The Cement's Just for the Weight, Dear

One of the challenges of Threepenny is that the music is so quirky, it really is hard for the actors to learn, unless they're already familiar with it. They have to get that utterly unique Kurt Weill sound into their heads. I know that, over time, they'll settle into the songs, and they'll stop sounding so odd to them (that's already starting to happen). But that quirky music is a huge part of what makes Threepenny so beloved and so powerful.

Composer Kurt Weill wrote:
Nearly all worthwhile operatic experiments in recent years [leading up to the late 1920s] have been basically destructive in character. With The Threepenny Opera, reconstruction became possible, since it allowed us to start again from scratch. What we were aiming to create was the prototype of music theatre. With every musical work for the stage the question arises: how is music, particularly song, at all possible in the theatre? Here the question was resolved in the most primitive way possible. I had a realistic plot, so I had to set the music against it, since I do not consider music capable of realistic effects. Hence the action was either interrupted, in order to introduce music, or it was deliberately driven to a point where there was no alternative but to sing.

The piece, furthermore, presented us with the opportunity to make 'opera' the subject matter for an evening in the theatre. At the very beginning of the piece the audience is told: 'Tonight you are going to see an opera for beggars. Since this opera was intended to be as splendid as only beggars can imagine, and yet cheap enough for beggars to be able to watch, it is called The Threepenny Opera.' Thus the Act III finale is in no way a parody. Rather, the idea of opera was directly exploited as a means of resolving a conflict and thus shaping the action. Consequently it had to be presented in its purest, most pristine form.

This return to a primitive form of opera entailed a far-reaching simplification of musical language. The task was to write music that could be sung by actors, that is, by musical amateurs. At first this appeared to be a limitation. As work progressed, however, it proved to be an enormous enrichment. Only the realization of a coherent, identifiable melodic line made possible The Threepenny Opera's real achievement: the creation of a new type of musical theatre.

I love reading things like this from the writers of shows we work on. The more I can learn about what the writers intended, the better a job I'll do directing those shows and communicating the essence of each show to our actors.

Threepenny's prologue, "Mack the Knife," is all at once a pop song, a strong opening number for a stage musical, and a creepy, gothic horror story. Its music feels jaunty and innocently poppy, but also vaguely sinister. The lyric is both flippant and deeply disturbing ("The cement's just for the weight, dear."). Like "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," it should make the audience's blood run cold. We're used to hearing it as a hipster pop song, pretty much ignoring the implications of the lyric. But look at that lyric:
Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear,
And he shows them pearly white.
Just a jackknife has Macheath, dear,
And he keeps it out of sight.

We're all so used to this lyric, thanks to Bobby Darin, Sinatra, and other singers. But think about it for a second. The very first image of the song (and the show) is how beautiful a killer shark's teeth are. Then we get to the second line, and we think, hold on, sharks don't "show" their teeth! Right. We're not really talking about sharks. We're talking about a shark-like man, a deadly predator. We're telling the audience up front, before we even start the story, that their hero for the evening is a monster – but a monster that's hard to see...
When the shark bites with his teeth, dear,
Scarlet billows start to spread.
Fancy gloves, though, wears Macheath, dear,
So there's not a trace of red.

So Mack is both murderous and classy. Nice. Now it gets specific and concrete.
On the sidewalk Sunday morning
Lies a body oozing life.
Someone's sneaking 'round the corner.
Is the someone Mack the Knife?

From a tugboat by the river
A cement bag's dropping down.
The cement's just for the weight, dear.
Bet you Mackie's back in town.

Sloppy Sadie was discovered
With a knife wound in her thigh.
And Macheath strolls down on dock street,
Looking dreamy at the sky.

The perverse fun of this song is that almost every verse introduces us to another victim. Mack has left bodies all over London! And to add to the horror, it's clear he'll never get caught...
There was rape down by the harbor.
Little Susie caused a stir,
Claiming that she'd been assaulted.
Wonder what got into her?

This is the most disturbing verse for me. First, this is the first time the song has actually mentioned rape, and the victim is "Little Susie." Sure, maybe that's a whore's nickname, but you can't help but picture a little girl. And then it gets worse – she's only "claiming" that she's been assaulted, implying that it may not be true, even though the lyric stipulates that she has indeed been raped. She "caused a stir" by reporting the crime committed against her. And the verse ends with the dismissal, the trivialization of her rape – "Wonder what got into her?" That last line stings so much because it both makes light of her attack with a dirty joke, and also implies that she wouldn't be believed if she pressed charges.

In these more aware times, as our culture grapples with the problem of rape, it's probably harder to hear that verse now than at any time in the past. Especially with the upbeat music that accompanies it.

The script includes several alternate verses you can use. We're using one that mentions several of our characters:
Sukey Tawdry, Jenny Diver,
Polly Peachum, Lucy Brown –
Oh, the line forms on the right, dear,
Now that Mackie's back in town.

That third line, "The line forms on the right, dear," tells us a lot about Mack. He's dangerous, wholly without human feelings. He's a genuine sociopath, the ultimate "bad boy," and women line up to be his lover. That's so fucked up. And the show explores that fucked-up situation through the character of Jenny, and her tortured love-hate relationship with Mack.

There's one other alternate verse that's really striking, though we won't be using it because the song would just get too long.
Big explosion at the market.
Twenty people blown to death.
In the crowd stands wide-eyed Mackie,
Only slightly out of breath.

That sounds so freakishly contemporary, as if it could be describing the Boston Marathon bombing.

The whole point of this song is that Mack's backstory, before any of the action of Threepenny Opera even begins, is that he's essentially Jack the Ripper. That's just a given, and the fact that he's a rapist and murderer hangs over the entire show, particularly anytime he's with women. The whole perverse joke of the show, the satire in its conception, is that a rapist and murderer is the hero of a romantic musical comedy.

Only Brecht. Although, now that I think about it, The Robber Bridegroom is an obvious companion piece to Threepenny, since both shows have sociopaths for heroes and rape at their centers.

Often, when I start a new show, I rewatch Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth, an old PBS series with Bill Moyers that is one of the coolest things I've ever seen in my life. Six episodes that tell you everything you'll ever need to know about storytelling, religion, human culture, psychology, et al. Listening to Campbell talk about the Hero Myth, its details, its conventions, reveals to me just how deliciously fucked up The Threepenny Opera is.

You can't tell from these characters' behavior who's the protagonist and who's the antagonist, between Mack and Peachum. But you can distinguish those roles through the conventions of musical comedy, by the kind of songs they sing. After all, this isn't really an opera; it's a musical comedy, filtered through the amazing but weirdly distorted lens of Brecht and Weill.

It's a romantic musical comedy that doesn't want you emotionally involved. It's obvious Mack is never sincere, even when he's singing a love song with Polly. Everything that makes a romantic musical comedy is here but massively subverted. This is a musical comedy that refuses to end with our hero and heroine together. Brecht and Weill were searching for new ways to tell a story with music, at just about the same time that Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern were also seeking new ways to move beyond old-school musical comedy. Like Threepenny Opera, Show Boat was a musical comedy (in its form) that forced its audience to confront intensely serious social issues.

The Threepenny Opera's central theme is that people can't be heroic, can't even be humane, inside the inhumane, broken economic system of capitalism. As I type these words, Baltimore is suffering through terrible destruction at the hands of rioters, after yet another unarmed black man was killed by police. Today, thirty-five years of Republican economic policies have systematically destroyed labor unions, and as a direct result, destroyed the American middle class; and the largely Republican (and totally ineffectual) War on Drugs has put massive numbers of men of color into prison, destroying their families and communities in the process. Our world today is not far removed from the world of Threepenny.

