.

In fact, as we blocked the second half of the show this week, I realized that I didn't like what I had done with Purgatory. As I've already blogged about, the original production(s) was a lot about mocking the conventions of opera, and the show totally works that way, but our production is going to let the text and music take care of that part of the show. Our Act I will feel a lot like the TV show. But as I blocked Purgatory, I fell into a trap. I let the original production get in my head (sometimes that's a good thing, but not in this case), and I staged the Purgatory section like an oratorio, very little movement, very formal, etc. And then I realized what I had done. I had staged Act II sort of like the original, but Acts I and III were totally different.

Our production needs a unity of style that I was short-circuiting.

I realized I had been coming from the video instead of the text. So I stopped doing that. I reoriented that whole section, asking the actors instead to play it less formal and oratorio-ish, and more gothic spooky and haunting, to actually play these dead people, demons, etc, keeping in mind their causes of death of course. in a style as "naturalistic" as it can be (whatever that might mean in terms of ghosts and demons), with no comment on the performance, no overlay of "style" other than what the text and music supply.

I love the luxury that our process affords, that we can totally change our approach to something, with plenty of time still left to explore this new path. Our actors immediately jumped into the altered concept, and it already works better. I don't do that often to our actors, but if I see that we're on the wrong road, we correct that. There's nothing worse than being married to the blocking, whether or not it's working. My ideas don't always work. As long as I'm okay with being wrong sometimes, we'll always find the right road.

Also, while Act I really is just a Jerry Springer Show translated into the language of opera and theatre, Acts II and III, in Purgatory and Hell, are harder to figure out. The first step is figuring out what the writers intended. That's not the only information worth seeking out, but it's really helpful if it's available.

Back in the day, I was a music major in college, largely because I didn't find out until I got there that Harvard lacked a theatre department. I thought every college had a theatre department. But circumstances made me a music major instead and what I learned in those classes turned out to be really valuable to me in my musical theatre work. The more I know or can figure out about a show (especially the score!), the better we will do that show, and the more powerfully our audience will connect with it. That's what first started me writing my theatre books.

I never wanted to take music theory or music history in college, but they both turned out to have real value to me. One lesson I learned during my undergrad years is that you can never learn too much and you can never stop learning; and though those lessons apply to life, they also apply to working on a show. After taking music history and learning about classical opera, suddenly What's Opera, Doc? and The Rabbit of Seville were twice as funny, twice as interesting, and full of little Easter Eggs for those in the know. The more we know about the story we're telling, its context, its symbols, its subtext, its world, its rules, then the richer our performances will be.

Case in point...

A couple weeks ago, I accidentally stumbled upon something awesome. There's a fictional character in Jerry Springer the Opera, the warmup man Jonathan Wierus; and the actor playing Wierus also plays Satan in Acts II and III. I don't know what made me go looking, but I discovered the 16th-century Dutch physician, occultist, and demonologist Johann Weyer (or Wier), whose name in Latin is Ioannes Wierus. According to Wikipedia, he was among the first to publish against the persecution of witches. His most influential work is De Praestigiis Daemonum et Incantationibus ac Venificiis (On the Illusions of the Demons and on Spells and Poisons), 1563.

Also... I've ordered some books about Dante's Inferno, because I notice a similarity between that and our opera. In both, we visit both Hell and Purgatory. In our show, as in Dante's work, a Jerry's punishment is a kind of poetic justice. In Dante, the lustful are punished by being thrown around by a violent storm. The gluttons are rained upon by garbage, and stand in worms decomposing the mess. The greedy and the spendthrifts are forced to push stones against each other, each telling the other that they handle money badly. The angry and the sullen are put on the bank of the river Styx to forever fight in the mud. The violent are made to boil in blood, and shot by arrows if they rise up higher than they should. The flatterers are burned in shit. You see how it works...

In our show, the poetic justice is that Jerry has to do his show for the first time in which his stakes are the high ones, not his guests, and where someone else (or maybe no one) is in control. The writers of Jerry Springer the Opera seem to agree with Sartre, that Hell is other people. Why hasn't anyone made No Exit into a musical yet...?

Again, from Wikipedia... Inferno (Italian for Hell) is the first part of Dante Alighieri's 14th-century epic poem Divine Comedy. It is followed by Purgatorio and Paradiso. It is an allegory telling of the journey of Dante through Hell, guided by the dead Roman poet Virgil. Likewise, in Jerry Springer the Opera, Jerry arrives in Hell, and is guided by Baby Jane, the dead adult baby. In the poem, Hell is depicted as nine circles of suffering located within the Earth. Allegorically, the Divine Comedy represents the journey of the soul towards God, with the Inferno describing the recognition and rejection of sin.

I wonder if there's more to learn about this show from other operas about Hell, like Orfeo...? I see that there are some overt references to William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell late in the show as well.

Of course, we have to decide if Jerry actually goes to Hell or is it all in his head? We could probably play it either way, but it makes (marginally) more sense if it's all in his head. After all, we have the Wizard of Oz thing going here, where the characters in the fantasy world look a whole lot like the characters in the "real world." Plus the show returns at the end of Act III to a moment at the end of Act I, implying that all of Acts II and II didn't actually happen. But in our opera, the writers go even further, with Adam and Eve singing pretty much exactly what Chucky and Shawntel sang in Act I, and much the same for others. A lot of musical themes and melodies return in Acts II and III, often in altered form, to connect the fantasy world back to the real world, further suggesting that this is all a hallucination in the moments before Jerry dies.

