We Stand Together, Joined in Might

Putting Jerry Springer the Opera together was a Herculean task. As I said a few times to our actors, "We have climbed a mountain." Not just in practical terms, like learning and singing this dense, challenging score, with a cast far smaller than it was written for; but also in conceptual terms, understanding what makes this show (and the TV show) tick, what its agenda is, what its style and tone are, how it should move physically, and how to unify its two contrasting halves.

And how much, if at all, we should deviate from the original production in London, which was directed by one of the authors. (Ultimately, we deviated quite a bit.)

The learning and figuring-out part of our process was really hard (among the two or three hardest shows we've ever done), and honestly, not all that fun. Many in our cast were really overwhelmed and stressed out by this score. It really is an opera, after all, and we're not an opera company, and only some in the cast are classically trained. Some actors in our "studio audience" were terrified that they would never be able to learn all their music (they sang in thirty-two numbers). I knew they would. No matter how hard the material is, we always rise to the challenge. We always conquer the mountain. Always.

Once we got to Hell Week, the only real obstacle was vocal fatigue. They knew the music, they had found character and relationships, style and tone, all the design elements were in place, and at long last, everyone could see that I really had set us on the right path, that we could pull it off, that it would in fact be really amazing.

Then, running the show for four weeks was pure joy (because, as Jerry tells us, "energy is pure delight"). The actors were full-on fearless, both in the outrageous moments and also in the more serious, emotionally raw moments. And with very few walk-outs (we knew we'd get a few), our audiences really enjoyed going on this wild ride with us. Some enjoyed it more on the surface; but many really loved the rich, subversive philosophy and theology underneath it all.

I've often seen that the darkest shows (Love Kills, The Wild Party, bare, etc.) bring a very dark energy with them. When we work on those shows, moods are darker, the fun more muted. And, not surprisingly I guess, this show both did and didn't do that. Jerry Springer the Opera is entirely about dualities (good/evil, Heaven/Hell, Jesus/Satan, moral/immoral, public/private, normal/abnormal, man/woman, us/them), and its structure reflects that, with a light first act that only hints at the darkness to come, then a very dark second and third acts that explore the consequences of the action of Act I. Sorta like Into the Woods.

So likewise, half of our process (learning the score) did feel a little darker than usual, because most everyone was feeling scared, tense, insecure. But then the other half of our process was much more fun and we spent our run-through rehearsals just laughing pretty much nonstop.

To carry my metaphor even further, the run itself had a light and dark side. The reviews were so positive (my favorite was from Richard Green at TalkinBroadway: "John Waters would be proud. So would Thornton Wilder."), we got lots of standing ovations, and so many people called our show "amazing" and "brilliant." But not everybody liked it. For all the awesome yin, there had to be some yang, right? Especially for a show entirely about yin and yang.

It is perhaps the greatest irony of Jerry Springer the Opera that the show simultaneously seduces us into superficially judging both it and its characters (some of us need less seduction than others), and then scolds us for being so judgy. It encourages us to laugh and sneer at Andrea, along with the "studio audience," then be gobsmacked by her palpable humiliation.

It's the show's greatest irony precisely because a fair number of people, including a few reviewers, got trapped by the show during our run, slipping easily into being so judgmental and feeling so superior (culturally, morally, intellectually), that they're blinded to what's beneath the craziness and what the craziness reveals to us. They can't imagine that Jerry Springer the Opera could be at all a serious work.

I knew some people would hate the adult language, because many Americans have a real hang-up about language. I knew some people would find the theology disconcerting, despite the surprisingly Christ-like message the show ultimately delivers. Remember the splinter and the plank...?

But I was surprised that quite a few otherwise intelligent, rational people really short-circuited over the first act of our show, despite its moments of real humanity and real seriousness. I overheard a group of college-age folks at intermission one night, clearly feeling quite superior, and complaining that they just don't like vulgarity for its own sake. That's okay, kids, neither do we. That's why we didn't put that onstage. I don't know how can they watch "I Want to Sing Something Beautiful" or "I Just Wanna Dance" and think our show is just vulgarity for its own sake. Would the show have won all four of London's "Best Musical" awards if it were just vulgarity for its own sake? Would it have played Carnegie Hall?

In parallel to that, in Judy Newmark's review in the Post-Dispatch, she wrote that JSTO isn't really an opera. I asked her why she thought that, and she said she had asked the Post's classical music critic, Sarah Bryan Miller, who assured her that JSTO is not a "real" opera. Of course, Miller is full of shit. The rest of the world knows it's an opera. Miller's bias is just another example of that same knee-jerk cultural superiority that the show criticizes. I expected negative reactions from unthinking prudes and Bible thumpers, but I guess I thought that JSTO's long trail of praise and awards would inoculate us from unthinking elitists.

Not so.

On the other hand, I was delighted that so many religious friends and family members came to see the show and were not offended. Many of them could see the uplifting morality the show puts forth at the end. Many appreciated the humanizing and complicating of the Bible characters. Many appreciated that the show challenged some things they believe, or at least opened them up to a new perspective they had not considered before.

I found a wonderful "letter from Jesus" on the internet a few days ago, written about the new anti-LGBT law in Indiana, but it also responds so directly to the silly few folks who wrote us letters of Christian outrage. Jesus writes:
"I have placed you here at this exact place and time in the history of creation, not to defend me, as I need no defense; not to protect me, since I have already willingly laid my life down; not to judge others on my behalf, as this is far beyond your capacity and my instruction. My beloved, I placed you here, not to defend or protect or replace me, but simply to reflect me. . .

All that is happening these days, all the posturing and the debating and the protesting; does this really look like love to you? Do you really think that the grandstanding and the insult-slinging and the side-choosing, that it feels like me? Do you truly believe that the result of your labors here in these days, is a Church that clearly perpetuates my character in the world? Is this the Gospel I entrusted you with? To be honest with you, I simply don’t see it. How did you drift so far from the mission? How did you become so angry, so combative, so petty, so arrogant, so entitled?"

That's a Jesus I can get behind. The Jesus who hangs out with society's outcasts. That's a Jesus that would be right at home in Jerry Springer the Opera.

It's been an amazing, wonderful, joyful, artistically satisfying adventure. I am forever grateful to all our intrepid actors, musicians, designers, and support staff. We could not have climbed this mountain without all of us working toward that goal together. One of the coolest things about the musical theatre is that it is the most collaborative of all art forms, by definition. I think that's a big part of why I love it so much.

And an extra big thank-you to St. Louis audiences, who are apparently just as fearless as the New Liners.

Now I get a week to prep for Threepenny rehearsals. No rest for the wicked.

Long Live the Musical!