Capitalism is not a system of morality, only a system of capital: money and labor. When morality (not to be confused with religion) is taken or kept out of our economic system (as it has been since 1980), we get Ebeneezer Scrooge and the Koch Brothers; and we get today's minimum wage of $2.13 for restaurant servers. People tend to forget that the War on Drugs was never a well thought-out policy designed to solve a problem; it began as little more than a Nixon campaign slogan, designed to terrify racist, middle-class white voters. But it created a permanent economic underclass, trapped by failed communities and oppressed by police, communities where the only viable option for many young men is crime and the drug trade. Are they that different from Filch in the show, starving on his own, till he joins up with Peachum's criminal enterprises?

The great philosopher and teacher Joseph Campbell once said of Darth Vader, "He isn't living in terms of humanity; he's living in terms of a system." And that's the crux of Threepenny, the unbalance at the heart of the story. Morality is impossible in such dire economic circumstances, Brecht is telling us. Perhaps Threepenny is a closer companion piece to Brecht's Mother Courage than we thought.

But there's even more here...

In an aggressive act of literary and cultural subversion, Brecht made Macheath, the thief, rapist, and serial polygamist, into a Christ figure. Stephen Hinton writes in "Misunderstanding The Threepenny Opera," an essay in the Cambridge Opera Handbooks: The Threepenny Opera:
The most striking irreverences in the Threepenny text concern the Bible. Sacred means are used to profane ends. 'Wake up, you corrupt Christian,' sings Mr Peachum in his opening 'Morning Hymn'. The alert listener will indeed stumble across a whole host of biblical quotations and allusions. For example: Polly's lyric, 'Anywhere you go, I will go with you' in the 'Love Song' is lifted verbatim from Ruth 1:16 ('Whither thou goest' etc.). It is first of all quoted by Mr. and Mrs. Peachum with a blasphemous 'Jonny' tacked on the end in their 'Instead Of Song,' and twice parodied by Polly when she becomes 'poetic' before the first finale, quoting the exchanges between Macheath and Brown: 'If you down another [cocktail], then I want to down another one, too' and, with lavatorial euphemism, 'If you go somewhere, then I want to go somewhere, too.'

Peachum's 'And when he asks for bread to eat, not get a stone.' in the first finale is a paraphrase of Matthew 7:9 ('Being given bread to eat and not a stone'). Macheath's fate may even be seen to parallel in its broad contours the fate of Jesus Christ. The marriage to Polly, the beginning of the story, takes place in a stable. Presents are brought, not by kings but by gangsters. Mack, like Christ, is betrayed on a Thursday and is to be executed on a Friday. Mrs. Peachum bribes Jenny, just as the Caiaphas paid Judas. Brown, like Peter, disowns his friend. In Scene 6, Mack borrows from Luke 22:61-62: 'I looked at him and he wept bitterly', adding 'I learnt the trick from the Bible.' Jesus begs forgiveness for the sins of others; Macheath for his own. Jesus is raised from the dead; Macheath reprieved by the King's Messenger. When asked by the magazine Die Dame in October 1928 about 'the strongest influence' on his work, Brecht replied: 'You'll laugh: the Bible.' He was probably being serious. Not necessarily identified as such by the audience, the biblical quotations and innuendoes nonetheless strike a familiar chord as common cliches.

The bottom line is this. Threepenny is certainly an old show, first premiering in Berlin in 1928, but it is as timely and as relevant as last night's news. This is a show that tells the truth, about then, about now, about humanity at any and all times. This is a show that pushes all our buttons to shock us into paying attention. This really is a neo musical comedy, even though it was written nearly a century ago.

This is the oldest show New Line has ever done, and it's also one of the most slyly potent. After all these years of reading about Threepenny, it is such an honor and a joy to finally work on it. I can't wait to share it with our audiences, especially those who've never seen it before...

The adventure continues.

Long Live the Musical!

They Tell You That the Best in Life is Mental

God bless Amazon. I remember the first show I did after discovering Amazon was Assassins, and I found the most amazing book – American Assassins: The Darker Side of Politics by James W. Clarke, in which each character in the show gets their own mini-biography and psychoanalysis. It completely changed the way I approached the show. I had already directed the show once, pre-Amazon, and in retrospect, there was so much I didn't understand about these characters.

Now every time I start work on a new show, I stop by Amazon, and see what books or videos they have that might help me. There's always so much. When we did Bonnie & Clyde last fall, I bought a bunch of movies we know Bonnie and Clyde had seen, movies and actors we know they imitated in certain ways, so we could really get inside their distorted worldview. While working on Jerry Springer, I was reading books about daytime talk shows, Dante's Inferno, Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and a book about schadenfreude.

This time, as we launched our adventure into Threepenny, I found some really wonderful books to read, and a few very cool videos I've been watching.

I discovered early in my research that Brecht, in an effort to set in stone his characters and themes, wrote The Threepenny Novel, retelling his story with way more detail and context. I'm in middle of reading it now, and I really love it. First of all, it's a seriously valuable peek inside the brain of our bookwriter and lyricist; that's always awesome. Also, it gives me so much extra information about these characters, this world and its politics, and more than anything, an understanding that these actually aren't outrageous characters; they are realistic characters in outrageous times. Very much a comic analogue to Brecht's Mother Courage. (Which blew my mind.)

I learned from the novel that beyond what we know from the musical, Macheath also has several legitimate (or semi-legitimate) business interests, which often don't do very well. Combine that information with Mack's hyper-violent past (laid out in "Mack the Knife"), and that's one weird, fucked up character, a businessman-thief-rapist-murderer. The extra backstory and character insights I get from the novel are such a gift. Nothing is more interesting than complexity, and Mack as he existed in Brecht's imagination, was endlessly complex. No, we can't communicate all of that through the musical, but a lot of that information will make our show and our characters richer.

Probably the most valuable book I found was the Cambridge Opera Handbook: The Threepenny Opera by Stephen Hinton, a collection of essays, reports, analyses, reviews, all about Threepenny and its various productions and translations. I'm so glad I read this before I started work. I really understand the show differently from how I saw it before. Maybe more than with any other show I've worked on, Threepenny's historical and political context are inseparable from its artistic creation and intentions.

The other book I'm devouring right now is The Partnership: Brecht, Weill, Three Women, and Germany on the Brink, by Pamela Katz. Metaphorical chocolate cake for the musical theatre nerd. It's a really entertaining journey through Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's entire relationship, both personal and artistic, along with the women who profoundly influenced them. There's Elizabeth Hauptmann, who worked with Brecht on the text for Threepenny and other projects. And then there's Brecht's wife and muse, the actor Helene Weigel, who would create the role of Mother Courage; and Weill's wife and muse, the singer and actor Lotte Lenya, who would create the role of Polly Peachum, and then decades later become famous in America playing Jenny Diver. The relationships among these incredibly talented, incredibly smart, and somewhat fucked up artists are all so fascinating, and they really give me insight into why Brecht and Weill created Threepenny and what they wanted it to accomplish.

What I would give to go back in time and talk with Brecht. Although, they say he always had really bad body odor. So there's that.

