There Is No Greater Act of Love

A lot of actors tell me that when they play a villain, it's very important for them not to judge the character, just to understand him as much as possible, his worldview, his motivations, his past; then play him as honestly as possible, from the inside. I think the same is true for me with Jerry Springer the Opera, and by extension, The Jerry Springer Show on TV. If I were to come at this show, looking down on Springer and his guests, it would end up a very different production.

And I would be no better than the religious dolts sending us mindless angry emails (only four so far), in which they protest things they've made up, that aren't even in the show...

The opera's writers are alternately saying pretty serious things and telling us not to take this all too seriously. It's the ultimate ironic meta musical. But this is no simplistic frat joke (I'm looking at you, [title of show]), and these writers are no lightweights. As ridiculous and outrageous as the show is, it is also remarkably subtle in many ways.

The real artistry of the show is in how Acts II and III raise the trivialities of Act I to mythic proportions, while simultaneously bringing these mythic Bible characters down to relatable, human size.

I once heard someone say that the secret to all of HBO's dramatic series is that while most TV series show us the extraordinary in the ordinary (i.e., preternaturally witty children, alien house guests, etc.), HBO series show us the ordinary in the extraordinary (i.e., the family pressures of a mafia boss or a bigamist, family life in a mortuary, daily life in a maximum security prison). Interestingly, Jerry Springer the Opera does both. In Act I, we see the extraordinary feelings and actions of these ordinary people; and in Act II, we see the very ordinary feelings and actions of these iconic Bible characters.

Traditional TV shows tell us these people look like you, but they're not really like you. HBO shows tell us these people may not look like you, but we're really all the same. Likewise, Jerry Springer the Opera tells us in the end that we're all the same, mortal or divine, resident of Heaven or Hell, Catholic or Protestant, Christian or atheist, aspiring pole dancer or tranny. And I think it also suggests that there's more truth and more wisdom out there than can be found in human religion, which is by definition as flawed as its creators.

In fact, in one of the moments in the show that drives angry Catholics crazy is when God sings to Jerry, "Sit in Heaven beside me, hold my hand and guide me." The implication is clear, God needs Jerry's help too. Only Jerry can save mankind. It does not imply that Jerry is God, as some hysterics have claimed, but it does imply that Jerry may be wiser and less emotional than God is.

And honestly, after all God's bullshit and temper tantrums in the Old Testament, maybe Jerry is wiser than God. Jerry never told a father to kill his son. Jerry never made up arbitrary, impossible-to-follow rules with horrible consequences. Jerry never drowned all of humanity...

Still, sometimes I wish that all the people who get upset over this show could just see some of Act III in Hell. Yes, some of the language would bother them and some of the jokes too, but maybe they'd see the bigger picture. Act III of Jerry Springer the Opera does for the characters in the Bible what 1776 did for the real people who founded our country. What I love most about 1776 is how real and flawed and contradictory these men are, and how difficult it was for them to bring together so many different kinds of people with so many opinions, all into this single great experiment in self-governance. 1776 teaches us the real lesson of history – we are the people who move us forward. Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin weren't superhuman, and their superhuman feat is all the more magnificent and inspiring because they weren't.

Likewise, Jerry Springer the Opera takes characters from the Bible, who are little more than cardboard cutouts to many people, gives them full emotional lives, and lets them air their legitimate grievances. Why did "one little apple" have to lead to a life of misery? What an arbitrary and unfair test! And why did Jesus have to go through the horror of the crucifixion in order to redeem mankind? Why didn't God just redeem us without torturing his child? After all, God's the one who makes all the rules, isn't he...?

There's an amazing moment in Hedwig when Tommy questions these things...
What [Jesus] was saving us from was his fucking father. What kind of god creates Adam in his image and then pulls Eve out of him to keep him company? And then tells them not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge? He was so micromanaging! And so was Adam! But Eve... Eve just wanted to know shit. She took a bite of the apple, and she found out what was good and what was evil. Then she gave it to Adam, so he would know, because they were in love.

And that was good, they now knew...!

It all comes back to good and evil.

The one line in the show that may be the hardest to take for religious folks is when Mary enters and the Hell audience of demons and dead people sings, "Raped by an angel, raped by an angel, raped by an angel, raped by God." Now, let's admit it right off, you know the writers put that there mostly for its shock value. And even to me, that's pretty shocking. That word, like many in this show, yanks the audience out of the story as they react to hearing it.

But authors Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee clearly want that. They want to yank you out of your comfort with these ancient stories, to confront the implied questions here. But the point isn't really about rape; the point is how arbitrary most religious doctrine is. Why did God have to impregnate Mary, i.e., why did Jesus have to come to earth as a human, i.e., why did he have to be tortured and crucified in order to redeem us? If you believe all that really happened 2,000 years ago, these four lines in the show force you to confront the arbitrary nature of all these stories. And that really bothers some people.

So what's the bigger point of all this?

Well, first, much of the fun in Act III comes from the comic juxtaposition of these weighty, mythic Bible characters with their petty bitching. But more importantly, it makes a bold statement about The Jerry Springer Show itself, something I believe myself – the guests on Springer's show aren't The Other; they are us. Their problems are just like our problems in most regards. We've all experienced the emotions that are the lingua franca of SpringerWorld, just probably not to that extreme degree. And most of us wouldn't take it on TV.

By taking these ancient archetypes and placing their relationships and conflicts in modern terms, the writers of our opera both illuminate (dare I say, humanize?) these characters and also shine light on our own contemporary lives. Which, after all, is the whole point of human storytelling.

Ultimately, the overriding message of the show is Jerry's last line: "So until next time, take care of yourselves. And each other." Why does that sound familiar...?
"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

"Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others." (Philippians 2:3-4)

"Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you." (Ephesians 4:32)

Yes, that's right, Jerry Springer the Opera is more Christian than the angry people mindlessly protesting it.

In closing, I want to quote 1776, in which Stephen Hopkins says, "Well, in all my years I ain't never heard, seen, nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn't be talked about. Hell yeah! I'm for debating anything!"

Exactly. We open Friday.

Long Live the Musical!