At Long Last, It’s ‘Jerry Springer’ Time, With Arias and Dancing
Posted January 17, 2018 6:28 p.m. EST
NEW YORK — God and the Devil were fighting for a man’s soul — for all of humanity, really. Angels and miscreants got in on the action, pushing and pulling, the Devil stretching out his hand and zapping everyone; God responded in kind. In the middle of the scrum, arms yanked in opposite directions, stood Jerry Springer. Well, a guy playing Jerry Springer at least.
God and the Devil are presumably doing battle elsewhere in the world, too, and this Jerry was the Broadway actor Terrence Mann, in the thick of rehearsing a scene from “Jerry Springer — The Opera.” The show, a London sensation in 2003 that toured Europe and has been mounted by a handful of regional American theaters, has not had an honest-to-goodness run in New York until now. The New Group production begins previews Jan. 23, off-Broadway at the Pershing Square Signature Theater.
“The Jerry Springer Show” — the TV series, not the opera — had its premiere in 1991 and was part of the heyday, or nadir, depending on your perspective, of daytime talk. These were the days of “Donahue,” “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Geraldo,” “The Jenny Jones Show,” “Ricki Lake,” “The Richard Bey Show,” “The Montel Williams Show” and the somehow-still-running “Maury.”
While every show had its own brand of scandalousness, “Jerry” became the juiciest, the tawdriest, the ultimate lowbrow modern-day freak show. “Talking Trash” announced a 1998 Time magazine article. The host appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone with the headline “Sex, Sin & the Death of All We Hold Sacred.”
The idea of tabloid TV as cultural boogeyman feels almost quaint now. Compared with what you can find on YouTube, “The Jerry Springer Show” might as well be Molière. People will gleefully spew hateful nonsense at one another in the comments section of a recipe. At least in the ‘90s, they could get a trip to Chicago out of it.
Standards of discourse have shifted elsewhere, too.
“When the election happened,” said Scott Elliott, the artistic director of the New Group, “I thought, if there’s ever a time for ‘Jerry Springer — The Opera,’ it’s now.”
The creative team sees it much the same way. “We have a reality TV star in the White House,” said John Rando, the show’s director. Richard Thomas, its creator, composer, and lyricist, added: “The United States is having its Jerry Springer moment.” It’s harsher coming from him; he’s British. (So is Stewart Lee, who collaborated on the book and additional lyrics.)
“Jerry Springer — The Opera,” completely sung-through except for Jerry’s lines, is in two acts: Act I is a relatively faithful episode of the TV show, with guests who all have “guilty secrets.” At the end of the act, Jerry gets shot, and Act II is set in hell, where the Devil insists Jerry do a show with him, Jesus, Mary, Adam, Eve and eventually God.
If ever there were a marriage of the sacred and profane, this is it. The opera is packed with profanity — make a list of the most vulgar terms you can think of, and then add the British ones. Don’t forget the drug references, scatology and fetish talk. “Often people mistake surprise with offense,” Thomas said.
People have been surprised, and occasionally offended, by “Jerry Springer — The Opera” for a while now. While it was critically acclaimed onstage, it prompted protests and even a blasphemy lawsuit when it aired on BBC2 in 2005. And protesters in New York picketed a two-night concert staging at Carnegie Hall in 2008. (“Will it turn out that the great American musical of the early 21st century is an opera born in Britain?” Ben Brantley asked in his New York Times rave.)
“There was always a kind of prudishness about the risqué humor, some of the language — the profanity — which I think in the post-'Book of Mormon’ days has hopefully been displaced,” Thomas said.
Instead, what seems surprising about “Jerry Springer — The Opera” today is its undercurrent of human decency, its naked affection for humanity. Sure, people beg their partners to indulge their diaper fetishes or confess their infidelities on national television, but they also sing, in gorgeous and haunting harmony: “Oh, how my heart aches for love, aches for love.”
“It’s not a show about judgment,” Thomas said.
The show is so nonjudgmental in fact that even its Satan is somehow relatable. Will Swenson, a Tony nominee for “Hair” and currently starring in “Waitress,” plays the petulant dark lord — who, in Act I, is actually Jonathan, Jerry’s overeager warm-up guy. Jonathan’s desperation and Satan’s surprising neediness are almost sympathetic. “We all have idols that we look up to,” Swenson said, on his lunch break during a recent rehearsal. “We want them to think we’re great, we want them to think that we’re talented. We want attention, and often we will do things that are obnoxious to succeed.”