Even though it probably doesn't help me in any specific way, I also wanted to learn what I could about The Beggar's Opera, which Brecht and Weill adapted into Threepenny. I started with Modern Critical Interpretations: John Gay's The Beggar's Opera by Harold Bloom. Part of the fun with this book was that all my life I've read about The Beggar's Opera, and I know it was an ancestor of sorts of our musical theatre today. But I never was that interested in exploring it. So seeing the film and reading this book really surprised me. The show does feel very 1700s in certain ways, but it's also very funny, very satiric, and quite naughty. I'm really glad I know it better now.

Connected to that, I'm also reading The Thief-Taker Hangings: How Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Wild, and Jack Sheppard Captivated London and Created the Celebrity Criminal by Aaron Skirboll. It's a really fun read, about Jonathan Wild, real-life model for Mr. Jonathan Peachum; Capt. Jack Sheppard, real-life model for Capt. Macheath; and Prime Minister Jonathan Walpole, who apparently is satirized through both characters. It's fun to see how these real people became characters in The Beggar's Opera, then characters in Threepenny.

In addition to these books, there are also some cool videos I've watched in preparation for working on this show.

As I mentioned above, I recently watched the 1950s film version of The Beggar's Opera, with Laurence Olivier as Macheath and directed by Peter Brook, based on their stage production. There are slow parts, but much of it is very funny. And it's such a revealing glimpse into our artistic past. Quite a bit of the Threepenny plot is already in place in The Beggar's Opera, but Brecht also made some major changes, not the least of which was the creation of corrupt Chief of Police Tiger Brown.

The documentary Shadows in Paradise - Hitler's Exiles in Hollywood is about the German artists who had to flee Germany as the Nazis came to power, including Brecht, Lenya, Weill, and Weigel. Understanding the cultural and artistic environment they were working in before they left Germany (when they created Threepenny) explains so much of what Threepenny is saying, as well as its tone, and its angry, fearless satire.

I had seen the documentary Theater of War before, but one of our actors had mentioned it at rehearsal, so I thought it would be worth a rewatch. It follows actors Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Austin Pendleton, director George C. Wolfe, and translator/adapter Tony Kushner, through rehearsals and performances of Brecht's Mother Courage at The Public Theater in New York. It's an extraordinary master class in what Brecht wanted from theatre, and how to do Brecht so that it is both honest and Brechtian.

After all these years of doing Brechtian shows – Cabaret, Company, Hair, Bat Boy, Urinetown, Assassins, Floyd Collins, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Man of La Mancha, Passing Strange, Bukowsical, and so many others – it's very cool, at long last, actually to be working on Threepenny itself, the show that pretty much singlehandedly changed the trajectory of the American musical theatre in the late 1950s into the early 1960s. Not all that different from how I felt about working on Rent two years ago. This has already been so much fun for me, and we're only halfway through blocking.

I love research. Funny how I never felt that way until after I was out of college...

The (very dark) adventure continues...

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. If you go to instead of to shop, the site will ask you to name a charity, and then for most things you buy, the charity (like New Line, for example, hint, hint) gets a small cut.


Sometimes we start work on a show and I feel like we're stepping into some vast, rushing river of theatrical history. When we produced Marc Blitzstein's 1937 labor musical The Cradle Will Rock, we recreated that historic opening night, when the federal government tried to shut them down, the unions forbade the actors from appearing onstage, and so the cast performed the entire show out in the audience. Sometimes I feel this deep obligation to history, to get it right, to keep passing the torch. I felt the same way when we produced The Nervous Set, Hair, Rocky Horror, Jacques Brel, and even Rent.

But no show we've ever produced has a history to compare with The Threepenny Opera (originally titled Scum, it also later had the subtitle, The Pimps' Opera), with music by the great composer Kurt Weill, and book and lyrics by the genius writer and director Bertolt Brecht.

It all started way back in 1728, when Englishman John Gay wrote the ballad opera The Beggar's Opera, a satirical comedy about corruption in London society, featuring many of the characters who would later appear in Threepenny. According to Richard Traubner's Operetta: A Theatrical History, the original idea for the opera came from Jonathan Swift, who wrote to Alexander Pope in 1716, asking "...what think you, of a Newgate pastoral among the thieves and whores there?" Newgate (pronounced nu-git) was London's central prison.

Their friend John Gay decided that it should be a satire rather than a pastoral opera, and based his central characters on real people – the notorious criminals Jonathan Wild and Jack Sheppard became Jonathan Peachum and Capt. Macheath. In fact, it seems Peachum is really a mix of Wild and the pompous, long-serving prime minister Robert Walpole.

The story satirized politics, poverty and injustice, and everyday corruption at all levels of society. But The Beggar's Opera is really more romantic comedy, laced with social commentary; while its descendant The Threepenny Opera is social commentary, laced with romantic comedy. (Laurence Olivier made a pretty decent film version of The Beggar's Opera in the 1950s, which is now on commercial video.) Gay later wrote a sequel for Polly, set in the West Indies. The Beggar's Opera continued to be revived for the next 200+ years.

In 1920, yet another revival of The Beggar's Opera opened in London, and ran an impressive 1,463 performances, becoming a certified hit; then it played Austria, where it caught the attention of Bertolt Brecht.

Brecht began to co-write with Elizabeth Hauptmann a new, contemporary, sociopolitical, satirically savage updating of the show called The Three-Penny Opera, with a dark, groundbreaking, jazz score by Kurt Weill (pronounced Wile by Weill himself, but usually pronounced Vile by others). Cultural historian Stanley Crouch has said that artists who want to express adult emotions, who want to move beyond adolescent emotions, use jazz. Musical theatre historian Cecil Smith later wrote, "It proves that a small musical show can be both engrossing and magnificently entertaining without sacrificing high imagination, acute intelligence, superbly unified and thoroughly artistic production, and an underlying sense of purpose."

(An interesting side note: Elisabeth Hauptmann was originally listed as co-author of The Threepenny Opera, having purportedly written the majority of the text, and also having translated the English text of The Beggar's Opera into German for Brecht and Weill to work on. But she gets virtually no credit today.)

Stephen Hinton writes in Misunderstanding The Threepenny Opera, "Weill conceived Die Dreigroschenoper as a work of experiment and reform. To use his term, it is a Zwischengattung, an 'in-between genre,' systematically between existing genres, historically a stepping-stone in a development toward a new type of musical theatre. . . It is not so much opera as opera about opera." In other words, it's a meta-musical, like many of the shows it later inspired. Hinton writes about, "Weill's implicit flouting of the traditions of nineteenth-century opera and music-drama. This is not full-scale, grand opera, but a cheap 'threepenny' version. The old grand operatic form is suppressed by [art song], cabaret song, and ballad."

Exactly what Bat Boy and Urinetown did.

Certainly, Three-Penny was a lot more adult than much of what had come before it. The show opened at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in August 1928. It was such a hit, additional companies were opened in Vienna, Budapest, Frankfurt, and Hamburg.

Bertolt Brecht was already forging a new kind of theatre in the early part of the twentieth century. He didn't like the way most plays involved their audiences emotionally but not intellectually. Audiences laughed and cried but never thought about what was happening in the story. He wanted to create a theatre of ideas, a theatre of issues, and in order to encourage an audience’s intellectual involvement, he began to develop ways to continually remind the audience that they were in a theatre, to keep them from being too swept away by the story, to keep them from getting "lost" in the fictional reality that most other theatre writers strove to create and maintain.

