It doesn’t matter if you ever watched The Jerry Springer Show. I never did. It doesn’t matter if you loved The Jerry Springer Show. I never did.
It simply doesn’t matter.
In setting America’s grossest talk show to music, British composer Richard Thomas and his co-librettist Stewart Lee created something transcendent — an opera that illuminates and somehow almost ennobles the show’s fans, the shows’ anti-fans and even the creepy show itself, to say nothing of its oleaginous host and, let’s face it, every single one of us sitting out there in the dark, if you care to look at us that way.
No one is spared.
This is not news. Jerry Springer–The Opera was a sensation from its opening at London’s National Theatre in April 2003. A commercial transfer to the West End for 609 performances was analyzed endlessly, garnering ecstatic reviews, multiple Olivier awards and a smashing backlash from religious conservatives across Britain over the opera’s deliriously profane depictions of Jesus, Satan and God himself (along with Adam, Eve and the Virgin Mary), battling for Mr. Springer’s soul in purgatory after the host is shot by a gun-wielding guest at the end of the first act.
I have been waiting for Jerry Springer–The Opera all these years, after just missing it in London. I literally had tickets and was about to fly over when a mishap at home forced me to cancel my plans (sorry, we’ll just have to leave it at that). Infuriatingly, I also managed to be out of town when the opera came to Carnegie Hall for two tumultuously received performances in 2008.
At last, Jerry Springer–The Opera has landed in New York more or less permanently, I’d like to hope, mounted by The New Group, off-Broadway, at the Pershing Square Signature Center and theatrical mall on far West 42nd Street. To say that this new production does Jerry Springer–The Opera justice is an understatement unworthy of this anything-but-understated work. To borrow just one of the opera’s ceaselessly spouted obscenities, the show is a fucking masterpiece.
Looking beyond, for just a moment, the heart-pricking prescience of its subject matter — a reality show star without a soul and his hate-filled audience of reprehensibles — Jerry Springer–The Opera is, empirically, an apotheosis of musical theatrical craft. Richard Thomas’s score is a sung-through opera of legitimate classical dimension that blends soaring operatic chorales and arias with pop hooks and R&B vamps in a funky symmetry perfectly suited to the sordid contemporary passion play it sets out to sell. The libretto is impeccably and stunningly filthy, a relentlessly rhymed roar of profanity that grows inexorably and unexpectedly cathartic. (What else is there to scream when words fail?) The contempt and the empathy with which the characters are drawn is a conflicted wonder to behold and embrace. And dramaturgically, the four-act extravaganza kicks ass.
In director John Rando, it has found the perfect steward, a maestro of perniciously penetrating bad taste and gratuitously entertaining Broadway musical pizzazz. Rando wedges most of his company into the first two rows of the theater, framing the onstage Springer talk show with twitchy nonstop audience movement and a Greek chorus of vocalized dissing that we all feel part of. The direction pushes repeatedly to the very brink of overselling, yet manages to virtually never cross that line, abetted by some killer choreography by Chris Bailey. The precision-drilled naturalness with which the cast snarls and boogies is deceptively effortless, as is the breathtaking caliber of their vocal chops.
What voices! Where did The New Group find them all? The 17-person cast is an across-the-board revelation. To single out any and not all feels wrong, but Tiffany Mann as Shawntel, a battered housewife who yearns to dance…in a strip club…on a pole, and Luke Grooms, as God himself, were particularly heart-stopping in their spotlit vocal turns — egged on by composer Thomas, who just kept pushing and pushing their earth-shaking vocal boundaries.
Whew, I’m feeling a little light-headed. How often do you get to see something this good, this fresh and this offensive in a New York theater? To compound the pleasure (and the pain), Jerry Springer–The Opera is so damn timely — the perfect sound track for our Trumpian moment, made all the more impressive by the fact it was written over fifteen years ago. The gunman, the tap-dancing Ku Klux Klan kick-line (not another word more from me about that Mel Brooks-derived tour-de-force) pile on and on, a horrific cascade of contempo touchstones that echo with our present trauma-inducing daily headlines. When the dying talk show host begins his “Final Thought” with “firstly, I’d like to add my name to the list of celebrities calling for tighter gun control,” tears may come to your eyes. Of rage.
Jerry Springer–The Opera is powered by two Broadway stars: Will Swenson doubles as Springer’s unhinged Warm-Up Man and as Satan. Terrence Mann is the infuriatingly cipher-like Jerry Springer himself. Their work is riveting and delectably unnerving, serving to both anchor and unleash the armada of talent that swirls around them. Watching that armada roll, listening to them rock, I couldn’t help thinking how badly Broadway needs Jerry Springer–The Opera. America needs Jerry Springer–The Opera. It is the opera that America deserves.