When you think of The Jerry Springer Show, you probably imagine fistfights, strippers, and mothers and daughters bonding over bondage. But when British musician Richard Thomas first encountered the show—in a drunken haze after a gig—the first thing that came to his mind, he says, was: “This is like an opera.” In the talk show’s bleeped expletives, he heard melodies; in its trashier-than-life guests, he found archetypes out of Verdi and Puccini; in Springer himself, he saw an almost Solomonic figure who abstained from passing judgment and tried to find the good in the outcasts of society.
Thomas spent six months watching episodes of the show and searching for musical patterns in its language. “I’m a massive musical-theater and opera fan, so I wanted to combine elements of both,” he says. The result was Jerry Springer—The Opera, which opened in London in 2003 and won the Olivier Award for Best New Musical; then New Yorkers caught a glimpse of it in a 2008 concert at Carnegie Hall. Only now, however, is the show getting a genuine Off Broadway run, produced by the New Group and directed by John Rando (Urinetown); currently in previews, it will have its official opening on February 22.
It may have taken the election of a reality-TV star to the White House to make this production a reality. The show, says Thomas, resonates with the current state of American life; to accent the show’s timeliness, he has added new songs for this production. “We are living in a reality show,” says veteran Broadway actor Terrence Mann, who plays Springer. “It’s important for the theater community to bring this to light.”
Irreverent and foulmouthed—“‘What the fuck, fuck, fuck’ is on a diminished scale,” notes Thomas—Jerry Springer begins as a heightened version of a typical Springer episode, featuring sexual betrayal and unusual festishes. (“Put your fucking clothes on, you stupid bitch,” sings the boyfriend of stripper. “Talk to the ass!” she sings back.) But when the host is shot by one of the guests, he journeys to a metaphysical limbo where Satan himself—played by Will Swenson (Hair)—makes him re-create his show in the underworld, with Jesus and the Virgin Mary as guests. “When the show came out in London we had a five-year blasphemy case,” recalls Thomas. (The unsuccessful suit was brought by Christian activists.)
If American audiences also get riled up, that’s not necessarily a bad thing for the artists involved. “A show like this can make people question why they’re offended—what they believe in and why they believe in it,” says Swenson. “In the new outrage culture, people are fearful of offending other people, which makes culture vanilla and mediocre,” says Thomas. “But I’m still doing my thing, and hopefully some people want a bit of sparkle and edge.”
Jerry Springer’s tension between form and content is good for laughs, but it also helps give the show a soulfulness beyond shock value. “What I wanted to do was give all the characters their dignity,” says Thomas. Jill Paice, who plays a diaper-wearing guest named Baby Jane, appreciates the complication. “I think you will leave changed and feel heard and understood in ways you don’t anticipate from musical theater,” she says. “I sing about a face being smeared with shit—but it’s such a beautiful melody.”
Jerry Springer—The Opera plays is the New Group at Pershing Square Signature Center through March 11. $40–$125.
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