It Ain't Easy Bein' Me

Most of our reviews for Jerry Springer the Opera have been wonderful. People really understand and embrace this wild, weird, beautiful show.

Well, some people do.

New Line does intelligent, thoughtful theatre, and we expect intelligent, thoughtful reviews. And we mostly get that. But not always. One reviewer this time had some compliments for our production but really did not like the material, and ordinarily, I can't complain about that. It's just a matter of taste and opinion, right? But this guy didn't just say he disliked the material. He said the writers "ran out of ideas" at the end and that his readers would enjoy the show more if they walked out fifteen minutes before the end. Yes, he really wrote that.

And that pisses me off. A lot. First of all, who is he to tell people to walk out on our show? Second, he is factually incorrect that the writers ran out of ideas. In fact, the climax of the entire show is the section he thinks runs out of steam.

But he didn't recognize it as the climax. Because he didn't recognize the central plot.

This guy saw our opera as two, very different pieces. It's true the tone shifts from one act to the next, exactly like Fiddler on the Roof, Camelot, Sweeney Todd, The Fantasticks, and other dramatic works, but the two halves (in three acts, really) are tightly integrated. And these two episodes of The Jerry Springer Show we witness aren't the action of the show, just its circumstances. There is a real linear plot here, and there are lots of hints in the first act to that developing arc.

As the opera opens, Jerry hosts another wild show, but this one gets more than usually out of control (one might argue, taking the real Jerry Springer Show to its logical extreme). At the end of Act I, lots of different forces collide and it all comes to real violence. (I'm trying to avoid spoilers, for folks who haven't seen it yet.) That violence takes on extra creepy resonance if you know the story of the kid who was murdered after appearing on The Jenny Jones Show in 1995.

To clue the audience into the bigger story being told, there's a plot-driven, backstage "book scene," in the middle of Act I, that lays the groundwork for all the conflicts in Acts II and III. There's also an "unscripted,"off-air moment in Act I with Andrea ("I Want to Sing Something Beautiful"), that hints at the themes that return in "The Haunting" in Act II. Even more obvious, the show's moody, ritualistic prologue – a mirrored bookend to the finale – is not an introduction to a night of naughty sketch comedy. The prologue announces the show's agenda quite clearly: a comic, ironic dissonance between music and content (i.e., "high" and "low" culture); the exploration of the marginalized in our culture and how they take their power back; and the bigger question of our part in it all. Like any good theatre score, the writers establish all of that in the first number.

In Act II of our opera, in Purgatory, all the characters rejoin us and Jerry learns of the consequences of his actions on Earth. Paul Friswold wrote in his Riverfront Times review, "These are surprisingly high stakes for a Springer episode, if only because Jerry finally has something to lose." Right. He's not just a host here; he's the protagonist.

Some in the audience may assume throughout the first act that Jerry is just a facilitator, like on TV; but when the first act ends with a big cliffhanger, suddenly everything you thought you knew changes. Suddenly, Jerry is at the center of the action, not off to the side. Suddenly, we realize Jerry is actually our hero. Then in Act II, it's made even clearer that this is Jerry's story.

And really, the title of the show tells us that, though without most of us noticing. After all, it's not called The Jerry Springer Show the Opera; it's called Jerry Springer the Opera. This is not the TV show as an opera; it's the man himself as an opera.

Ultimately, the consequence of Jerry's actions on Earth is that Satan shows up and takes Jerry to Hell for Act III. As in many Hero Myths, our hero must travel to the underworld to gain the wisdom he needs, so he can bring it back to his people.

So far, this is textbook Hero Myth. Jerry has his wise wizard (Baby Jane, and maybe also Steve?), his companions (Steve and his audience), his magic amulets (his cards and his mic), and he ultimately does battle with an evil wizard, in this case, Satan himself. (And as in many Hero Myths, Jerry even loses his magic amulet right before the big climactic battle.)

Of course, nothing this clueless reviewer wrote in his review suggests that he even understands that the show has a protagonist or a plot. Where he normally gives a synopsis of the plot in his review, this time he surveyed the real Jerry Springer's life, which gets no more than an aside in the opera. I guess if this guy missed the entire plot, it's not a surprise that he missed its climax.

