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’Opéra 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!

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!