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!