And maybe also suggesting that Jerry's regular TV show is already pretty Hellish, so though Hell itself might be worse, it's not a whole lot worse.

And how does the usually unflappable Jerry Springer react to waking up in Hell? Do we play the melodrama or do we consciously underplay Jerry in the second half, keeping him that same, easy-going, Zen-like ringmaster from Act I...? Again, either one probably works. I think we're gonna try keeping him calm and easy, even amidst the insanity of Hell, creating a comic dissonance that comments both on Springer himself and the career he's forged, but also on the Springer audience and guests. It doesn't take much to turn them into denizens of Hell...

So much to think about. We've blocked the whole show now, and we move into the theatre this weekend. It will be so nice to get on our set and to get the music out of the actors' hands. Then the really fun, interesting work can begin.

The adventure continues.

Long Live the Musical!

Pimps in Bad Suits, Mothers Who Are Prostitutes

I've realized as I've been blocking Jerry Springer the Opera that my job this time is to Get Out of the Way. This is such dense text, often with laughs coming every few words. Any complex staging or gimmicky stage pictures will take focus away from this brilliant text and the genuinely funny musical jokes. So a lot of my job this time is just about planning ahead and traffic control.

You might not be surprised to hear that I don't want to approach the show the same way the original production did. I see it somewhat differently.

In this show, words reign over all. The language, the jokes, and the references come fast and furiously. So my number one task is to make everything as clear as possible, to help the audience navigate these crazy stories through our staging. One important part of that is to keep it simple. Clarity rarely rides along with complexity.

Boil them down, and all three segments in Act I are basic, archetypal stories, though slightly askew. Dwight's segment is just a simple story of boy meets girl, and girl, and "girl," boy loses girls. Montel's segment is  a story of being coupled to the wrong person, de-coupling from them, and re-coupling to someone else. Same as A Little Night Music, Cry-Baby, Bat Boy, Little Shop... And Shawntel's segment is essentially the story of the struggle for women's rights over the last 50 years.

We already knew our production would be scaled down from the massive productions in London, but as often happens to me, I find I like the show better without all the bullshit. The more tech you heap on a show, the less of the show you get to see, the less human the experience becomes.

The original production was a massive, overblown spectacle, as part of the meta-joke that this nasty, "common" content is being treated as grand opera. But as is often the case with us, we're coming at the show slightly differently. Instead of making fun of opera conventions, we're gonna follow the lead of Little Shop, Bat Boy, and Urinetown – and know that the more straight-faced we play it, the funnier it gets. Personally, I think they overplayed it in London. The second the audience feels effort in comedy, it becomes less funny. I think Jerry Springer the Opera should be played the way the British play Gilbert & Sullivan: the wackier the content, the straighter they play it. They let the words do the work, and they don't try to pile on the rich, laugh-packed text.

Sure, some of our performances will be over the top, because these characters live over-the-top lives (I'm lookin' at you, Montel), but even this early in rehearsal, I'm happy to see the performances aren't going to be superficial or cartoony. We have to come at this as if these are real people, though they may be living in an admittedly extreme world. Like we would with any of the great neo musical comedies, we're taking the comedy super-seriously, and that makes it utterly hilarious.

Rather than mock the conventions of opera with this content, as the original productions did, I want the ridiculous coupling of this form and this content to speak for itself, without our imposing our own commentary on top of that. We do not need to make this show funny; it's plenty funny on its own. I want to present The Jerry Springer Show as an opera because it already is one, just without the music. The emotions and drama and stakes are already that high. I want to present The Jerry Springer Show as an opera because I think that reveals so much about the show and the culture that has embraced it (even while condemning it) for so long. I don't think this show is just some elaborate joke, though it is incredibly fucking funny. I think this show is a really smart and insightful social commentary. You can ignore that part of it and still be wildly entertained, but there are real guts to this show.

As we block this crazy opera, I find that our actors are sitting down a lot. And some of them clearly would like to be moving more. (Most actors have a constant fear of being boring.) The way we're coming at this thing, I'm trying to stage this as much like the TV show as is practical, to the point of being almost naturalistic some of the time. I think about how a moment would happen physically on the TV show, then translate that as directly as possible to our stage. And even this early in rehearsals, I can see that this approach really works. These characters are delivering so much information, and the way to get the audience to really listen is to give them less to look at.

I learned from the great ones – Bob Fosse, Hal Prince, Michael Bennett – that sometimes a great solo should be totally still. Think of Elaine Stritch sitting in that chair for all of "The Ladies Who Lunch" until the she stands for the series of "Rise!" at the end. Saving the standing up till the end makes it so much more powerful, almost like all that self-loathing has been simmering under the surface all throughout this long song, until at last it boils over at the end, and she has no choice but to rise herself. After all, she's been singing about herself the whole song anyway, so her demand to "Rise" is to herself as much as to anyone else. Any more staging to that song would have diminished it.

The same is true of Barney Martin's iconic performance of "Mr. Cellophane" in Fosse's original Chicago, almost still the entire song, with just small, minimalist gestures here and there. Just as "Mr. Cellophane" was based on Bert Williams' signature song "Nobody" from the 1906 musical Abyssinia, Fosse also based the staging on Williams' famous original performance. In this case, the restraint in staging focuses the audience on the lyric and its emotion, and it also conveys the idea of timidity, of almost literal nothingness. As Sondheim says, Content Dictates Form. The lyric becomes the staging. (To see New Line's recreation of Fosse's recreation of William's staging, from New Line's production of Chicago in 2002, click here.)

