La Boheme” was never like this.
More than two decades after the British musical “explosion” began with Andrew Lloyd Webber, only to trickle away to near-nothingness in the years since, along comes composer Richard Thomas (not the American actor of the same name) with quite simply the most sophisticated and exciting through-sung score that I have encountered in my 19 years in London. The chosen terrain of Thomas and his co-lyricist and director Stewart Lee? The trailer-trash lowlife of American tabloid TV. This ceaselessly ingenious duo has taken the outsized passions of the subject matter to their logical conclusion: How better to honor such emotional extremes than via the musical extreme that is opera?
And so we have “Jerry Springer — The Opera,” which inaugurates Nicholas Hytner’s National Theater regime with much the same kick in the proverbial butt that Hytner’s similarly dizzying production of Mark Ravenhill’s “Mother Clap’s Molly House” gave to the Nunn years. Scabrous and filthy, but also given to outbursts of earnestness and even piety as it proceeds, “Jerry Springer” justifies the gathering hype that has accompanied its hopscotch around the U.K., from south London’s Battersea Arts Center more than two years ago to the Edinburgh Festival last summer. (There, its silver-maned namesake gave the endeavor his approval.)
What’s to be thrilled about in a show that doesn’t shy away from the perversities and perversions that fuel Springer’s particularly combative brand of revenge TV? (Those unfamiliar with the word “coprophilia” will learn its meaning via a sung paean to “shit pouring outta my ass.”) The truly remarkable aspect of the piece isn’t an in-your-face quality that includes a chorus of braying onlookers shouting “kill all gays,” or even a Handelian recitative to the infinite verbal varieties of a certain expletive beginning with F. Where co-creators Thomas and Lee succeed is in dignifying the desires, however twisted, of that portion of society one would like to consign to the dustbin.
Put another way, if you didn’t think you could be moved by the tale of an obscenely bloated man (the noble-voiced Benjamin Lake) two-timing his wife and his mistress with a third person, a “chick with a dick,” then you haven’t entered the singular world of this show, which manages to be sorrowful yet generous of heart, obscene and also keenly observant.
Having never seen “Jerry Springer” in any of its workshops, I was expecting a rather grander equivalent to Justin Butcher’s concurrent London entry “The Madness of George Dubya,” a juvenile piss-take — to use British parlance — that trades on anti-American agitprop. But this far longer aborning project is way too smart for that. Indeed, as Lee’s extremely fluid production unfolds (directorially, one feels the advisory eye of both Lee’s directorial assistant, “Shockheaded Peter” alum Julian Crouch, here deftly doubling as set designer, and Hytner himself), one is perhaps unexpectedly put in mind of a venture like Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins,” an earlier work that attempts its own comical yet clear-eyed reckoning with the grotesquerie accompanying the large-scale deferral of the American dream.
“I want to sing something beautiful, something positive,” sings the lover of the diaper-wearing “poopie” (that’s Wills Morgan’s coprophiliac), “to learn how to dream again.” And for all the anger coursing through a climate that finds the chorus of onlookers shouting slurs (“Fat bitch! Dumbo!”) as one or another of Jerry’s guests emerge, the material acknowledges the rage on which revenge TV so clearly thrives while refusing to demean the passions — however desperate, misplaced or dim — of the people wedded to this milieu.
The show builds to a natural first-act climax that finds the scarily convincing Michael Brandon’s lookalike, non-singing Springer shot in the crossfire of a studio brawl. Act two shifts the action to the logical resting place for so infernal an endeavor — hell, where God, a few archangels and Adam and Eve show up to have their say. (“For one little apple on a tree/we get a life of misery,” sings the irreplaceable Alison Jiear’s Eve in one of the show’s more treasurable rhymes.) Springer’s warmup man (David Bedella) re-emerges as Satan, and yet “Jerry Springer — The Opera” resists giving the last word to the “prince of darkness,” insisting instead on the shards of dignity appropriate to the verbal affinities between “kyrie eleison” and, yep, “Jerry Eleison.”
If anything, one might wish for a little less last-minute sententiousness. It is as if the show’s authors didn’t trust an audience to glean the serious intention that clearly informs every expletive or absurdity. (I remain oddly partial to “This is a Jerry Springer moment/dip us in chocolate, and throw us to the lesbians.”) On the other hand, when an onstage placard warns of “epic themes and mock-heroic language” to come, it is being only partly facetious.
In a score that embraces Bach through to Bacharach, Mozart and also Motown, “Jerry Springer — The Opera” can see through to life’s nastiness while also allowing for what’s ennobling. Small wonder the actual Jerry Springer (London-born, incidentally) is said to love this show. In one fell swoop, not only is he redeemed, but so are two decades of an impoverished British original musical landscape, which seems to have needed this shot in the chest, so to speak, to come feistily and fantastically to life.