Pimps in Bad Suits, Mothers Who Are Prostitutes

I've realized as I've been blocking Jerry Springer the Opera that my job this time is to Get Out of the Way. This is such dense text, often with laughs coming every few words. Any complex staging or gimmicky stage pictures will take focus away from this brilliant text and the genuinely funny musical jokes. So a lot of my job this time is just about planning ahead and traffic control.

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.

In this show, words reign over all. The language, the jokes, and the references come fast and furiously. So my number one task is to make everything as clear as possible, to help the audience navigate these crazy stories through our staging. One important part of that is to keep it simple. Clarity rarely rides along with complexity.

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.

We already knew our production would be scaled down from the massive productions in London, but as often happens to me, I find I like the show better without all the bullshit. The more tech you heap on a show, the less of the show you get to see, the less human the experience becomes.

The original production was a massive, overblown spectacle, as part of the meta-joke that this nasty, "common" content is being treated as grand opera. But as is often the case with us, we're coming at the show slightly differently. Instead of making fun of opera conventions, we're gonna follow the lead of Little Shop, Bat Boy, and Urinetown – and know that the more straight-faced we play it, the funnier it gets. Personally, I think they overplayed it in London. The second the audience feels effort in comedy, it becomes less funny. I think Jerry Springer the Opera should be played the way the British play Gilbert & Sullivan: the wackier the content, the straighter they play it. They let the words do the work, and they don't try to pile on the rich, laugh-packed text.

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.

Rather than mock the conventions of opera with this content, as the original productions did, I want the ridiculous coupling of this form and this content to speak for itself, without our imposing our own commentary on top of that. We do not need to make this show funny; it's plenty funny on its own. I want to present The Jerry Springer Show as an opera because it already is one, just without the music. The emotions and drama and stakes are already that high. I want to present The Jerry Springer Show as an opera because I think that reveals so much about the show and the culture that has embraced it (even while condemning it) for so long. I don't think this show is just some elaborate joke, though it is incredibly fucking funny. I think this show is a really smart and insightful social commentary. You can ignore that part of it and still be wildly entertained, but there are real guts to this show.

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...

One of the hallmarks of The Jerry Springer Show is chaos. On his show and in our opera, most of the characters are agents of chaos. You never see what's coming, except that you know it will be chaos. Sometimes that chaos is emotional, sometimes it's narrative, and sometimes it's physical. The writers of the opera do an amazing job of creating that chaos in the words and in the music (and it's tough to do chaos this well in music). So in parallel to what I said above, I just have to follow the text, and have the actors move only when the text requires it. The writing is really good and really well paced, so all I have to do is keep up.

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!