On the other hand...

One of the hallmarks of The Jerry Springer Show is chaos. On his show and in our opera, most of the characters are agents of chaos. You never see what's coming, except that you know it will be chaos. Sometimes that chaos is emotional, sometimes it's narrative, and sometimes it's physical. The writers of the opera do an amazing job of creating that chaos in the words and in the music (and it's tough to do chaos this well in music). So in parallel to what I said above, I just have to follow the text, and have the actors move only when the text requires it. The writing is really good and really well paced, so all I have to do is keep up.

It's important that we end the first act with a lot of visual chaos (including some special guest agents of chaos, who I won't name in case you haven't seen the show), because the second act (in Purgatory) is very different, much more still, almost more an oratorio, though again, slightly askew. The wilder the end of the first act is, the richer that contrast will be, and the more of an effect it will have on the audience.

Then in Act III, as Springer does his show in Hell, we essentially return to the staging of Act I. Though here in Hell, Springer doesn't control everything, as he did in Act I. It's a different Jerry here, less confident, less in control, less detached, less bemused. Now the high stakes are Jerry's, not the guests, and that changes everything. I haven't blocked Act III yet, but I need to find a balance between the style of Act I and this darker, creepier mood in Act III.

As is often the case with our shows, Jerry Springer the Opera is like no other piece of theatre you've ever seen. Which is a big part of the fun of exploring it and figuring out what makes it tick. At first, I wasn't even sure exactly what it was I love so much about it. But now I'm feeling much more comfortable; I do know how this thing works, and I know we're on the right road.

We finished blocking Act I last night and we will run the whole act for the first time tonight. What a wild ride this has been, and the adventure is only beginning...

Long Live the Musical!

I Want to Sing Something Beautiful

TV Guide called The Jerry Springer Show the worst show in the history of television. In 1995 critic Janice Kaplan wrote in TV Guide that coming on television to tell one’s secret is like “defecating in public.” I'm sure lots of people (most of whom have never seen Springer) would agree. But then why has it been on the air for more than two decades, to such consistently strong ratings?

It's easy to smile smugly and conclude America is just stupid. Talk show host Sally Jesse Raphael famously said, “Nobody wants to watch anything that’s smarmy or tabloid or silly or unseemly – except the audience.”

But America isn't stupid. As I said in my last post, a big part of the appeal is that humans crave narrative. It's how we learn, how we preserve our history and culture, how we share experiences, how we explain ideas, and how we entertain ourselves. Narrative is the primary form of human communication, and the most universal is the narrative of a human life. The Jerry Springer Show offers up two or three narratives every day, human hero myths in miniature. And in those stories, no matter how outrageous (and no matter whether we think the stories are 100% true or not), we see ourselves because we recognize human themes – love, loss, betrayal, lust, revenge, humiliation, despair. We've all felt these things, just maybe not to the extreme degree we see on Springer.

The Jerry Springer Show offers us what Bat Boy, Little Shop of Horrors, Cry-Baby, and Urinetown offer us, exaggerated but truthful human behavior under a magnifying glass. But the exaggeration doesn't obscure the truthful. And notice that, like Springer, all the shows I mentioned are about the Other, the outcasts. As Elayne Rapping wrote in The Progressive, “The people on these shows are an emotional vanguard, blowing the lid off the idea that America is anything like the place Ronald Reagan pretended to live in.”

As we've been learning this music the last couple weeks, I've been following along, thinking a lot about finding my way into this show. Despite its gleefully wicked humor and its monstrous vulgarity, this is also a very serious show, in a crooked kind of way. It looks at a huge, pervasive cultural phenomenon and asks us to think about two things, which happen to be the keys that I think unlock this show for us.

The first question is why would anyone go on The Jerry Springer Show? It's hard enough to understand why the first guest in each segment is there, but at least they're taking power, by choosing the time and place of engagement. But it's almost impossible for most of us to understand the subsequent guests in each segment, the people who don't know why they're there, but for some inexplicable reason, they've agreed to come on The Jerry Springer Show. Surely they know this can't end well.

We've been talking about this in rehearsal as we block the first act.

I found a really cool book called Freaks Talk Back: Tabloid Talk Shows and Sexual Nonconformity, by Joshua Gamson, that speaks directly to this question. Here are a few quotes I find really useful...

On the subversion:

“The interesting thing here is not just that talk shows are seen as a threat to norms and normality – as we will see, they are indeed just that, and the fight is between those who think this is a good thing and those who think it is not – but just who threatens whom here, who is ‘us’ and who is ’them'?”

“In fact, the talk show genre has always operated as an oddball combination of middle-class coffee-klatch propriety and rationality, and working-class irreverence and emotional directness. Talk shows, in a general sense, stretch back to earlier public traditions emerging from different and sometimes opposed, class cultures, and they still operate with the awkward tension between sensation and conversation growing from these roots. Propriety, of course, is not a middle-class property, and working-class and underclass people certainly do not own irreverence and emotion, but the talk show genre is fashioned from particular cultural pieces historically associated with different classes: relatively sober, deliberative, ‘polite’ middle-class forms of participating in and presenting public culture, embodied in literary circles and the lyceum, for instance; and irreverent, wild, predominantly lower-class public leisures, such as the carnival, the cabaret, the tabloid, and the nineteenth-century theatre.”

