Honestly, it's pretty much exactly what it sounds like. But people keep asking that question, I think because they can't imagine that it could possibly be what it actually is. So in response, I always say something fairly uninformative like, "Well, it's a Jerry Springer show... as an opera..." That really is what it is. But it's a lot more than that, too. After all, The New York Times called it "genius," and the Sunday Times of London called it "a shocking, irresistibly funny masterpiece!" They wouldn't be saying that if it were really just a Springer show.
As you can see, I'm still trying to figure out how to talk about this show, and I think that's because I'm still trying to figure out exactly what this thing is and why I love it so much.
One thing I know – you really have no idea what this show is like until you actually see it. Nothing I say can really prepare you.
Here's what else I know. It's whip-fucking-smart. It's consistently, outrageously laugh-out-loud funny, on a level with Bat Boy, Urinetown, Spelling Bee, and Cry-Baby. It's deeply insightful culturally. It's probably the most offensive thing you will ever see on a legit theatre stage. By a mile. People keep saying, "Well it can't be worse than Bukowsical!" It's worse. But also, it humanizes its characters more than you would think possible, considering the context.
It's really an opera, and the music is really wonderful, beautiful, exciting; and also extremely expressive, doing every bit as much storytelling as the lyrics. And my favorite thing in the musical theatre – the music itself is quite often really, really funny. There's nothing better than funny music.
I also know, having let the show percolate in my brain for quite a while now, that though it is an opera, it operates as a neo musical comedy; and so the trick here is to play it all as seriously and honestly as we can, to let the outrageous situations and language take care of the Funny, while we take care of the human emotions at the core of all the lunacy. This is serious comedy, like Bat Boy or Little Shop of Horrors. No camp. No commentary. No winking. 100% honest. As the Bat Boy writers put it, "the height of expression, the depth of sincerity." The more seriously we take this crazy world, the funnier it will get.
Why is it an opera? I think probably the real reason is that seemed like a really funny idea. But it goes deeper than that. Why does the idea seem so funny? Because it's both surprising and truthful. I realize as I watch our early rehearsals that these characters and emotions are already operatic, even without music. Richard Thomas and Lee Stewart merely followed the First Law of Sondheim: Content Dictates Form. These huge emotions, these sky high stakes, this ravenous crowd (our "studio audience") demand the size of opera.
When Dwight sings "I've been seeing someone else," in a soaring operatic melody, we get not only the fact of his betrayal, but the self-importance of his decision to drag his loved ones onto national television. What seems trivial to us does not seem trivial to Dwight or his multiple paramours. After all, this small moment in their lives that we're witnessing may destroy or salvage those various lives. We laugh at the over-drama, at the meta joke of the operatic music, at the excessive chaos of these interlocked lives; but most of us also know we've been dumped or almost dumped, we've felt old, we've felt trapped. These are universal human emotions. And maybe that, at the root, is why the show works so well.
Take a look at this lyric, in which Shawntel tells us how desperately she wants escape from her life. The show's ironic, meta edge remains – she's talking about being a pole dancer, and she sings this clutching Jerry's famous stripper pole – but the emotion is unmistakably real.
If people think I am a whore –
I just wanna dance,
Oh, I just wanna dance.
Things are going bad for me,
I am feeling sad for me,
So I just wanna dance,
Oh, I just wanna dance.
I’m tired of laughing,
And I'm tired of crying.
And I'm tired of failing,
And I'm tired of all this trying.
I wanna do some living
‘Cause I’ve done enough dying.
I just wanna dance.
I just wanna fucking dance.
She may be uneducated and lacking the exact vocabulary to express what she's feeling, but this lyric captures her 21st-century discontent quite eloquently in the list of what makes her tired, including "all this trying." Her line, "I've done enough dying," rises above the show's gleeful crudity to a place of piercing truthfulness. We can feel how beaten down this woman is, how weary she feels, how desperate for escape. By the end of the song, dance is no longer rebellion; it's survival. This lyric sneaks up on us (as the show does from time to time) and surprises us with its gravity and its seriousness.
What music does best is emotion, which is why the most emotional stories make the best musicals. And here's a show that actually subordinates plot to emotion. Who's sleeping with whom is far less important or interesting (on the real show or in the opera) than what each character's individual quirk or fault or path may be. Like the TV show it's based on, this is a show not about story, but about betrayal, loss, triumph, love, rejection, dreams. It doesn't matter that the emotions are extreme, that they're exaggerated, even ridiculous; they also ring true.
It's almost a neo musical comedy.
And though narrative is not the show's primary agenda, each segment does give us a glimpse into someone's personal hero myth story, complete with obstacles to overcome and enlightenment to be attained (if they're lucky). And maybe that universal hero myth story is what makes us tune in to Springer. Storytelling is the foundation of each Springer segment, as Jerry welcomes the next guest and says, "So what's goin' on?" Humans need storytelling, to learn lessons, to connect with other lives, to preserve our history and culture, to feel less alone.
And in many cases, these guests are taking back their power. They are choosing the time and place for confrontation. They are choosing to change something in their life. We all relate to that too.
All the issues on the show (and in the opera) are moral ones – the guests' needs/desires are at odds with mainstream morality. But are the guests "wrong" or "sinful" while the mainstream is "right," or are they just different from the mainstream? Do these people have the right to construct their own moral universe? What does that do to the people around them? Do those people get to choose...?
I'm reading two books in my quest for understanding of all this. Richard H. Smith's The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature is really interesting and easy to digest. There's more to schadenfreude than the song from Avenue Q. The other book is Talking Trash: The Cultural Politics of Daytime TV Talk Shows by Julie Engel Manga, a study specifically of how women connect with shows like Jerry Springer, Oprah, and the others. Both books are giving me insight into all this, but I still don't have a really concrete grasp on it all. And I do think it's graspable.
In Talking Trash, Manga suggests that we generally judge Springer's guests by three criteria:
- impartial reason (does this make sense, is this rational, does it sound true)
- public/private distinction (where do we draw that line and why, where do the guests draw it)
- respectability (do these people act the way we think "respectable" adults act)
So much to ponder here.
I believe this show is really something special, and I don't want us to get lost in the considerable fun of the show's outrageousness and obscenity. We need to remember that though this show is truly hilarious, it's also a lot more. We've walked this tightrope before. We're good at this.
The other question we get a lot is, So is it really an opera? As you might know, New Line's June show, The Threepenny Opera is not really an opera, despite its title; it's a musical comedy. But Jerry Springer the Opera is really an opera, not just because it's almost entirely sung (though Jerry and Steve never sing), but also because several of the roles really can only be sung by classically trained singers. Of which we have several. The score also dabbles in jazz, rock, pop, and Broadway, but much of it really is contemporary opera music.
But as I said at the top, you'll really have no idea what you're getting into till you see it. And judging by the response we're getting already, you better get your tickets early...
Another wild New Line adventure begins!
Long Live the Musical!