Mann, on a lunch break of his own, said that he couldn’t be at the first week of rehearsals and felt “a little behind the eight-ball” nailing down all of Jerry’s dialogue. On the mannerisms front, though, Mann has a leg up: He’s worked with the actual Jerry Springer before, in 2001 in “The Rocky Horror Show” on Broadway, where Mann played Frank ‘N’ Furter and Springer the narrator.
Thomas said the show is set in the “recent past” and substitutes Ellen DeGeneres for a passing reference to Ricki Lake. Otherwise, references to gun control, health care and the blankness with which people consume entertainment have become more, not less, relevant.
But this is a ‘90s show: It’s set at the peak of Springer’s powers, there’s nary a mention of the internet, and some of the terminology would be considered more derogatory now.
The show also dovetails with the ways pop culture is remetabolizing its own ‘90s scandals. “I, Tonya,” a winking biopic of Tonya Harding, is an awards-season darling. “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson” won a pile of Emmys. A&E made a Tupac miniseries; Britney Spears has been redeemed; Monica Lewinsky delivers moving TED talks. Reboots are everywhere. Thomas himself went on to write an opera about Anna Nicole Smith. Seediness is a matter of perspective; just who determines what’s trashy after all? Just because you yourself have not been sleeping with your wife’s best friend doesn’t mean you don’t have secrets. Be really careful when sneering at a man in a diaper.
The television show, Mann said, gave “these marginalized, dispossessed folks their platform, their moment, to express themselves.” He said he aims to capture “the essence” of Springer — “he never condescends to anyone.”
Tiffany Mann (no relation to Terrence Mann) plays Shawntel, the Springer guest who delivers arguably the show’s best insult — she calls her lousy husband, Chucky, an “inbreed three-nipple cousin [expletive]” — and sings Act I’s barnburner number, “I Just Wanna Dance.”
Tiffany Mann said she had added some jokes and gestures and that some rhythms in her songs had been adjusted for her. Those are among many changes, big and small, going into the show. Thomas comfortably called this “tinkering,” while the director, Rando, preferred the term “developing.”
While blocking that God-versus-Satan fight, for example, Rando consulted with the choreographer, Chris Bailey, and the fight choreographer, Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum; tried different permutations of several movements; fielded questions and suggestions from performers; and stood in as one of the angels, amiably embracing Terrence Mann at the taped-off corner of downstage left.
Though the fracas lasts for only about seven bars of music, it took 90 minutes to block. “Other things go a little quicker,” he said.
Thomas has rearranged some of the score to better suit a 17-person cast rather than a 33-person ensemble. He swapped out some gay slurs that characters use because in 2018 it felt “unnecessarily aggressive,” and he rewrote some of the grooves to be “hipper.” He added a pair of new songs, one in each act, to better highlight the parallels between Jonathan and the Devil.
He also substantially revised the second act opening, prompted by a production of the show in Poland that cut several minutes from the top. The most notable change is that Jerry sings, whereas in the show’s original incarnation, he was the only character who never did.
“Him never singing felt a little dated and gimmicky,” Elliott said. “Having (Terrence) Mann didn’t hurt.”
For his part, Mann — best known as Javert in the original “Les Misérables” — signed on before Jerry’s song was part of the deal. “When I found out that Jerry doesn’t sing, I went, ‘Well, that’s OK,'” Mann recalled. “But then I kind of went, ‘Well, I kind of like to sing …'”
Elliott said they would add the song and see how it went. “We’re not looking at some sacred production,” he said. “It’s a totally different experience,” he said, in part because the off-Broadway stage is quite small compared with the more elaborate spaces the show played in London.
As rehearsals continued, tweaks were ongoing; Thomas said in an email that a line that had been cut from this production (which was, I had confessed, a personal favorite) had been restored.
Could “Jerry Springer — The Opera” finally make its way to Broadway, 15 years after its premiere? “We would love it to have a commercial life,” Elliott said, but there is no concrete plan.
So “Jerry Springer — The Opera” has a certain present and an uncertain future. Meanwhile, “The Jerry Springer Show” is still cranking out new episodes.