“Puzzle pieces begin to emerge from these criticisms. How exactly do poverty and lack of education, sex and gender nonconformity, and race come to be lumped together and condemned as monstrosities? What are we to make of these equations? Are they the result of exploitative programming that scripts and markets weird people most of ‘us’ wouldn’t talk to in a supermarket, selling the middle-class audience its own superiority? Are they the result of willful distortions by guardians of middle-class morality and culture, part and parcel of the ongoing ‘culture wars’ in the United States? Are they, as defenders of the genre suggest, the result of a democratization process that threatens those who are used to the privilege of owning and defining public discourse?”

“Silly as they can be, daytime TV talk shows are filled with information about the American environment in which they take root, in which expertise and authenticity and rationality are increasingly problematic, and in which the lines between public and private are shifting so strangely. And they embody that information with Barnumesque gusto. I like what talk shows make us think about.”

“A world of goofy lightness turns out to be heavily enmeshed in complicated, contradictory processes of social change.”

On the people:

“Where critics see ‘freaks’ and ‘trash,’ defenders see ‘have-nots’ and ‘common people’.”

“For people whose life experience is so heavily tilted toward invisibility, whose nonconformity, even when it looks very much like conformity, discredits them and disenfranchises them, daytime TV talk shows are a big shot of visibility and media accreditation. It looks, for a moment, like you own this place.”

“Exploiting the need for visibility and voice, talk shows provide them, in distorted but real, hollow but gratifying ways. They have much to tell about those needs and those contradictions, about the weird and changing public sphere in which people are talking. Just as important, talk shows shed a different kind of light on sex and gender conformity.”

“Social conservatives have been notably unsuccessful at stemming the democratization of culture, the breakdown of those class, sex, and race-bound conventions that once reliably separated high from low, ‘news’ from ‘gossip,’ public from unspeakably private, respectable from deviant.”

“… the paradoxes of visibility that talk shows dramatize with such fury: democratization through exploitation, truths wrapped in lies, normalization though freak show.”

The second big question is why do we watch? I'll admit it, I watch Springer. Even before I knew we were producing the opera. And I like it. But why?

I found another good book, Tabloid Culture: Trash Taste, Popular Power, and the Transformation of American Television, by Kevin Glynn, that helped me with this question. For me, a big part of it is how subversive the show is. Here are some interesting quotes:

“If Reaganism entailed a widespread cultural repression of voices and identities representing social difference, Reaganism's repressed others returned with a vengeance on TV's tabloid talk shows, whose numbers grew impressively from the mid- to late 1980s and exploded spectacularly during the early nineties [around the same time Jonathan Larson was writing Rent, also about society's Others]. By widening both the sense of social distance and the power gap between the haves and the have-nots, and by stepping up the surveillance and policing of alterity, twelve years of Reagan-Bushism intensified already bitter conflicts around social difference. The oft-noted intense conflictuality of U.S. daytime TV talk shows is symptomatic of social conflicts that escalated sharply during the Reagan decade and the Bush years.”

"In October 1995 a moralistic senator from Connecticut, Joseph Lieberman, joined forces with the self-anointed secretary of civic virtue and former Reagan and Bush administration official William Bennett to host a press conference denouncing U.S. daytime TV talk shows as sites of ‘moral rot’ and ‘cultural pollution.’ Although Bennett captured media attention by outing businesses that advertise on talk shows, it was Lieberman who came surprisingly close to theoretical prescience when he observed that the programs unsettle distinctions between the perverse and the normal. Daytime talk shows, staples of the new tabloid media, do indeed thrive on contestation over the difference between normal and abnormal. They invite the participation of people whose voices are often excluded from U.S. commercial media discourse, such as sex workers, ordinary women, blue- and pink-collar laborers, the homeless, the HIV positive, people living with AIDS, youths, gay men, lesbians, the transgendered, people with unconventional body shapes and sizes, alien abductees, convicted criminals, prison inmates, and other socially marginalized ‘abnormals.’ Says Elayne Rapping of the daytime talk shows, ‘There is something exhilarating about watching people who are usually invisible – because of class, race, gender, status – having their say and, often, being wholly disrespectful to their ‘betters’.”

“Tabloid television prefers heightened emotionality and often emphasizes the melodramatic. It sometimes makes heavy use of camp, irony, parody, and broad humor. It relies on an often volatile mix of realistic and anti-realistic representational conventions. It resists ‘objectivity,’ detachment, and critical distance. It incorporates voices frequently excluded from ‘serious’ news and often centers on those that are typically marginalized in mainstream media discourse. The ‘bizarre’ and the ‘deviant’ are central to its image repertoire. It is generally offensive to high- and middlebrow tastes. Moreover, it is often equally offensive to masculine tastes (although tabloid discourse is itself gendered: there are both masculine and feminine varieties of address found within it). It frequently violates dominant institutional standards and procedures for the production and validation of ‘truth.’ It thrives on the grotesque, the scandalous, and the ‘abnormal.’ Its images are often stark, raw, unprettified, and unsanitized. It dwells on social and moral disorder. Among its favorite themes are the ubiquity of victimization and the loss of control over the outcomes of events, and of one's fate. Also typical are stories involving gender disturbances and ambiguities, troubled domestic and familial relationships, and paranormal phenomena that apparently outstrip the explanatory power of scientific rationalism. Tabloid media simultaneously defamiliarize the ordinary and banalize the exotic.”