Brecht would have actors step out of scenes to talk directly to the audience, and he would use songs that commented on what had just happened or was about to happen (again addressing the audience directly), rather than using only songs that sprang organically from the action. Today, this idea is not so revolutionary but when Brecht began to make theatre this way, it was bizarre. Today, concept musicals like Company, Follies, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Chicago, Evita, Assassins, Rent, Bat Boy, Urinetown, The Wild Party, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, American Idiot, and perhaps most of all, Sweeney Todd, are all extremely Brechtian in their construction and style.

When the mid-50s revival of Threepenny opened in London, critic Kenneth Tynan wrote, "A Brechtian, let me explain, is one who believes that low drama with high principles is better than high principles with no audience, that the worst plays are those which depend wholly on suspense and the illusion of reality; and that the drama of the future will be a wedding in which neither partner marries beneath itself."

Dark, aggressive, and unrelenting in its social commentary, The Three-Penny Opera was a political satire for a new age and for a Germany on the brink of fascism and Nazism. The show also found success touring Europe, playing an estimated 10,000 performances over five years.

One of Germany's premier theatre critics, Herbert Jhering wrote in the Berliner Borsen-Courier:
The success of the Dreigroschenoper cannot be rated too highly. It represents the breakthrough into the public sphere of a type of theatre that is not oriented towards chic society. Not because beggars and burglars appear in it, without a thriller emerging, nor because a threatening underworld is in evidence which disregards all social ties. It is because the tone has been found that neither opposes nor negates morality, which does not attack norms but transcends them and which, apart from the travesty of the operatic model at the end, is neither parodic nor serious. Rather, it proclaims a different world in which the barriers between tragedy and humour have been erased. It is the triumph of open form.

Sounds a lot like Jerry Springer the Opera. The critic of Der Tag wrote:
Most important is what the thing as a whole attempts: to create from the dissolution of traditional theatrical categories something new that is all things at once: irony and symbol, grotesque and protest, opera and popular melody; an attempt which gives subversion the last word and which, leaving its theatrical claims aside, could represent an important phase in the otherwise directionless discussion about the form of the revue.

A decade later, Weill's music publisher would write to him, "In certain private circles during the Nazi period, the songs of Die Dreigroschenoper were a kind of anthem and served as spiritual rejuvenation for many an oppressed soul." The show's opening song, "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer" ("The Ballad of Mack the Knife") was based on a song form called "moritaten," literally, murder-deed song. It soon became the most popular song in Europe.

A German film version was made, Die 3groschenoper, by Georg Wilhelm Pabst and starring original cast member Lotte Lenya (the original Polly, the wife of the composer and, not incidentally, a former prostitute) as the whore Jenny. The film was an interesting preservation of the piece but not a great film, disjointed, too stagey for film and too filmic to be just a recording of the stage play, it ended up wandering somewhere in the middle. Still, some considered it a masterpiece and the German government thought it might be good anti-capitalist propaganda.

The film version's editor, Jean Oser, said in an interview, “Three-Penny Opera was a very hot property at the time: it had come out as a big theatrical hit; in fact in was almost phenomenal how much it influenced a complete generation. It formed the entire pre-Hitler generation until 1933; for about five years every girl in the country wanted to marry a man like Mackie. Apparently, the ideal man was a pimp.” The French made a film version, L’OpĂ©ra de Quat’Sous, filmed at the same time as the German film and on the same sets.

In 1933, Weill and Lenya were tipped off that they were on a list of Jewish intellectuals about to be arrested by the Gestapo. They escaped to Paris, and then to the U.S. Meanwhile, Hitler decided that Three-Penny was an attack on wholesome German family values and it was banned. In Hitler’s Museum of Degenerate Art (no kidding!), one room played songs from Three-Penny on an endless loop so that wholesome Germans could be outraged by them. But so many people came to listen to the great songs that the exhibit was hastily closed down.

The stage version of Threepenny (the hyphen now gone) was mounted in a total of 130 international productions already by 1933, when the show came to New York in a reproduction staging by Francesco von Mendelssohn. But New York was not yet ready for Brecht and it ran only twelve performances on Broadway. Critic Robert Garland wrote in The New York World Telegram, "A rebel of an operetta, it walks boldly and bitterly through the autumn in which we all reside, kicking up the leaves and applying lighted matches where lighted matches are sure to do the greatest harm. The trouble is that it does not laugh as it is doing so ... You'll know what I mean when I say that The 3-Penny Opera is as humorless as Hitler." Wow. No wonder it ran 12 performances!

It did better in Paris in 1937, in London in 1940, and in Milan in 1956. Desmond Vesey’s English translation of the show was preformed in America in 1945 and 1948, and later in a dual translation with Eric Bentley.

In 1934, fearing that his show would be misunderstood, Brecht wrote The Threepenny Novel, in which he expanded on his central themes, and gave us way more backstory of all the main characters. It's a fun read. Brecht also continued to tinker with his show, making its satire, sharper, nastier, more truthful.

After Kurt Weill’s death in 1950, fellow composer and lyricist Marc Blitzstein (who had written book, music, and lyrics for the very Brechtian The Cradle Will Rock, which he had dedicated to Brecht) decided to write a new translation of The Threepenny Opera. He had already worked on a few isolated songs from the score. With some strong nudging, Lotte Lenya agreed to allow a new production of Blitzstein’s translation. But they wanted her to recreate her original role of Polly Peachum, and at age fifty-five, she didn't think she could pull it off. Eventually she agreed to play Jenny again, and she became the cast’s stylistic advisor, teaching them Weill’s special style of speak-singing (sprechstimme), talking about the original production, about Weill and Brecht’s original intentions, and more.

The new Threepenny, directed by Carmen Capalbo, opened at the Theatre de Lys off Broadway in March 1954, using New York’s first thrust stage. Fifties Commie Hunter, Senator Joseph McCarthy, called Threepenny "a piece of anti-capitalist propaganda which exalts anarchical gangsterism and prostitutes over democratic law and order." Then the show was kicked out of the theatre after twelve weeks because of a prior booking. The public clamored for its return and so, a few months later, it came back to off Broadway in September 1955, and it ran 2,706 performances and six years, becoming the first off Broadway mega-hit, and causing a sea change in the philosophy of serious musical theatre in America.

Lotte Lenya won the 1956 Tony for her performance in Threepenny, even though the show ran off Broadway. The show itself was also given a Special Tony for "Distinguished Off Broadway Production."

Before his death, Brecht read Blitzstein's translation and called it "magnificent." Weill's widow Lotte Lenya mentioned in a letter to a colleague, "the admiration I have for [Blitzstein's] work and my feeling that no other exiting version gives a hint of Brecht's poetry and power." Hans Heinsheimer, head of the opera division at Universal Edition music publishers, said, "Marc Blitzstein's English adaptation was so true to Bert Brecht's German original that we are hearing essentially the same piece that had taken Germany by storm twenty-four years earlier."

Kim H. Kowalke writes in the Threepenny edition of the Cambridge Opera Handbooks series, "All in all, the final version of Blitzstein's adaptation followed Brecht's script more literally than it did Weill's score. Although he had softened the tone of the original language in a number of places, made a few judicious cuts in the dialogue (the first preview still lasted nearly four hours), reordered some passages, and reinstated Gay's opening to the brothel scene, Blitzstein's script undermines the sense and shape of the 1928 libretto less obviously than does Brecht's own literary version published in 1931 – the 'authorized' text, now often mistaken as the historically 'authentic' one."

