Everyone’s talking about ‘Jerry’

Royal National Theater prod'n garners rave reviews, boffo biz

LONDON — “Jerry Springer — The Opera” is still at the overture phase.

Buoyed by largely stellar reviews and box office to match, London’s most-lauded original musical in years is looking toward the future, which looks set to include a West End transfer in the fall and Broadway after that.

“Things have taken shape even more than we hoped,” co-producer Allan McKeown told Variety.

He was joined for a joint telephone interview by Jon Thoday of Avalon Prods., the company that has long been at the forefront of British comedy. The two men were speaking mere days after “Jerry Springer” opened April 29 at the Royal National Theater’s Lyttelton auditorium, garnering rave reviews and boffo biz.

In the 24 hours following the press night, the staging took £162,189 ($260,622) at the box office, which Avalon was claiming as a record for original musicals at the National. (Not the most exalted of claims, given that the National has done very few original tuners.)

But with raves running from five stars in both Metro and the Sunday Express to an Evening Standard encomium splashed across the London tabloid’s front page, the producers are right to be proud of the spring in “Jerry Springer’s” step.

The show is on its way to being not just another London musical but, quite possibly, a legit phenomenon.

What’s astonishing is how avidly “Jerry Springer” has been tracked within the industry over time. Cameron Mackintosh was among those who caught it in embryo at south London’s Battersea Arts Center. “I loved it,” Mackintosh told me last month, remarking that English composer Richard Thomas was “definitely a fantastic talent.”

And well before he took over the National reins for real last month, the theater’s a.d. Nicholas Hytner was on “Jerry Springer’s” trail. “I was really impressed,” he said of a show whose early investors included the producer, Nick Starr, who has since become Hytner’s second-in-command. “It seems to me the one thing that hasn’t happened in London is anybody consistently developing or producing musicals in the mid-scale.” Until now.

Avalon’s Thoday tipped a cap to the National for risking what is unabashedly a pre-West End tryout of an admittedly tricky work. (The musical’s expletive quotient alone leaves the likes of David Mamet in the dust, while its salute to scatology is more or less unparalleled.)

“It’s very, very good that they took a chance on something which is original, rather than a revival of a musical with a bad book,” Thoday says. On the other hand, the National gains fron the cachet that comes with appealing to a newly diverse audience. (At the perf attended, I overheard one theatergoer ask what “door,” as opposed to auditorium, the show was in.) In tandem with Hytner’s Travelex £10 season in the theater’s largest venue, the Olivier, the presence of “Jerry Springer” puts the Hytner regime’s money where its mouth is.

If these strategies don’t pull in the punters, nothing will.

Thoday said he expected the show to go clean by mid-May at the very latest at the National, where the repertory run has been extended through August and could well extend for a further month. Beyond that, a £2.2 million ($3.54 million) West End transfer to an 1,100- or 1,200-seater is expected in October, with a U.S. debut skedded for sometime next year.

But how will “Jerry Springer” play closer to home, at least as far as its London-born yet quintessentially American namesake is concerned? (For the record, Thoday reports the real Springer is “not taking a penny” from the stage venture.)

“I’m always hearing, ‘You can’t do this; you can’t do that,’ ” says McKeown, a Londoner who has since returned to his L.A. home with his wife, Tracey Ullman (a visible “Jerry Springer” enthusiast on opening night).

“We’re taking on the whole notion of people wanting to go on TV and talk about their extraordinary foibles and fetishes, and just taking that to another level,” McKeown says. “Jerry Springer — The Opera,” he goes on, “isn’t wilder than many of the things that go on Jerry Springer’s shows.”

Thoday defines the issue of success, whether in Britain or America, as “who we get through the door first.”

“If we get the right people, then everything is possible,” says the Avalon producer, who has been making the New York theater rounds with “Jerry Springer’s” singular content in mind. “There’s ‘Urinetown,’ and there’s ‘The Producers,’ with its tap-dancing Nazis. I think we will be fine. And some of the biggest movies are the rudest movies in history.”

“It would be wrong to say, ‘People are offended, so we have to take these things out,’ ” McKeown says.

In any case, the opera has got the only imprimatur that matters — from Springer himself. “He was thrilled with the show and said he would be coming to any openings all around the world,” says McKeown.

In which case, let’s hope his passport is up to date.

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