“The most disparaged cultural objects are those consumed predominantly by the most devalued social groups.”

Maybe I enjoy Springer because I am myself a social Other – gay man, artsy, pothead. Maybe the most powerful message Springer offers his audience is the most important message we can get from culture – You are not alone.

In the show, the guests sing to Jerry:
We eat excrete and watch T.V.,
And you are there for us, Jerry.
Jerry, can you understand,
We sit out in nowhere land,
Wanting and yearning,
Our bloated stomachs churning?
Eat, excrete and watch T.V.
You are there for us, Jerry...

I'm still reading a lot about all this, but I am coming to some conclusions. Jerry Springer and shows like it subvert the mainstream culture and mainstream values, so for anyone who feels left out of that mainstream culture, Springer is a welcome poke in the eye to the world that excludes them, whether for economic, social, sexual, or other reasons.

Is Springer's audience all that different than the Romans at the Coliseum or the groundlings at Shakespeare's Globe? Or today's boxing fans? Or football fans? No matter who's cheering for what, it's all a metaphor for the journey of a human life. It's all narrative. And just like when we watch a movie or TV drama, we want conflict, drama, surprise, and always, resolution.

The Springer Show is one of the few places where The Other can have their say, where they can take power and demand that "Attention must be paid." That opportunity to be Heard and Seen can be a powerful, seductive drug. It's also the place where those who've done wrong usually get their comeuppance. Though it may seem to some as an amoral space, it's not. There is a morality in Springer World, but it's not the same morality you might see on The Big Bang Theory. The Springer morality is less arbitrary, really just about personal dignity (yes, I'm serious), freedom, respect, not really much more than The Golden Rule.

During rehearsals, we keep being surprised by the seriousness and poignancy of several of the songs, these few moments when the authors take a real look at the real emotions of these characters. Andrea's "I Want to Sing Something Beautiful," Baby Jane's "This is My Jerry Springer Moment," Shawntel's "I Just Wanna Dance," and the company number "Take Care" all take us somewhere unexpected, into the honest emotions of these people who we've otherwise seen only as cartoon characters.

It's as if the authors are reminding us that no matter how outrageous The Jerry Springer Show gets, these are real people who often have very deep, very profound feelings. Like the TV show, the opera alternately dishes up both mockery and respect for these folks.

In 2010, President Obama hosted an evening of Broadway music at the White House, and he said, "Over the years, musicals have been at the forefront of our social consciousness, challenging stereotypes, shaping our opinions about race and religion, death and disease, power and politics." That's certainly true of Jerry Springer the Opera. Like Cry-Baby, Rent, Passing Strange, and many other New Line shows, Springer is about the outcasts, the Others.

Because they're more interesting.

No matter how much you think you're prepared for Jerry Springer the Opera, you're not. You really have no idea how vulgar and blasphemous this show is, but you also have no idea how much you'll get emotionally involved with these characters, and their very simple, very modest hopes and dreams.

We say this a lot – because it's often true – but this show is truly like no other. By a mile. You know you're dying to see it...

The adventure continues.

Long Live the Musical!

Je Suis Charlie

I've been trying to process the Charlie Hebdo tragedy in Paris. I try to believe that it won't happen in America, but of course it could.

I really am Charlie. My life is spent making public art, telling stories, and a great deal of the time, indulging in fierce, even offensive satire. And a healthy portion of that satire is directed at religion. What if someone told me that we couldn't produce bare or Bukowsical or Bat Boy because they're sacrilegious? What if someone killed me merely because I wrote Johnny Appleweed, easily a quarter of which would be offensive to many hardcore Christians?

We take the freedom to offend for granted. Satire likes to grab you by the throat and shake you, to get your attention, and offense is one way to do that. Think "Girl, Can I Kiss You With Tongue" in Cry-Baby or "Mama Gimme Smack on the Asshole" in Jerry Springer. It wakes you up from the (cultural or political) Matrix you're sleeping in, and slaps you awake. New Line does a lot of shows with an agenda like that. It never even occurred to me that we couldn't produce Jerry Springer the Opera because of its content – which is really offensive and really sacrilegious, FYI – because it's also a smart, insightful piece of theatre about the dysfunction of our culture in this time of massive change and upheaval. And art makes order out the chaos of the world around us and inside us. We need that.

I remember the year I graduated high school, Theatre Project Company, here in St. Louis, lost both their theatre and funding for Christopher Durang's Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. It's a wickedly funny satire (Stray Dog Theatre did an excellent production a while back), but it's hard to believe people were that scared of it. But like Charlie Hebdo, it was shining a light on the dark and/or stupid side of religion.

When we were doing Hands on a Hardbody last season, it occurred to me that it was the first time in twenty-four years that religion was a major theme of a show and not in a critical or ironic light. The show's lyricist and co-composer Amanda Green told me that it hadn't occurred to them to make religion that central a theme, until they met the real people the characters are based on, and saw how much religion pervaded their culture. But that show was the exception for us.