Blitzstein's translation also gave the world one of its greatest pop hits, "Mack the Knife." Unfortunately, stage censorship at the time prevented Blitzstein from being entirely faithful to the Brecht. Blitzstein’s version was also produced in London in 1956, and around the world since then, becoming the preferred translation. By the time it closed off Broadway, it had run longer than the longest-running Broadway musical at the time, Oklahoma! The Threepenny cast album had sold 500,000 copies, and "Mack the Knife" had forty different pop recordings, that had collectively sold over ten million copies.

In 1962 a lifeless, English-language film version was made called The Three Penny Opera (each version seems to have its own spacing and punctuation). In desperation, the producers tacked on a new, cheaply made opening to the film, in which Sammy Davis Jr. sang "Mack the Knife," and then they sold the film as "starring" Davis.

Back in Germany, Brecht's Berliner Ensemble finally added Threepenny to its repertoire in 1960, four years after its playwright's death. Director Erich Engel wrote about why he revived the show, "Today, as before, it is useful, by way of consciousness raising, to utilize such a satire in order to submit to the viewer's critique the adulteration of life under capitalism."

Threepenny would return to New York in 1976, starring Raul Julia, in a much grittier translation – free of 1950s censorship – for another 306 performances. Since that production, directors tend to cast "sexy" Macheaths, but that wasn't what was intended. As Brecht himself wrote about his anti-hero, "He impresses women less as a handsome man than as a well-heeled one. There are English drawings of The Beggar's Opera which show a short, stocky man of about forty with a head like a radish, a bit bald but not lacking dignity."

An excellent 1989 film version, Mack the Knife, starring Raul Julia, rock singer Roger Daltry, Richard Harris, and Julie Waters didn't do well either, but in many ways, this version was closer to Brecht’s philosophy and theories on theatre, and his famous distancing effect. There have been other high-profile revivals, one with Sting, one with Alan Cumming and Cyndi Lauper, but they weren't particularly successful.

Threepenny is like Show Boat, in that there isn't just one authentic or "correct" version. Brecht himself rewrote the show over time, changing its tone and the prominence of its politics after its first production. There are four translations available for production, from various sources, and they differ quite a bit.

Once New Line announced last season that we were producing Threepenny, the show's fans all wanted to know which translation we'd be using – and they all have their favorite. So why do the Blitzstein translation? Because though some may think it's not as faithful to Brecht's German lyrics as other versions (though Brecht and Lenya disagreed), I think Blitzstein's translation works the best as theatre and as storytelling. I think his lyrics are the most singable. Some of the other translations are dirtier, more adult, and in certain ways perhaps more faithful to the original, but the other translations all sound like translations to me. Blitzstein's doesn't.

Plus, I think audiences want to hear the famous lyrics they all (partially) know to "Mack the Knife." One translation of the show moves this song to the opening of Act II, which I hate.

I've seen Threepenny onstage three times, all amateur, and I've loved it every time. Though in talking to people who've seen other productions over the years, apparently a lot of directors don't seem to know this is a comedy. I'm not sure how that's possible, but I've heard of many productions that just weren't at all funny.

Believe me, with the cast we've assembled, there's no way that will happen to New Line.

Still, there is this weight of history on my shoulders. I know there is a vast, unknown army of Threepenny fans. I know a lot of people love this show deeply. But really, all we have to do is the same thing we do with every show – just follow the text and go where the writers take us. People often ask me about a given show, "So what's your concept for it?" My concept is the clearest storytelling we can muster. That's all.

This is going to be such a fun rehearsal process, and we're going to have such a blast sharing this with our audiences.

Another great adventure begins...!

Long Live the Musical!

We Stand Together, Joined in Might

Putting Jerry Springer the Opera together was a Herculean task. As I said a few times to our actors, "We have climbed a mountain." Not just in practical terms, like learning and singing this dense, challenging score, with a cast far smaller than it was written for; but also in conceptual terms, understanding what makes this show (and the TV show) tick, what its agenda is, what its style and tone are, how it should move physically, and how to unify its two contrasting halves.

And how much, if at all, we should deviate from the original production in London, which was directed by one of the authors. (Ultimately, we deviated quite a bit.)

The learning and figuring-out part of our process was really hard (among the two or three hardest shows we've ever done), and honestly, not all that fun. Many in our cast were really overwhelmed and stressed out by this score. It really is an opera, after all, and we're not an opera company, and only some in the cast are classically trained. Some actors in our "studio audience" were terrified that they would never be able to learn all their music (they sang in thirty-two numbers). I knew they would. No matter how hard the material is, we always rise to the challenge. We always conquer the mountain. Always.

Once we got to Hell Week, the only real obstacle was vocal fatigue. They knew the music, they had found character and relationships, style and tone, all the design elements were in place, and at long last, everyone could see that I really had set us on the right path, that we could pull it off, that it would in fact be really amazing.

Then, running the show for four weeks was pure joy (because, as Jerry tells us, "energy is pure delight"). The actors were full-on fearless, both in the outrageous moments and also in the more serious, emotionally raw moments. And with very few walk-outs (we knew we'd get a few), our audiences really enjoyed going on this wild ride with us. Some enjoyed it more on the surface; but many really loved the rich, subversive philosophy and theology underneath it all.

I've often seen that the darkest shows (Love Kills, The Wild Party, bare, etc.) bring a very dark energy with them. When we work on those shows, moods are darker, the fun more muted. And, not surprisingly I guess, this show both did and didn't do that. Jerry Springer the Opera is entirely about dualities (good/evil, Heaven/Hell, Jesus/Satan, moral/immoral, public/private, normal/abnormal, man/woman, us/them), and its structure reflects that, with a light first act that only hints at the darkness to come, then a very dark second and third acts that explore the consequences of the action of Act I. Sorta like Into the Woods.

So likewise, half of our process (learning the score) did feel a little darker than usual, because most everyone was feeling scared, tense, insecure. But then the other half of our process was much more fun and we spent our run-through rehearsals just laughing pretty much nonstop.

To carry my metaphor even further, the run itself had a light and dark side. The reviews were so positive (my favorite was from Richard Green at TalkinBroadway: "John Waters would be proud. So would Thornton Wilder."), we got lots of standing ovations, and so many people called our show "amazing" and "brilliant." But not everybody liked it. For all the awesome yin, there had to be some yang, right? Especially for a show entirely about yin and yang.

It is perhaps the greatest irony of Jerry Springer the Opera that the show simultaneously seduces us into superficially judging both it and its characters (some of us need less seduction than others), and then scolds us for being so judgy. It encourages us to laugh and sneer at Andrea, along with the "studio audience," then be gobsmacked by her palpable humiliation.

It's the show's greatest irony precisely because a fair number of people, including a few reviewers, got trapped by the show during our run, slipping easily into being so judgmental and feeling so superior (culturally, morally, intellectually), that they're blinded to what's beneath the craziness and what the craziness reveals to us. They can't imagine that Jerry Springer the Opera could be at all a serious work.

I knew some people would hate the adult language, because many Americans have a real hang-up about language. I knew some people would find the theology disconcerting, despite the surprisingly Christ-like message the show ultimately delivers. Remember the splinter and the plank...?

