An opera seems like a natural candidate for a stint at Carnegie Hall. But an opera about Jerry Springer? Not so much.
Especially when most legiters expected it to show up on Broadway.
A London hit whose seemingly assured Rialto transfer fell apart for a number of reasons, “Jerry Springer — The Opera” took an unusual route to Gotham, rescued by a pair of producers who have made their mark putting edgy legit events in venues where they don’t seem to belong.
Partners David Foster and Jared Geller (“Kiki & Herb: Alive on Broadway”) have assembled a $500,000 concert version of “Springer” that will play two nights only, Jan. 29-30, at Carnegie. The production, starring Harvey Keitel in the title role and directed by Jason Moore (“Avenue Q”), looks like a tryout for a full-scale Broadway incarnation. But Foster and Geller say a future life for the work was never the aim.
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“We didn’t set out to do it as a developmental event,” says Foster. “It works as a stand-alone commercial venture.”
“Springer,” with music by Richard Thomas and book and lyrics by Stewart Lee and Thomas, bills itself as a mashup of highbrow and lowbrow culture, a profanity-laden opera that centers on the real-life trash TV talkshow host, who, in the tuner’s fictional story, is killed while filming a particularly volatile episode and ends up in hell.
The opera originated at the 2002 Edinburgh Fringe Fest, where the buzz led to a production at London’s National Theater that transferred to the West End’s Cambridge Theater in 2003. It went on to win four best musical awards in the U.K., including the 2004 Olivier.
The London exposure provided ample momentum for a Gotham transfer, but a skedded Broadway stint, announced for fall 2005, eventually fell apart.
In addition to a dispute among producers and a lack of backing, “Jerry Springer” was plagued by a series of financial questions that cut into its bottom line.
In fall 2004, the producers filed a libel suit against London’s Daily Mail, which had asserted that the show was losing £40,000 ($79,000 in 2008 dollars) a week. Legal fees drained funds that could have been invested into the tuner. The newspaper later printed an apology, conceding that the musical was, in fact, turning a profit.
West End grosses — unlike Broadway — are not disclosed, making it difficult to get a firm handle on the success of the “Springer” commercial transfer. However, regardless of the Daily Mail’s about-face, many London legit insiders believe the Cambridge Theater run lost money.
Industry speculation also surfaced that the producers would have to factor in U.S. copyright laws and new negotiations, possibly involving a fee to NBC Universal Domestic Television, which distributes the “Jerry Springer Show,” for use of the title and logo. However, Geller says he has no knowledge of such restrictions.
Meanwhile, the musical was generating controversy thanks to a BBC telecast of the show that prompted about 55,000 complaints, particularly from Christian groups up in arms about the show’s irreverent portraits of Biblical figures, not to mention the long list of colorful words in its lyrics.
Even after “Springer” closed on the West End in February 2005, protests dogged the 2006 U.K. tour.
Some insiders believe the enthusiasm of U.S. producers for a show that could be perceived as anti-American, was high on profanity, potentially controversial and by no means a safe bet with the all-important tourist trade never quite matched the eagerness of London producers to ship the show Stateside. But the bottom line is that a musical with a cast of more than 30, requiring operatically trained singers also able to perform musical comedy, was never an easy proposition for the Rialto.
“It’s a big show, it’s a hard show to cast and it’s racy material,” concedes Geller. ” ‘Avenue Q’ is like ‘Sesame Street’ compared to this show.”
With the Broadway production scuttled, “Springer” caught the eye of Foster and Geller, who met when Geller stage-managed Foster’s 2001 Off Broadway production “Puppetry of the Penis.”
The partners’ non-traditional, legit-with-attitude tastes have spurred them to produce projects including successful Euro-clown act “Slava’s Snowshow,” which played more than two years Off Broadway; Carnegie Hall and Broadway appearances for downtown post-punk cabaret duo Kiki & Herb; Rufus Wainwright’s 2006 replication of Judy Garland’s famous 1961 Carnegie concert; and “C’est Duckie,” the tabletop burlesque event that just finished a run downtown. “After doing Rufus at Carnegie, it struck us that ‘Springer’ would be a great concert,” Foster says. “It’s fairly presentational, especially in the first act, which takes place at a talkshow.”
The duo aim to fill two nights in Carnegie’s 2,800-seat auditorium, primarily with the tuner avids who already know the show from its rep in the U.K. Ticket prices range from $59 to $175.
“The easy people to get are the musical theater fans,” Geller says. “The shows are on the road to being sold out.”
Keitel, who had been interested in playing Springer (a non-singing role) in London, will be joined by Broadway vets Emily Skinner and Max von Essen, along with David Bedella as Satan, a role for which he won a 2004 Olivier. The cast of about 30 is rehearsing for roughly two weeks ahead of the two-night run.
The board of Carnegie Hall took some convincing of the merits of an opera about Jerry Springer. “This is probably the most profanity you’ll ever hear on the Carnegie Hall stage,” Geller says.
So far, the two-night run of “Springer” has prompted no signs of the controversy that embroiled the U.K. incarnation. A small-scale Chicago production last year (the tuner’s U.S. preem) caused no noticeable disputes, nor did later stagings in Memphis or Minneapolis.
An outcry could be just the thing to boost the profile of the title and lay the groundwork for a longer run on Broadway, as could critical raves in the press. But Foster and Geller aren’t counting on any future life for the show in Gotham.
“If anything else comes of this, that’s just cream,” Geller says.