I think back through all the shows we've produced over the years on controversial topics. We really are Charlie. The great actor Larry Luckinbill wrote to me on my 21st birthday, "Go broke if you must, but always over-estimate the public's intelligence. They will thank you for it." New Line lives by this idea and it has served us well these last twenty-four years. We do our audience a disservice if we self-censor in their name.

The whole point of terrorism is that the idea is even bigger and more destructive than the actual attack, so that fear then drives us more than reason, so that we defeat ourselves. What will be the fallout from The Interview and Charlie Hebdo? Will film studios and magazines self-censor in fear? Charlie Hebdo responded to the attack by putting a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad on the cover of their next issue. Well, fuck yeah. But television networks in the West will not show it. Is it too simplistic to say, then, that the terrorists won?

The only thing we can do in response to all this is take even more seriously our job to illuminate, using all the tools of our trade, including the fiercest satire. Did I mention that Jerry Springer the Opera opens in a few weeks...?

We can't do anything else, because the darker the world gets, the brighter and more piercing our light has to be.

Je suis Charlie Hebdo.

Jerry Springer the Opera

What the hell is Jerry Springer the Opera?

Good question.

Honestly, it's pretty much exactly what it sounds like. But people keep asking that question, I think because they can't imagine that it could possibly be what it actually is. So in response, I always say something fairly uninformative like, "Well, it's a Jerry Springer show... as an opera..." That really is what it is. But it's a lot more than that, too. After all, The New York Times called it "genius," and the Sunday Times of London called it "a shocking, irresistibly funny masterpiece!" They wouldn't be saying that if it were really just a Springer show.

As you can see, I'm still trying  to figure out how to talk about this show, and I think that's because I'm still trying to figure out exactly what this thing is and why I love it so much.

One thing I know – you really have no idea what this show is like until you actually see it. Nothing I say can really prepare you.

Here's what else I know. It's whip-fucking-smart. It's consistently, outrageously laugh-out-loud funny, on a level with Bat Boy, Urinetown, Spelling Bee, and Cry-Baby. It's deeply insightful culturally. It's probably the most offensive thing you will ever see on a legit theatre stage. By a mile. People keep saying, "Well it can't be worse than Bukowsical!" It's worse. But also, it humanizes its characters more than you would think possible, considering the context.

It's really an opera, and the music is really wonderful, beautiful, exciting; and also extremely expressive, doing every bit as much storytelling as the lyrics. And my favorite thing in the musical theatre – the music itself is quite often really, really funny. There's nothing better than funny music.

I also know, having let the show percolate in my brain for quite a while now, that though it is an opera, it operates as a neo musical comedy; and so the trick here is to play it all as seriously and honestly as we can, to let the outrageous situations and language take care of the Funny, while we take care of the human emotions at the core of all the lunacy. This is serious comedy, like Bat Boy or Little Shop of Horrors. No camp. No commentary. No winking. 100% honest. As the Bat Boy writers put it, "the height of expression, the depth of sincerity." The more seriously we take this crazy world, the funnier it will get.

Why is it an opera? I think probably the real reason is that seemed like a really funny idea. But it goes deeper than that. Why does the idea seem so funny? Because it's both surprising and truthful. I realize as I watch our early rehearsals that these characters and emotions are already operatic, even without music. Richard Thomas and Lee Stewart merely followed the First Law of Sondheim: Content Dictates Form. These huge emotions, these sky high stakes, this ravenous crowd (our "studio audience") demand the size of opera.

When Dwight sings "I've been seeing someone else," in a soaring operatic melody, we get not only the fact of his betrayal, but the self-importance of his decision to drag his loved ones onto national television. What seems trivial to us does not seem trivial to Dwight or his multiple paramours. After all, this small moment in their lives that we're witnessing may destroy or salvage those various lives. We laugh at the over-drama, at the meta joke of the operatic music, at the excessive chaos of these interlocked lives; but most of us also know we've been dumped or almost dumped, we've felt old, we've felt trapped. These are universal human emotions. And maybe that, at the root, is why the show works so well.

Take a look at this lyric, in which Shawntel tells us how desperately she wants escape from her life. The show's ironic, meta edge remains – she's talking about being a pole dancer, and she sings this clutching Jerry's famous stripper pole – but the emotion is unmistakably real.
I don't give a fuck no more,
If people think I am a whore –
I just wanna dance,
Oh, I just wanna dance.
Things are going bad for me,
I am feeling sad for me,
So I just wanna dance,
Oh, I just wanna dance.
I’m tired of laughing,
And I'm tired of crying.
And I'm tired of failing,
And I'm tired of all this trying.
I wanna do some living
‘Cause I’ve done enough dying.
I just wanna dance.
I just wanna fucking dance.

She may be uneducated and lacking the exact vocabulary to express what she's feeling, but this lyric captures her 21st-century discontent quite eloquently in the list of what makes her tired, including "all this trying." Her line, "I've done enough dying," rises above the show's gleeful crudity to a place of piercing truthfulness. We can feel how beaten down this woman is, how weary she feels, how desperate for escape. By the end of the song, dance is no longer rebellion; it's survival. This lyric sneaks up on us (as the show does from time to time) and surprises us with its gravity and its seriousness.