But I was surprised that quite a few otherwise intelligent, rational people really short-circuited over the first act of our show, despite its moments of real humanity and real seriousness. I overheard a group of college-age folks at intermission one night, clearly feeling quite superior, and complaining that they just don't like vulgarity for its own sake. That's okay, kids, neither do we. That's why we didn't put that onstage. I don't know how can they watch "I Want to Sing Something Beautiful" or "I Just Wanna Dance" and think our show is just vulgarity for its own sake. Would the show have won all four of London's "Best Musical" awards if it were just vulgarity for its own sake? Would it have played Carnegie Hall?

In parallel to that, in Judy Newmark's review in the Post-Dispatch, she wrote that JSTO isn't really an opera. I asked her why she thought that, and she said she had asked the Post's classical music critic, Sarah Bryan Miller, who assured her that JSTO is not a "real" opera. Of course, Miller is full of shit. The rest of the world knows it's an opera. Miller's bias is just another example of that same knee-jerk cultural superiority that the show criticizes. I expected negative reactions from unthinking prudes and Bible thumpers, but I guess I thought that JSTO's long trail of praise and awards would inoculate us from unthinking elitists.

Not so.

On the other hand, I was delighted that so many religious friends and family members came to see the show and were not offended. Many of them could see the uplifting morality the show puts forth at the end. Many appreciated the humanizing and complicating of the Bible characters. Many appreciated that the show challenged some things they believe, or at least opened them up to a new perspective they had not considered before.

I found a wonderful "letter from Jesus" on the internet a few days ago, written about the new anti-LGBT law in Indiana, but it also responds so directly to the silly few folks who wrote us letters of Christian outrage. Jesus writes:
"I have placed you here at this exact place and time in the history of creation, not to defend me, as I need no defense; not to protect me, since I have already willingly laid my life down; not to judge others on my behalf, as this is far beyond your capacity and my instruction. My beloved, I placed you here, not to defend or protect or replace me, but simply to reflect me. . .

All that is happening these days, all the posturing and the debating and the protesting; does this really look like love to you? Do you really think that the grandstanding and the insult-slinging and the side-choosing, that it feels like me? Do you truly believe that the result of your labors here in these days, is a Church that clearly perpetuates my character in the world? Is this the Gospel I entrusted you with? To be honest with you, I simply don’t see it. How did you drift so far from the mission? How did you become so angry, so combative, so petty, so arrogant, so entitled?"

That's a Jesus I can get behind. The Jesus who hangs out with society's outcasts. That's a Jesus that would be right at home in Jerry Springer the Opera.

It's been an amazing, wonderful, joyful, artistically satisfying adventure. I am forever grateful to all our intrepid actors, musicians, designers, and support staff. We could not have climbed this mountain without all of us working toward that goal together. One of the coolest things about the musical theatre is that it is the most collaborative of all art forms, by definition. I think that's a big part of why I love it so much.

And an extra big thank-you to St. Louis audiences, who are apparently just as fearless as the New Liners.

Now I get a week to prep for Threepenny rehearsals. No rest for the wicked.

Long Live the Musical!

I Want to Sing Something Beautiful, Part II

If anyone doubts that Jerry Springer the Opera is a serious piece of theatre, let me share some of the more emotional, more beautiful moments (you heard me right!) in the show.

Maybe my favorite is early in Act III. We've set up the whole idea that Jerry is being forced to do a Jerry Springer Show in Hell for Satan, and as this bizarre faux show begins, Satan tells us his sad story in the song "Once in Happy Realms," and it always surprises me with its aching beauty and its depth of feeling, particularly in the able hands and voice of Matt Pentecost, New Line's "Satan." It's not an exaggeration to call it an art song. Look at this lyric:
Once in happy realms of light,
I was transcendental,
Golden and bright.
Mmmm, bright...
But I rebelled and was cast down,
Forced to surrender
My celestial crown.
Oh, my crown...!
Then God hurled me from the sky,
Not merciful enough to let me die...
Let me die...
Confounded immortal I,
Paradise lost,
And pain eternal...
Pain eternal...!

This is not sketch comedy. This is not a joke. As the scene continues, Jerry asks Satan what he wants, and the music turns light, even childlike, as Satan remembers back...
I want it to be just like old times,
With Baby Jesus by my side.
I want my old wings back as well;
I want to get out of this dump called Hell.

But then the music turns dramatic (Springnerian?) again...
But first and most importantly...
I want a fucking apology!

It's not hard to understand Satan's feelings here, particularly when accompanied by Richard Thomas' beautiful, emotional music – and that makes some people very uncomfortable. Which is the point. Nothing is wrong and nothing is right, and everything that lives is holy. Satan is the protagonist of his story (aren't we all?), with Jesus and God as antagonists. That's quite a mind fuck for people who haven't read Milton.

Another really serious moment in the show comes at the end of Montel's segment in Act I, when the humiliated Andrea refuses to leave the stage, and she sings, broken but defiant:
I want to sing something beautiful...
I want to sing something positive...
I want to learn how to dream again,
To feel again...
I wanna stand on top of a hill,
In the arms of my lover,
Bathed in the light of rainbows,
With spring in my heart
And love by my side...
Oh, stay with me, stay with me,
Stay with me, baby...
Stay with me, stay with me,
Stay with me, baby...

And she falls apart, and Steve leads her offstage. It's a really sobering end to a very wild, rowdy segment, and it catches us off-guard. But it also signals to us that there is more than just Springer episodes happening in this show. Her humiliation here is so palpable, her sadness so profound, and this song seems almost like an (unsuccessful) exorcism.

The other very cool moment that often gets overlooked is the Warm-Up Man's solo in Act I, "The First Time I Saw Jerry."
The first time I saw Jerry on TV,
I knew that there was hope for me.
When I saw how he worked the crowd,
I knew that he could help me out.
Before that I was empty inside,
I had considered suicide;
But now I’m a vital member of Jerry's team.
But sometimes I wonder how much he values me...

Foreshadowing! Also, clearly not sketch comedy. Also, some interesting insights into Jerry's audience and his relationship with them. And some more beautiful music to deepen the emotional impact.

Jerry Springer the Opera is vulgar, outrageous, offensive, blasphemous, and lots more, but it's also serious, insightful, intelligent, and a major work of theatre art. We've seen as we run the show that some people cannot get past the offensive to the insightful. They're unable to see all the richness and artistry, and then they condemn the show for lacking richness and artistry.

As you can see from all my blog posts during this process, those folks are full of shit.

It has been such a privilege working on this magnificent show with this extraordinary group of artists, and getting so much love from our audiences. It's been a wild, wonderful trip, and I'm very grateful...

We begin our last three performances tonight. It will be hard to leave this one...

Long Live the Musical!

Where Were You When the Condom Split?

As we run Jerry Springer the Opera, we discover that it's often not the R-rated language that offends people; it's the subversive theology. And I think that "blasphemy" is made even more intense by the fact that the show gets more overtly serious in the second half, when it also gets most religious minded.

I would argue the show is sometimes very serious in Act I (there are real victims amongst the crazies), but more subliminally so. Acts II and III get more obviously serious in terms of both tone and plot. Critic Paul Friswold of The Riverfront Times, wrote about our production, "Richard Wagner himself would high-five Springer after witnessing the audacity of this production, which is both hilarious and surprising in its gravity."

I think those who tend to turn their brains off, see Jerry Springer the Opera as only trivial vulgarity that's sort of mindlessly funny. But others can see the show for the very ballsy, very intelligent deep-dive it is into Springer's show, its audience, its guests, and our culture in which it thrives. Most unexpectedly, it's a deep-dive that ultimately surfaces in an uplifting, even optimistic spirit.

