How do you prevent a musical about a trio of musically-challenged sisters who sing awful songs from being musically-challenged itself? That’s the tightrope tread by creators Joy Gregory, Gunnar Madsen and John Langs with “The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World,” and the results are interesting but off-balance. Some years back, the folks at Playwrights Horizons attempted a similarly challenging piece about social misfits — the Bouvier Beales of “Grey Gardens” — and everything came up roses. This new tale of a driven parent who grooms his daughters for stardom starts out, and remains, unsettlingly off key.
Tale falls in the “stranger than fiction” category. A day laborer in New Hampshire decides, based on a palm reading session by his deceased mother, that his girls are destined to be rock stars. He pulls them out of high school, buys drums and guitars, and demands they learn to play. A self-financed 1969 album is a total bust, although a few copies manage to get into circulation. The girls disband upon their father’s death in 1975, but a 1980 reissue from a cult label is hailed by Rolling Stone magazine, which gives the group a tongue-in-cheek “comeback of the year” award.
Story has a certain dramatic potential, but the authors have not figured out how to turn these extreme eccentrics and their lousy songs into something compelling. Patriarch Austin Wiggin is drawn as an abusive monster with no humanizing touches, which makes for harsh entertainment.
The Playwrights/New York Theater Workshop coproduction has been in development for more than a decade, with prior incarnations at Powerhouse in Los Angeles, Geva in Rochester, and the Lookingglass in Chicago. But this has clearly been a hard one to develop. Co-creator Langs provides rather clumsy direction, sabotaged by an awkward two-level set. (These Wiggins seem to live underground with the mushrooms, literally beneath a cemetery.)
Awkwardness abounds, beginning with the Shaggs’ mantra in the opening number (“Oh the rich people want what the poor people’s got, and the poor people want what the rich people’s got”). Case in point is the song from the family patriach which opens the second act: “Austin’s Howl,” it’s called, and a werewolf howl it is. “Ah-ooo, I hear the mother wolf calling,” he sings, “bring your babies back home.”
Actor Peter Freidman is game, but his howl comes off not as a breakdown in song but simply as an awful ditty from a character who is by description unable to sing or even speak coherently.
The rest of the cast is fine. The three sisters manage to differentiate their characters, and there are well-drawn comic turns from Kevin Cahoon, Cory Michael Smith and Steve Routman in multiple roles. Annie Golden, as mother to the Shaggs, steals the show, as she has done on past occasions, with her one big solo, “Flyin’.” Golden is also extremely funny when asked to double as a teenager.
One of the characters says The Shaggs sound like the Mouseketeers from Mars, and Rolling Stone once described them as “a lobotomized Trapp Family Singers.” How do you make these girls sing, in their own musical? With difficulty, as demonstrated by “Philosophy of the World.” Musical numbers: “Verses in the Body,” “Career Day,” “Impossible You,” “Annie’s Lessons,” “Don’t Say Nothing Bad about My Dad,” “Show Me the Magic,” “Words into Wonder,” “Things I Wonder,” “Destiny,” “Philosophy of the World,” “Austin’s Howl,” “Flyin’,” “The Night Before,” “Studio Montage,” “Ordinary Day,” “This Is Real,” “Poster Girls,” “My Head Is an Empty Birdcage,” “Driving Home (The Rage),” “Never Fade”