What music does best is emotion, which is why the most emotional stories make the best musicals. And here's a show that actually subordinates plot to emotion. Who's sleeping with whom is far less important or interesting (on the real show or in the opera) than what each character's individual quirk or fault or path may be. Like the TV show it's based on, this is a show not about story, but about betrayal, loss, triumph, love, rejection, dreams. It doesn't matter that the emotions are extreme, that they're exaggerated, even ridiculous; they also ring true.

It's almost a neo musical comedy.

And though narrative is not the show's primary agenda, each segment does give us a glimpse into someone's personal hero myth story, complete with obstacles to overcome and enlightenment to be attained (if they're lucky). And maybe that universal hero myth story is what makes us tune in to Springer. Storytelling is the foundation of each Springer segment, as Jerry welcomes the next guest and says, "So what's goin' on?" Humans need storytelling, to learn lessons, to connect with other lives, to preserve our history and culture, to feel less alone.

And in many cases, these guests are taking back their power. They are choosing the time and place for confrontation. They are choosing to change something in their life. We all relate to that too.

All the issues on the show (and in the opera) are moral ones – the guests' needs/desires are at odds with mainstream morality. But are the guests "wrong" or "sinful" while the mainstream is "right," or are they just different from the mainstream? Do these people have the right to construct their own moral universe? What does that do to the people around them? Do those people get to choose...?

I'm reading two books in my quest for understanding of all this. Richard H. Smith's The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature is really interesting and easy to digest. There's more to schadenfreude than the song from Avenue Q. The other book is Talking Trash: The Cultural Politics of Daytime TV Talk Shows by Julie Engel Manga, a study specifically of how women connect with shows like Jerry Springer, Oprah, and the others. Both books are giving me insight into all this, but I still don't have a really concrete grasp on it all. And I do think it's graspable.

In Talking Trash, Manga suggests that we generally judge Springer's guests by three criteria:
  1. impartial reason (does this make sense, is this rational, does it sound true)
  2. public/private distinction (where do we draw that line and why, where do the guests draw it)
  3. respectability (do these people act the way we think "respectable" adults act)
Since we've announced this show, people have been asking me if I think the TV show is "real." My best guess from people I've talked to, is that most of the episodes are not strictly real, but that the stories are more egged on and revved up than outright fabricated. But the truth is it doesn't matter for our purposes. In our show, these guests definitely have these real problems.

So much to ponder here.

I believe this show is really something special, and I don't want us to get lost in the considerable fun of the show's outrageousness and obscenity. We need to remember that though this show is truly hilarious, it's also a lot more. We've walked this tightrope before. We're good at this.

The other question we get a lot is, So is it really an opera? As you might know, New Line's June show, The Threepenny Opera is not really an opera, despite its title; it's a musical comedy. But Jerry Springer the Opera is really an opera, not just because it's almost entirely sung (though Jerry and Steve never sing), but also because several of the roles really can only be sung by classically trained singers. Of which we have several. The score also dabbles in jazz, rock, pop, and Broadway, but much of it really is contemporary opera music.

But as I said at the top, you'll really have no idea what you're getting into till you see it. And judging by the response we're getting already, you better get your tickets early...

Another wild New Line adventure begins!

Long Live the Musical!

Sweet Understanding

We New Liners take our comedy seriously.

One of the disadvantages to this new Golden Age of musical theatre where we find ourselves, is that this is a massive transition in the art form (much like the massive transition in the culture at large), and many working in the musical theatre haven't yet found their way in this New World. We really are (mostly) leaving behind the Rodgers & Hammerstein model, and the 20th-century musical comedy model, for new, more interesting, more relevant forms, the neo musical comedy and the neo rock musical.

But a lot of actors and a lot of directors come at neo musical comedies as if these shows are old-school, 1950s musical comedies. They're not. And what's extra hard about this problem is that these shows can still be fairly funny, even when not done all that well, so the clueless don't even realize what they've missed, that their productions lack all the rest of what makes these such great shows, their bite, their irony, their subtext, their politics, and their very meta self-awareness. After all, they get laughs!

And so do babies and cats on YouTube. Is that really the only measure of theatre?

Too many directors of musicals don't even consider the writers' intentions when they stage a show. It doesn't even occur to them that a particular show may have its own unique style, tone, rules, etc., which are unlike those of any other musical. This is true of more and more musicals these days, thanks to the amazing experimentation going on in our art form today. These clueless directors don't read interviews with the writers. They don't read anything the writers have written about the show. To these folks, all funny is equal, all funny is wacky and cheap.

It's not.

There are directors and actors who will tell you that you shouldn't have to think about the writers' intentions, that everything should be right there in the script. Maybe you could make that argument about a play (although even then, I'm not sure I agree), but musicals are really complex, and it's just not possible to write down the spirit, the tone, the level of exaggeration and irony, etc. Some writers try to give us a hint. The Bat Boy writers shared with me their guiding mantra, "The height of expression, the depth of sincerity." Lyricist-bookwriter Howard Ashman wrote a really great short essay at the front of the Little Shop script, but I've seen productions where no one involved read Ashman's piece. He wrote:
Little Shop of Horrors satirizes many things: science fiction, B movies, musical comedy itself, and even the Faust legend. There will, therefore, be a temptation to play it for camp and low-comedy. This is a great and potentially fatal mistake. The script keeps its tongue firmly in cheek, so the actors should not. Instead, they should play with simplicity, honesty, and sweetness – even when events are at their most outlandish. The show’s individual “style” will evolve naturally from the words themselves and an approach to acting and singing them that is almost child-like in its sincerity and intensity. By way of example, Audrey poses like Fay Wray from time to time. But she does this because she’s in genuine fear and happens to see the world as her private B movie – not because she’s “commenting” to the audience on the silliness of her situation. Having directed the original New York production of Little Shop myself, and subsequently having seen it in many versions and even many languages, I can vouch for the fact that when Little Shop is at its most honest, it is also at its funniest and most enjoyable.