I think some audiences – and obviously, a few of our reviewers – can't make sense of this more serious second-half, because they can't conceive that this show could be getting at real truths about our country and our times, that its purposes might extend beyond laughs. They see only offense and The Other in Act I, and so can't see what else is there. With that basic misunderstanding, they see little of value, where the rest of us find questions and insights of great import and intelligence.

Back when Jesus Christ Superstar first was released on LP (I think I was five), and then premiered onstage, one of the central complaints was that Jesus was too human. I thought that was the whole point.

It bothered people for Jesus to seem normal or ordinary. There was one line in particular in "Gethsemane" – "Could you ask as much of any other man?" – that drove frightened Christians crazy. I was young, but I do remember that at the time most people considered the King James version of the Bible to be the only acceptable text. That Superstar strayed so far from the King James thees and thous and spakests, seemed disrespectful to those brought up on ol' King James, or even worse, brought up on the Latin mass, as my mother had. People wanted God and Jesus to be old-fashioned, weirdly formal, antiquated, anachronistic. Seriously, they really did.

Of course, that's one of the reasons Superstar was so popular. It was such a relief!

I think Jerry Springer the Opera, particularly in its second half, works in a similar way. When you visit the lame Christian activist websites protesting the show, whose visitors' only act of courage is to fill in their name and click a button for an auto-email to be sent, you'll see that some of their complaints are really about a palpable fear of thinking about the Bible characters as flawed and emotional humans.

Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee do a lot more in this show – and a lot more in Act III – than just make us laugh, though they do a lot of that too. One song in particular, "Where Were You?" in Act III, gets forgotten sometimes amidst the insanity of everything else. There's not a joke anywhere in it. It's angry. It's revealing. It's serious satire. It also leads us to the central theme of the show and the climax of the plot.

"Where Were You?" is a song about people who draw a direct connection between God's omnipotence and their own needs or wants. If God can do anything, surely he can help me pass this test! Conservatives often criticize liberals for wanting government to solve all our problems, yet this song is a razor sharp commentary on how many Christians expect God/Jesus to solve all their problems, praying for sick people to get better, praying to win football games, praying for good weather, praying for a good performance, praying for politicians to win, praying for a safe trip, praying for advice.

The lyric of "Where Were You?" starts out with some arguably legitimate grievances – why did Jesus abandon his mother and not take care of her in her old age like a good son should? Of course Jesus has a good answer, as we all know, but this is from the point of view of the left-behind mother. The Bible doesn't cover that part. In fact, the Bible doesn't give us full characters at all, only relationships and events, no psychology, no motivation. That's part of why any dramatization of the Bible upsets some people – to write a good story, you have to fill in so many blanks left open in the Bible, all the whys.

Satan seizes the opportunity in "Where Were You?" to remind everyone that Jesus didn't solve all their problems, that their prayers weren't answered, that Jesus must not have cared about them and probably wasn't even there like he's supposed to be! Satan (and Thomas and Lee) deconstructs Jesus' hero identity, exposing Jesus' followers' shallow misunderstanding of how Christianity is supposed to work...
MARY (to Jesus)
Where were you when I was on my own?
Where were you when they rolled the stone?
Where were you when I was getting old?
Where were you when I was sick and bald?
Where, where, where were you?

Jesus wasn't there, he didn't care.

EVE (to Jesus)
Where were you when the children cried?

ADAM (to Jesus)
Where were you when the children died?

But Jesus has some gripes too...
Where were you when I was crucified?
Where were you when they pierced my side?

In fact, everybody has some gripes at Jesus...
Where, where, where were you?
Where, where, where were you?

Wasn't there, didn't care...

Where, where, where were you?
Where where where where where where
Where where where where where where?

Doesn't know, didn’t show, never there, doesn’t care...

Where were you when he got fleas?
Where were you when he lost his keys?
Where were you when her pants don't fit?
Where were you when the condom split...?

And the music stops abruptly, as this bitching rises to its logical extreme. If Jesus is responsible for winning or losing a football game, why isn't he responsible when you lose your car keys or you gain weight...?

Thomas and Lee are trapping their audience once again (they do this throughout the show). Those in the audience who find it uncomfortable hearing these Bible characters complain in such a petty way, are really just uncomfortable with the way they view God, Jesus, prayer, and other related issues.

In an interview with author James Grissom, Tennessee Williams once said, “I came to see that Christianity, in some of its forms, was very much a version of Let’s Make A Deal, and God a shiny and ebullient Monty Hall, who came and asked what you had. God may not ask if we have a carrot in our purse or a clown wig in a pocket. God may not ask us if we have a kazoo or a camera. But in order to play the game, in order to play for prizes, we must sacrifice things: a lover, a limb, a sense of calm; health and happiness. We happily sacrifice these things. Crosses to bear. But as with the game show, we do not know what God has behind his doors and his curtains. But we believe and we hope and we play the game. This is called faith. It has its limits.” Those limits are what "Where Were You?" is about, when the grind of reality crashes down around the fragile construct of faith.

After the music has stopped so abruptly...

The next moment in the show is really unexpected and really insightful. The angry crowd eagerly, easily turns its recriminations from Jesus to Jerry. If Jesus won't/can't solve all their problems, they'll demand that Jerry solve all their problems. And they're ready to kill (crucify?) him if he won't. Talk about taking on the sins of man! And then God shows up, as a literal deus ex machina, and bemoans the exact same thing we've just witnessed – "millions of voices making all the wrong choices, then turning 'round and blaming me."

It's a harsh indictment of Christianity – or at least, of unthinking Christians.

And it's why so many people find this show so rich and insightful and genuinely brilliant, while others find it so disturbing and offensive. If you work hard to avoid thinking difficult thoughts, if you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, this show may really upset you. And yes, I'll admit, that's a big part of why I love it so much.

Long Live the Musical!

It Ain't Easy Bein' Me

Most of our reviews for Jerry Springer the Opera have been wonderful. People really understand and embrace this wild, weird, beautiful show.

Well, some people do.

New Line does intelligent, thoughtful theatre, and we expect intelligent, thoughtful reviews. And we mostly get that. But not always. One reviewer this time had some compliments for our production but really did not like the material, and ordinarily, I can't complain about that. It's just a matter of taste and opinion, right? But this guy didn't just say he disliked the material. He said the writers "ran out of ideas" at the end and that his readers would enjoy the show more if they walked out fifteen minutes before the end. Yes, he really wrote that.

And that pisses me off. A lot. First of all, who is he to tell people to walk out on our show? Second, he is factually incorrect that the writers ran out of ideas. In fact, the climax of the entire show is the section he thinks runs out of steam.

But he didn't recognize it as the climax. Because he didn't recognize the central plot.

This guy saw our opera as two, very different pieces. It's true the tone shifts from one act to the next, exactly like Fiddler on the Roof, Camelot, Sweeney Todd, The Fantasticks, and other dramatic works, but the two halves (in three acts, really) are tightly integrated. And these two episodes of The Jerry Springer Show we witness aren't the action of the show, just its circumstances. There is a real linear plot here, and there are lots of hints in the first act to that developing arc.

As the opera opens, Jerry hosts another wild show, but this one gets more than usually out of control (one might argue, taking the real Jerry Springer Show to its logical extreme). At the end of Act I, lots of different forces collide and it all comes to real violence. (I'm trying to avoid spoilers, for folks who haven't seen it yet.) That violence takes on extra creepy resonance if you know the story of the kid who was murdered after appearing on The Jenny Jones Show in 1995.

