Where Were You When the Condom Split?

As we run Jerry Springer the Opera, we discover that it's often not the R-rated language that offends people; it's the subversive theology. And I think that "blasphemy" is made even more intense by the fact that the show gets more overtly serious in the second half, when it also gets most religious minded.

I would argue the show is sometimes very serious in Act I (there are real victims amongst the crazies), but more subliminally so. Acts II and III get more obviously serious in terms of both tone and plot. Critic Paul Friswold of The Riverfront Times, wrote about our production, "Richard Wagner himself would high-five Springer after witnessing the audacity of this production, which is both hilarious and surprising in its gravity."

I think those who tend to turn their brains off, see Jerry Springer the Opera as only trivial vulgarity that's sort of mindlessly funny. But others can see the show for the very ballsy, very intelligent deep-dive it is into Springer's show, its audience, its guests, and our culture in which it thrives. Most unexpectedly, it's a deep-dive that ultimately surfaces in an uplifting, even optimistic spirit.

I think some audiences – and obviously, a few of our reviewers – can't make sense of this more serious second-half, because they can't conceive that this show could be getting at real truths about our country and our times, that its purposes might extend beyond laughs. They see only offense and The Other in Act I, and so can't see what else is there. With that basic misunderstanding, they see little of value, where the rest of us find questions and insights of great import and intelligence.

Back when Jesus Christ Superstar first was released on LP (I think I was five), and then premiered onstage, one of the central complaints was that Jesus was too human. I thought that was the whole point.

It bothered people for Jesus to seem normal or ordinary. There was one line in particular in "Gethsemane" – "Could you ask as much of any other man?" – that drove frightened Christians crazy. I was young, but I do remember that at the time most people considered the King James version of the Bible to be the only acceptable text. That Superstar strayed so far from the King James thees and thous and spakests, seemed disrespectful to those brought up on ol' King James, or even worse, brought up on the Latin mass, as my mother had. People wanted God and Jesus to be old-fashioned, weirdly formal, antiquated, anachronistic. Seriously, they really did.

Of course, that's one of the reasons Superstar was so popular. It was such a relief!

I think Jerry Springer the Opera, particularly in its second half, works in a similar way. When you visit the lame Christian activist websites protesting the show, whose visitors' only act of courage is to fill in their name and click a button for an auto-email to be sent, you'll see that some of their complaints are really about a palpable fear of thinking about the Bible characters as flawed and emotional humans.

Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee do a lot more in this show – and a lot more in Act III – than just make us laugh, though they do a lot of that too. One song in particular, "Where Were You?" in Act III, gets forgotten sometimes amidst the insanity of everything else. There's not a joke anywhere in it. It's angry. It's revealing. It's serious satire. It also leads us to the central theme of the show and the climax of the plot.

"Where Were You?" is a song about people who draw a direct connection between God's omnipotence and their own needs or wants. If God can do anything, surely he can help me pass this test! Conservatives often criticize liberals for wanting government to solve all our problems, yet this song is a razor sharp commentary on how many Christians expect God/Jesus to solve all their problems, praying for sick people to get better, praying to win football games, praying for good weather, praying for a good performance, praying for politicians to win, praying for a safe trip, praying for advice.

The lyric of "Where Were You?" starts out with some arguably legitimate grievances – why did Jesus abandon his mother and not take care of her in her old age like a good son should? Of course Jesus has a good answer, as we all know, but this is from the point of view of the left-behind mother. The Bible doesn't cover that part. In fact, the Bible doesn't give us full characters at all, only relationships and events, no psychology, no motivation. That's part of why any dramatization of the Bible upsets some people – to write a good story, you have to fill in so many blanks left open in the Bible, all the whys.

Satan seizes the opportunity in "Where Were You?" to remind everyone that Jesus didn't solve all their problems, that their prayers weren't answered, that Jesus must not have cared about them and probably wasn't even there like he's supposed to be! Satan (and Thomas and Lee) deconstructs Jesus' hero identity, exposing Jesus' followers' shallow misunderstanding of how Christianity is supposed to work...
MARY (to Jesus)
Where were you when I was on my own?
Where were you when they rolled the stone?
Where were you when I was getting old?
Where were you when I was sick and bald?
Where, where, where were you?

Jesus wasn't there, he didn't care.

EVE (to Jesus)
Where were you when the children cried?

ADAM (to Jesus)
Where were you when the children died?

But Jesus has some gripes too...
Where were you when I was crucified?
Where were you when they pierced my side?

In fact, everybody has some gripes at Jesus...
Where, where, where were you?
Where, where, where were you?

Wasn't there, didn't care...

Where, where, where were you?
Where where where where where where
Where where where where where where?

Doesn't know, didn’t show, never there, doesn’t care...

Where were you when he got fleas?
Where were you when he lost his keys?
Where were you when her pants don't fit?
Where were you when the condom split...?

And the music stops abruptly, as this bitching rises to its logical extreme. If Jesus is responsible for winning or losing a football game, why isn't he responsible when you lose your car keys or you gain weight...?

Thomas and Lee are trapping their audience once again (they do this throughout the show). Those in the audience who find it uncomfortable hearing these Bible characters complain in such a petty way, are really just uncomfortable with the way they view God, Jesus, prayer, and other related issues.

In an interview with author James Grissom, Tennessee Williams once said, “I came to see that Christianity, in some of its forms, was very much a version of Let’s Make A Deal, and God a shiny and ebullient Monty Hall, who came and asked what you had. God may not ask if we have a carrot in our purse or a clown wig in a pocket. God may not ask us if we have a kazoo or a camera. But in order to play the game, in order to play for prizes, we must sacrifice things: a lover, a limb, a sense of calm; health and happiness. We happily sacrifice these things. Crosses to bear. But as with the game show, we do not know what God has behind his doors and his curtains. But we believe and we hope and we play the game. This is called faith. It has its limits.” Those limits are what "Where Were You?" is about, when the grind of reality crashes down around the fragile construct of faith.

After the music has stopped so abruptly...

The next moment in the show is really unexpected and really insightful. The angry crowd eagerly, easily turns its recriminations from Jesus to Jerry. If Jesus won't/can't solve all their problems, they'll demand that Jerry solve all their problems. And they're ready to kill (crucify?) him if he won't. Talk about taking on the sins of man! And then God shows up, as a literal deus ex machina, and bemoans the exact same thing we've just witnessed – "millions of voices making all the wrong choices, then turning 'round and blaming me."

It's a harsh indictment of Christianity – or at least, of unthinking Christians.

And it's why so many people find this show so rich and insightful and genuinely brilliant, while others find it so disturbing and offensive. If you work hard to avoid thinking difficult thoughts, if you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, this show may really upset you. And yes, I'll admit, that's a big part of why I love it so much.

Long Live the Musical!