You might not be surprised to hear that I don't want to approach the show the same way the original production did. I see it somewhat differently.
Boil them down, and all three segments in Act I are basic, archetypal stories, though slightly askew. Dwight's segment is just a simple story of boy meets girl, and girl, and "girl," boy loses girls. Montel's segment is a story of being coupled to the wrong person, de-coupling from them, and re-coupling to someone else. Same as A Little Night Music, Cry-Baby, Bat Boy, Little Shop... And Shawntel's segment is essentially the story of the struggle for women's rights over the last 50 years.
Sure, some of our performances will be over the top, because these characters live over-the-top lives (I'm lookin' at you, Montel), but even this early in rehearsal, I'm happy to see the performances aren't going to be superficial or cartoony. We have to come at this as if these are real people, though they may be living in an admittedly extreme world. Like we would with any of the great neo musical comedies, we're taking the comedy super-seriously, and that makes it utterly hilarious.
As we block this crazy opera, I find that our actors are sitting down a lot. And some of them clearly would like to be moving more. (Most actors have a constant fear of being boring.) The way we're coming at this thing, I'm trying to stage this as much like the TV show as is practical, to the point of being almost naturalistic some of the time. I think about how a moment would happen physically on the TV show, then translate that as directly as possible to our stage. And even this early in rehearsals, I can see that this approach really works. These characters are delivering so much information, and the way to get the audience to really listen is to give them less to look at.
I learned from the great ones – Bob Fosse, Hal Prince, Michael Bennett – that sometimes a great solo should be totally still. Think of Elaine Stritch sitting in that chair for all of "The Ladies Who Lunch" until the she stands for the series of "Rise!" at the end. Saving the standing up till the end makes it so much more powerful, almost like all that self-loathing has been simmering under the surface all throughout this long song, until at last it boils over at the end, and she has no choice but to rise herself. After all, she's been singing about herself the whole song anyway, so her demand to "Rise" is to herself as much as to anyone else. Any more staging to that song would have diminished it.
The same is true of Barney Martin's iconic performance of "Mr. Cellophane" in Fosse's original Chicago, almost still the entire song, with just small, minimalist gestures here and there. Just as "Mr. Cellophane" was based on Bert Williams' signature song "Nobody" from the 1906 musical Abyssinia, Fosse also based the staging on Williams' famous original performance. In this case, the restraint in staging focuses the audience on the lyric and its emotion, and it also conveys the idea of timidity, of almost literal nothingness. As Sondheim says, Content Dictates Form. The lyric becomes the staging. (To see New Line's recreation of Fosse's recreation of William's staging, from New Line's production of Chicago in 2002, click here.)
On the other hand...
It's important that we end the first act with a lot of visual chaos (including some special guest agents of chaos, who I won't name in case you haven't seen the show), because the second act (in Purgatory) is very different, much more still, almost more an oratorio, though again, slightly askew. The wilder the end of the first act is, the richer that contrast will be, and the more of an effect it will have on the audience.
Then in Act III, as Springer does his show in Hell, we essentially return to the staging of Act I. Though here in Hell, Springer doesn't control everything, as he did in Act I. It's a different Jerry here, less confident, less in control, less detached, less bemused. Now the high stakes are Jerry's, not the guests, and that changes everything. I haven't blocked Act III yet, but I need to find a balance between the style of Act I and this darker, creepier mood in Act III.
As is often the case with our shows, Jerry Springer the Opera is like no other piece of theatre you've ever seen. Which is a big part of the fun of exploring it and figuring out what makes it tick. At first, I wasn't even sure exactly what it was I love so much about it. But now I'm feeling much more comfortable; I do know how this thing works, and I know we're on the right road.
We finished blocking Act I last night and we will run the whole act for the first time tonight. What a wild ride this has been, and the adventure is only beginning...
Long Live the Musical!