Note that this is not a campy show, though many productions treat it that way. We're not supposed to be laughing at these characters; we're supposed to be emotionally involved in their story, despite the insanity of the premise. And let's look at that last sentence one more time, because it applies to so many contemporary musicals – "When Little Shop is at its most honest, it is also at its funniest and most enjoyable." I wish they would print that in boldface at the top of every page of the script... and the scripts of Urinetown, Bat Boy, Cry-Baby, etc.

Watch Ellen Greene, the original Audrey, sing "Somewhere That's Green." No matter how silly or absurd the content gets, her acting is subtle, committed, utterly inside the character. Audrey is a real woman, and her emotions are real, even if she lives inside a really fucked-up cartoon world.

Doug Wright wrote a short note like that at the beginning of the Hands on a Hardbody script that was really helpful. He wrote in part:
Despite their colorful eccentricities and regional turns of phrase, the characters in our story are inspired by very real people. They should not be played broadly, or with an implied "wink." Rather, they should be acted with integrity, with full regard for their ardent hopes, heartbreaking foibles and core decency.

Not all writers do this for us, but it's not hard at all to find interviews, essays, and other pieces that will tell you how these writers built a show and how it should work.

So many newer musicals today are sui generis, each of them with a style and tone utterly unique to that show. In many of these cases, the only ways to fully understand what the writers intended is to see the original production (if in fact the writers liked it, which is not always the case), and/or to read what the writers say about their show. It's important to remember that the writers sometimes don't like the original production or the original director.

Here are some of the most abused shows, in my (only occasionally) humble opinion...

Like Little Shop, the characters and action of Bat Boy have to be taken totally seriously by the actors and director. Neo musical comedies are about irony, in this case the very funny juxtaposition of incredibly high stakes and powerful emotions against the fundamentally silly premise of the whole story and the rank hypocrisy of many of the characters. But for that to work, the acting has to be utterly honest and serious. Like the Bat Boy writers put it, the depth of sincerity, the height of expression. Honest and outrageous at the same time. If you're working on a well-crafted neo musical comedy, the more seriously the director and actors take the characters and story, the funnier the show gets.

Adding jokes, bits, schtick, gags, mugging, etc. to shows like these only hobbles them, and makes them half as funny as they should be. Nothing is less funny than the obvious effort to be funny.

Urinetown is similar but even more serious. Remembering the brilliant original production on Broadway, the show is incredibly funny, but it's not always funny. Many of the scenes are meant to be disturbing, scary, creepy. Again, just because a show is funny doesn't mean every second of it has to be funny. You have to follow the show, not your own agenda. Urinetown is relentlessly dark, over-serious, even condescending, and like the other shows mentioned here, the more seriously you take it, the funnier it gets.

Watch this clip from the Tonys, and see how totally straight-faced it all is, and how serious Officer Lockstock and Bobby Strong are.

There are lots of musicals that lots of directors and actors apparently don't understand. For the record... Godspell is not sketch comedy and it's not a revue; there is a through-line and character arcs. Hair is not Godspell; it is a dark Hero Myth story, not a playful romp. Hedwig and the Angry Inch is not a comedy and Hedwig isn't mean. You'd be astounded at the terrible wrong turns lots of musicals take in the wrong hands.

But I also want to point out that some of those directors and actors who fundamentally misunderstand contemporary musicals are working on and off Broadway. Director Walter Bobbie thought High Fidelity was a romantic musical comedy, but it's actually Rob's serious (sometimes very sad) coming-of-age story. The story is a drama (not many comedies involve abortions), even though there are a lot of laughs. Likewise, director Mark Brokaw thought Cry-Baby was an offensive comedy about mean kids, but it's actually a serious story about class and justice, again even though there are a lot of laughs. And the "bad kids" are actually our big-hearted heroes, something else Brokaw didn't understand. I can only assume he's never seen a John Waters movie.

You can't argue that this evolving form is entirely new and uncharted, since it arguably goes back to Little Shop more than thirty years ago, or at the very least, back to Bat Boy and Urinetown in the mid-1990s, but a lot of people still don't get it.

You wouldn't direct an episode of The Sopranos the same way you'd direct Saved by the Bell, but that's essentially what's happening in the musical theatre today. People are directing Bat Boy and Urinetown like they're The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees.

They're not.

There are lots of different kinds of Funny. The musical theatre writers and composers of this new Golden Age are giving us the kind of Funny that matches our times, dark, uncomfortable, weighty, ironic; but also insightful and illuminating. We don't need the kind of Funny audiences needed in the 1950s; we need a musical theatre for today's world. We need Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Cry-Baby and Jerry Springer the Opera.

And lucky for us, that's what we have. Now if we can just get those clueless types to join the rest of us in the 21st century, we can charge ahead into the undeniably exciting future of our art form...
Yesterday is done.
See the pretty countryside.
Merrily we roll along, roll along,
Following dreams.
Traveling's the fun...

Long Live the New Musical!