What Jerry ultimately learns in those last fifteen minutes – sort of by happy accident, he doesn't know his own power! – is how to heal the rift between Heaven and Hell. Jerry learns in a roundabout way that the morality of The Jerry Springer Show (via William Blake) is the answer: Energy is pure delight. Nothing is wrong, and nothing is right. And everything that lives is holy. And once Jerry teaches his new friends The Answer To It All, they embrace their newfound wisdom in a gorgeous, joyous chorale. They sing:
Everything that lives is holy.
Energy is delight.
We stand together,
Joined in might.
Energy is pure delight.
Nothing is wrong and nothing is right.
Energy is pure delight.
Nothing is wrong and nothing is right.
Let poets through the ages tell
How Springer united heaven and hell.

They have learned something important, not to label, not to judge. They are "joined in might" because they have abandoned their divisive, petty ways. Understanding the idea that nothing is objectively wrong and nothing is objectively right is empowering. Erasing the line between good and bad erases the line between Heaven and Hell, and between Us and Them. We're all the same, Jerry is telling us, and that point is driven home at the end of the second-to-last song, when the whole cast repeats Dwight's watchcry from the very first segment, "I've been seeing someone else..." We all have our Jerry Springer moments. There's little difference between me, you, Chucky, Shawntel, and Tremont. However the details may differ, we all face the same things, and we all stumble on our road now and then. We hurt people sometimes. We're selfish sometimes. We love too much sometimes. We all live our own Hero Myths. And sometimes, like Jerry, we are called to account for ourselves. And often, that's when we grow and learn to connect. And that is holy.

But even beyond all these ideas, that last fifteen minutes is a lesson in structure. It goes from a surprise reversal, to the biggest crisis yet, to resolution and celebration; then to another reversal and a final, fuller resolution, and an even bigger celebration. Meanwhile, it's also chock-full of rich, philosophical content, and for those looking for it, references to Blake, Milton, Dante, and others. That's really good writing.

And then there's the music. "This is My Jerry Springer Moment" returns in celebration of Jerry's success, the lyric now changed to "This is his Jerry Springer moment," underlining the point that this show, this story, really is Jerry's story. It is his triumph, his wisdom, that saves us. "Take Care," the song in which the denizens of Hell come to understand at last another important lesson (Jerry's variation on the Golden Rule), proves that even though Jerry never sings in the show, his philosophy does. And it is set to the same music as the fight between Jesus and Satan earlier in the act. The re-use of this music (even for those who don't consciously recognize it) gives us a sense of healing. Music that once accompanied fighting now accompanies reconciliation. And then the song segues into God's theme, "It Ain't Easy Bein' Me," but now as Jerry's theme. After all, Jerry has saved mankind. But it's never easy...

And then in the beginning of the finale, the whole cast sings "It Ain't Easy Bein' Me" again, this time for themselves. It's another reminder that all these guests' problems are universal ones. We all sometimes think it ain't easy being us. Here we identify with all the crazy characters onstage, and with Jerry, and with God! The finale takes a whirlwind tour through all the problems we've witnessed – God's, Baby Jane's, Shawntel's, Tremont's, Peaches and Zandra's, and it caps off with a final quote of "This is My Jerry Springer Moment." But the pronoun changes again. This song starts in Act I as personal ("This is my Jerry Springer moment"), it changes to our/their for the Klan at the end of Act I, it changes again to his as all these self-involved characters understand what Jerry's done for them, and then it finally changes to our in the finale, as the cast takes on the universal nature of all this craziness, the word our now referring both to all the characters onstage, but also to us in the audience.

This really is our Jerry Springer moment. Pretty cool.

That same reviewer also called the show "juvenile." Does any of what you've just read sound childish or immature...?

The show ends with this collective, all-embracing Jerry Springer Moment. The finale suggests that they/we are all God, Baby Jane, Shawntel, Tremont, Peaches, and Zandra. There is no us or them, no "wrong" or "right." Because everything that lives is holy. And then, literally the last word in the show both connects back to the Act I finale, and also makes an ironic joke on the whole second half of the show. (And now as I write about it, I half-wonder if the use of this word throughout the show is intentional foreshadowing? Again, sorry, trying to avoid spoilers...)

And all that is in those last fifteen minutes that this hapless reviewer thought "ran out of ideas."

No, Ace, that's the opposite of running out of ideas. That's the only show ever to win all four of London's "Best Musical" awards, the show that played Carnegie Hall, the show The New York Times called, only half-ironically, "the great American musical of the early 21st century." Not a show for which you'd want to miss the last fifteen minutes. Even if you don't get it.

Quod erat demonstrandum.

Long Live the Musical!