To clue the audience into the bigger story being told, there's a plot-driven, backstage "book scene," in the middle of Act I, that lays the groundwork for all the conflicts in Acts II and III. There's also an "unscripted,"off-air moment in Act I with Andrea ("I Want to Sing Something Beautiful"), that hints at the themes that return in "The Haunting" in Act II. Even more obvious, the show's moody, ritualistic prologue – a mirrored bookend to the finale – is not an introduction to a night of naughty sketch comedy. The prologue announces the show's agenda quite clearly: a comic, ironic dissonance between music and content (i.e., "high" and "low" culture); the exploration of the marginalized in our culture and how they take their power back; and the bigger question of our part in it all. Like any good theatre score, the writers establish all of that in the first number.

In Act II of our opera, in Purgatory, all the characters rejoin us and Jerry learns of the consequences of his actions on Earth. Paul Friswold wrote in his Riverfront Times review, "These are surprisingly high stakes for a Springer episode, if only because Jerry finally has something to lose." Right. He's not just a host here; he's the protagonist.

Some in the audience may assume throughout the first act that Jerry is just a facilitator, like on TV; but when the first act ends with a big cliffhanger, suddenly everything you thought you knew changes. Suddenly, Jerry is at the center of the action, not off to the side. Suddenly, we realize Jerry is actually our hero. Then in Act II, it's made even clearer that this is Jerry's story.

And really, the title of the show tells us that, though without most of us noticing. After all, it's not called The Jerry Springer Show the Opera; it's called Jerry Springer the Opera. This is not the TV show as an opera; it's the man himself as an opera.

Ultimately, the consequence of Jerry's actions on Earth is that Satan shows up and takes Jerry to Hell for Act III. As in many Hero Myths, our hero must travel to the underworld to gain the wisdom he needs, so he can bring it back to his people.

So far, this is textbook Hero Myth. Jerry has his wise wizard (Baby Jane, and maybe also Steve?), his companions (Steve and his audience), his magic amulets (his cards and his mic), and he ultimately does battle with an evil wizard, in this case, Satan himself. (And as in many Hero Myths, Jerry even loses his magic amulet right before the big climactic battle.)

Of course, nothing this clueless reviewer wrote in his review suggests that he even understands that the show has a protagonist or a plot. Where he normally gives a synopsis of the plot in his review, this time he surveyed the real Jerry Springer's life, which gets no more than an aside in the opera. I guess if this guy missed the entire plot, it's not a surprise that he missed its climax.

What Jerry ultimately learns in those last fifteen minutes – sort of by happy accident, he doesn't know his own power! – is how to heal the rift between Heaven and Hell. Jerry learns in a roundabout way that the morality of The Jerry Springer Show (via William Blake) is the answer: Energy is pure delight. Nothing is wrong, and nothing is right. And everything that lives is holy. And once Jerry teaches his new friends The Answer To It All, they embrace their newfound wisdom in a gorgeous, joyous chorale. They sing:
Everything that lives is holy.
Energy is delight.
We stand together,
Joined in might.
Energy is pure delight.
Nothing is wrong and nothing is right.
Energy is pure delight.
Nothing is wrong and nothing is right.
Let poets through the ages tell
How Springer united heaven and hell.

They have learned something important, not to label, not to judge. They are "joined in might" because they have abandoned their divisive, petty ways. Understanding the idea that nothing is objectively wrong and nothing is objectively right is empowering. Erasing the line between good and bad erases the line between Heaven and Hell, and between Us and Them. We're all the same, Jerry is telling us, and that point is driven home at the end of the second-to-last song, when the whole cast repeats Dwight's watchcry from the very first segment, "I've been seeing someone else..." We all have our Jerry Springer moments. There's little difference between me, you, Chucky, Shawntel, and Tremont. However the details may differ, we all face the same things, and we all stumble on our road now and then. We hurt people sometimes. We're selfish sometimes. We love too much sometimes. We all live our own Hero Myths. And sometimes, like Jerry, we are called to account for ourselves. And often, that's when we grow and learn to connect. And that is holy.

But even beyond all these ideas, that last fifteen minutes is a lesson in structure. It goes from a surprise reversal, to the biggest crisis yet, to resolution and celebration; then to another reversal and a final, fuller resolution, and an even bigger celebration. Meanwhile, it's also chock-full of rich, philosophical content, and for those looking for it, references to Blake, Milton, Dante, and others. That's really good writing.

And then there's the music. "This is My Jerry Springer Moment" returns in celebration of Jerry's success, the lyric now changed to "This is his Jerry Springer moment," underlining the point that this show, this story, really is Jerry's story. It is his triumph, his wisdom, that saves us. "Take Care," the song in which the denizens of Hell come to understand at last another important lesson (Jerry's variation on the Golden Rule), proves that even though Jerry never sings in the show, his philosophy does. And it is set to the same music as the fight between Jesus and Satan earlier in the act. The re-use of this music (even for those who don't consciously recognize it) gives us a sense of healing. Music that once accompanied fighting now accompanies reconciliation. And then the song segues into God's theme, "It Ain't Easy Bein' Me," but now as Jerry's theme. After all, Jerry has saved mankind. But it's never easy...

And then in the beginning of the finale, the whole cast sings "It Ain't Easy Bein' Me" again, this time for themselves. It's another reminder that all these guests' problems are universal ones. We all sometimes think it ain't easy being us. Here we identify with all the crazy characters onstage, and with Jerry, and with God! The finale takes a whirlwind tour through all the problems we've witnessed – God's, Baby Jane's, Shawntel's, Tremont's, Peaches and Zandra's, and it caps off with a final quote of "This is My Jerry Springer Moment." But the pronoun changes again. This song starts in Act I as personal ("This is my Jerry Springer moment"), it changes to our/their for the Klan at the end of Act I, it changes again to his as all these self-involved characters understand what Jerry's done for them, and then it finally changes to our in the finale, as the cast takes on the universal nature of all this craziness, the word our now referring both to all the characters onstage, but also to us in the audience.

This really is our Jerry Springer moment. Pretty cool.

That same reviewer also called the show "juvenile." Does any of what you've just read sound childish or immature...?

The show ends with this collective, all-embracing Jerry Springer Moment. The finale suggests that they/we are all God, Baby Jane, Shawntel, Tremont, Peaches, and Zandra. There is no us or them, no "wrong" or "right." Because everything that lives is holy. And then, literally the last word in the show both connects back to the Act I finale, and also makes an ironic joke on the whole second half of the show. (And now as I write about it, I half-wonder if the use of this word throughout the show is intentional foreshadowing? Again, sorry, trying to avoid spoilers...)

And all that is in those last fifteen minutes that this hapless reviewer thought "ran out of ideas."

No, Ace, that's the opposite of running out of ideas. That's the only show ever to win all four of London's "Best Musical" awards, the show that played Carnegie Hall, the show The New York Times called, only half-ironically, "the great American musical of the early 21st century." Not a show for which you'd want to miss the last fifteen minutes. Even if you don't get it.

Quod erat demonstrandum.

Long Live the Musical!

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). Interestingly, Jerry Springer the Opera does both. In Act I, we see the extraordinary feelings and actions of these ordinary people; and in Act II, we see the very ordinary feelings and actions of these iconic Bible characters.

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 hysterics 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!