Preview: The Shaggs musical

A new show tries to make beautiful music from a terrible amateur rock band.

  • Photograph: Imogen Brown

    ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS Gregory, Langs and Madsen make their musical debut

    ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS Gregory, Langs and Madsen make their musical debut.

  • Photograph: Joan Marcus

    The Shaggs

    The Shaggs

Photograph: Imogen Brown

ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS Gregory, Langs and Madsen make their musical debut

ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS Gregory, Langs and Madsen make their musical debut.

When someone told Gunnar Madsen that The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World needed an 11 o'clock number, the composer and lyricist took that suggestion to the find out what the term meant. Although the phrase is commonly used to describe a character's turning point near the end of a tuner, Madsen and his collaborators—book writer and co-lyricist Joy Gregory and director John Langs—aren't accustomed to the brash, bright, self-aggrandizing world of musical theater. If they had been, they might not have labored for 11 years on a show about a trio of real-life sister musicians whose singing voices sound like a sad, shrill cry of pain.

"It's a musical about outsiders, and we were not feeling terribly beholden to the conventional rules," says Gregory, a founding member of Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre. "I feel like it helped us create a form that reflected the content. They're sort of tortured by music, and they can't make it come out of themselves the way that they want to—what a great idea for a show!"

She says that without irony, and Playwrights Horizons and New York Theatre Workshop, coproducers of this offbeat Off Broadway show, would no doubt agree. The Shaggs is the dumbfounding story of Betty, Dot and Helen Wiggin, three sisters from New Hampshire who faced disillusionment of Chekhovian proportions when their father, Austin, forced them to form a rock band in 1968 because he believed they would be the family's ticket out of working-class woe. That the girls sounded like lobotomized robots and had no desire to perform didn't matter. And although they stopped when Austin died in 1975, a cult following has kept the Shaggs' music alive.

Yet, The Shaggs might not be as perverse as it first seems. After all, Gypsy is about semitalented daughters longing to please and break free from an autocratic stage parent. And Gregory, Madsen and Langs may embrace their status as Broadway outsiders, but the three Californians are established professionals who met in a composer-librettist workshop in Los Angeles. A week into rehearsal, they're bundles of energy about a show that they've been tinkering with for longer than the Shaggs played music. There have been drafts, workshops and productions in Los Angeles, Chicago and at the 2005 New York Musical Theater Festival. Gregory was the initiator after she read about the sisters in 1999, when their only studio album, Philosophy of the World, was rereleased. All three saw dramatic potential in a saga that's funny, sad and disturbing all at once.

"These girls are becoming women, and their father essentially kidnaps them and says, 'You're going to do this thing,'" Langs observes. "If I had no expression as a teenager, at that really crucial time when I was trying to express myself, and this enormous amount of pressure was put on me by a father figure, then my music might come out this way."

The score includes original Shaggs clips, but Madsen and Gregory didn't try to imitate the ingenuousness of their tracks about parents, a lost cat or dissatisfied people. They wanted to write good songs for good singers that conveyed the characters' tangled inner voices. The music is an eclectic mix that finds inspiration in styles ranging from '60s pop groups like the Association and Herman's Hermits to the darker tones of Benjamin Britten. "We start in the world of what the girls might have heard on the radio," Madsen says. "But there are more emotions being expressed than just that. And we just kept spreading out, as long as it helped tell our story."

Although Gregory has shared drafts of the book with the sisters' representative, the only direct contact she had with them was a brief phone conversation with Dot, who had been working as a housecleaner and whose number she found online. "I wanted to let them have their lives and for us to create something heightened that satisfied the biographical facts we knew," Gregory explains.

Beyond The Shaggs' current eight-week engagement, it's not clear what sort of future the project could have. Gregory tries to balance dreams of a commercial run with a practical outlook. "I like to imagine us connecting with a large audience, but what's easier to imagine is being the show that all the cool, small companies want to do all over the country."

Regardless of the material's future, the fact that it exists at all is an indirect validation of Austin Wiggin's crackpot vision from 40-odd years ago. "The play has become focused around that mission of Austin's in a really eerie way," Langs says. "He wanted his family to rise above mediocrity, and when the curtain rises, there's an argument to be made that that spirit is still propelling this story forward."

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