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!