There’s a difference between liking a show and admiring one. Two days have passed since I saw Jerry Springer: The Opera, the sacrilegious, potty-mouthed musical that had a two-night run at Carnegie Hall this past week, and I still can’t decide if I liked it. But I certainly do respect its audacity.
British comedians Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee based their musical on the trashy American TV talk show on which people in dysfunctional relationships shamelessly reveal personal secrets that range from infidelity and incest to racism and homophobia and then frequently end up trading blows with one another. Thomas and Lee placed their second act in Hell where Springer referees a debate between a diaper-clad Jesus and a nattily suited Satan, with a much put upon God making a cameo appearance. The situations are irreverent, the music is operatic; the lyrics are profane enough to make a gangsta rapper blush. (Click here to read an interview with Thomas and Lee about the show’s derivation).
Jerry Springer was a critical and commercial hit in London, moving from a five-month run at the National Theatre in 2003 to the West End, where it played for another 15 months (click here to see one of the dozens of YouTube clips from that production). But a national tour through the rest of Britain set off protests from Christian groups at almost every stop, a BBC broadcast drew some 50,000 complaints, and a Broadway transfer was cancelled when financial backers got cold feet. The show finally made its U.S. debut last summer at Chicago’s Bailiwick Repertory Theatre, a non-equity company known for its gay-themed shows.
So when I saw that the infamous show was being done for two nights at Carnegie Hall, I knew that I had to see it. There was nearly as much to see outside the concert hall as there was on the stage inside at the second night performance my always-up-for-anything buddy Bill and I attended. Despite the cold, people milled around on the sidewalk, clearly pleased with themselves for being there and eager to see who else had come. A small band of religious protesters from the Catholic group The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property stood to one side, carrying picket signs and, from time to time, tentatively singing hymns. But people mostly ignored them and kept schmoozing.
Even inside, it took a while for the SRO audience to settle down and the show started about 15 minutes late. Tough-guy actor Harvey Keitel seemed miscast in the non-singing role of Springer. But David Bedella, the one holdover from the original British cast, gave a high-voltage performance in the dual roles of Satan and the tabloid show’s Warm-up Man. The rest of the cast, all Broadway veterans, all eager and able to show off their operatic chops and, each wittily costumed by Ilona Somogyi, was equally terrific as the show’s unhappy guests.
It seemed deliciously transgressive to be watching so naughty a show in such a decorous setting as Carnegie Hall, although I do wish the acoustics had been better because I had trouble hearing all of the lyrics. I also wish that director Jason Moore, who also helmed Avenue Q, another cheeky TV to stage transfer, had drawn out more of the poignancy that is evident in some of the YouTube clips from the London production. Still, I laughed and I gasped and I wasn’t bored. But I still don’t know if I liked the show. Shock and awe can be dazzling and barrier breaking but sometimes, it is no more consequential than a sky full of fireworks.
B&M, The feelings you describe pretty much sum up the way I felt when I left the show in London. I was never bored, and I have no regrets for seeing it, but it surprised me that so many people on the other side of the pond really think that Jerry Springer The Opera is every bit a microcosm of who we are as Americans. By presenting the show here, the joke really is on us.
Thanks for the comment, Steve. And thanks particularly for bringing up the anti-Americanism that ripples through the piece. During the intermission, Bill and I struck up a conversation with a British woman who said she had come, in part, because she knew how much her countrymen had enjoyed making fun of Americans and wanted to see how Americans responded to the show. The theaterati at the Carnegie Hall performances, including the critics, seemed to love it too but I doubt that the middle-Americans who keep Broadway shows running will cotton to it, which is why the show is unlikely to make a transfer to the Great White Way.
Jan, I think you're absolutely right. As much as I can enjoy a joke at my expense, this show does more than flirt with the precipice of anti-Americanism - it goes way over the edge.
Hi Jan and Steve,
I have to disagree with your "Anti-American" obervation.
Let me say at once, I am British, and I am anti - American foreign policy, as I am aginst Britains.
However, being anti administration, is not the same as being anti-American.
I have seen Jerry Springer three times on this side of the Pond, (London) and not once did I feel an anti-American slant.
I also have American Theatre friends, who have also seen the show with me, and they also never commednted on any feeling of 'Anti-Americanism'.
Yes, it was anti 'cultural trash', but cultural trash knows no national boundaries. And each country has its own particular version.
Remember, The Jerry Springer Show was very popular here in the UK, and the people who watched it were not doing so in order to renewa their feelings of moral superiority over American's - far from it.
Jerry Springer is universal, ie, it may be an American show, with American citizens taking part, but it was watched around the world.
If your going to mock 'trash culture' then Jerry Springer is for that reason, a more then promising candidate, as nearly all - if not all Engish speakers - no of, and can relate to the show, in one form or another.
Thought I would write, because I found the onservation of 'anti-american' a bazarre one.
I communicate with alot of people in the theatre world, and this was the first time I saw the idea clearly expressed.
As far as I am aware, none of the Broadway critics picked up on it being 'Anti-American' at least I do not remember reading any such comments from Brantley, Barnes, Kuchwara and Grode etc
Thanks a lot for writing this, it was unbelieveably informative and told me a ton
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