Three musicals in three days but this one couldn’t have been further removed from the other two. Jerry Springer: The Opera was first staged at the National Theatre in 2003, moved into the West End and was then shown on BBC TV. And my, didn’t it cause a furore – particularly when it was on the latter? And I assume it was this televised version that I watched last night. A lot of water has flown under a lot of bridges since then and one could be forgiven for thinking that this wasn’t so much a satire as a documentary.
The show comes in two distinct halves. In the first we are part of the recording of a regular edition of the TV show which introduced (or at least popularised) the whole notion of confrontation TV. The three guest stories seem outlandish enough but as far as I can gather (I was never a fan) are not all that far removed from those that actually aired. Dwight is sleeping with three different people, Montel wants his partner to treat him as a baby and Shawntel who, despite Rubenesque proportions, wants to be a pole dancer. Joining them are various other betrayed/disappointed/angry partners and family members who reveal their stories in front of a baying crowd. The language is coarse and heavily peppered with expletives which would have been bleeped out on transmission. And here’s the central (and indeed some would say, the only) joke. All of this is sung through with appropriate operatic grandeur to some haunting melodies and musical flights of fancy composed by Richard Thomas. I’m sure if I had fuller knowledge of opera, I would have found much more to delight me in the score, though I did pick up references to Mozart and Porgy and Bess.
In the second part things get weirder. Jerry finds himself in limbo and has to preside over a confrontation organised by Satan (a transformed warm up man who Jerry summarily fired in part one) as he wants an apology from heaven. The guests are Jesus (Montel, still in his nappy), Adam and Eve (Shawntel and partner) and finally God (Dwight channelling Elvis). The behaviour of the biblical characters is no better than their earthly counterparts and to the charge of foul language can now be added one of blasphemy. Jerry is expected to find a resolution to the celestial conflict but, of course, can’t…except that he sort of does. By this stage I’d more or less given up on the plot as seemingly had writer Stewart Lee, a brilliant comedian though not particularly known for working towards a climactic punchline.
The central role is played by David Soul who makes for a more than passable twin of Springer who seems affable enough to the point where you wonder how such an unassuming individual could have made it so big in the cutthroat world of television. But then he’s backstage and the megalomania starts to break through. Soul had a couple of big hits in the late 1970s so it’s perhaps ironic that he’s the only character who doesn’t actually sing in the show. While this seems like a slightly odd decision it does have the effect of making him a unique individual who has a different code from everyone else. Making up for the lack of showbiz razzle dazzle in the central figure is David Bedella as the warm up guy and Satan. He oozes charisma, especially as the latter, and leads many of the big numbers including the finale where the entire cast have turned into Springer. The choral singing is beautifully done and some of the guests on the show have (ironically) the voices of angels. Particularly noteworthy and built like traditional opera singers are Benjamin Lake as Dwight and Alison Jiear as Shawntel.
I do have three major issues with the production; in fact, they remain the same as when I first saw the show live. The direct language is there to shock but it becomes so repetitive that one is quickly desensitized to the point where it has little or no effect (though, I acknowledge that this may be the point); ditto the blasphemous elements. Secondly, some ideas seem ill conceived and not followed through; for instance, the frequent appearances in the first half of Springer’s “inner Valkyrie” lead nowhere – perhaps it is just meant to be a good visual joke. Most importantly I really don’t think the two halves of the show fully gel and the second half comes across as a bolt on to make the show full length. Certainly, they couldn’t have protracted the central conceit of the first half any further; as it is, it was in danger of outstaying its welcome. But to switch focus so abruptly is rather too much. I’d have been content with a revised ending to part one and leaving it at that.
The last key question is, has it aged well? Not altogether, largely because it is so much of its moment. I think there’s probably greater awareness and sensitivity to the sort of psychological damage that this type of show could cause- despite Springer’s protestations otherwise. The backlash against such programmes has meant that offspring such as The Jeremy Kyle Show have been cancelled and are unlikely to resurface. Not that the mania for televised adversarial combat has been entirely erased but perhaps its now in a more contained and structured form (e.g. Judge Rinder). Also, I’m not so sure that we are as shockable as we were once. When Mel Brooks first put The Producers on screen in the 1960s, his theatre audience were shown with mouths agape as the big musical number Springtime For Hitler played out. The equivalent set piece number here is This Is My Jerry Springer Moment and nobody seems to turn a hair. Fifteen years after Jerry Springer: The Opera first hit the stage, reality has a way of outstripping satire. When it is suggested by the warm up man that Jerry, as a TV personality, might one day become President there’s an incredulous laugh from the theatre audience. Well, who’s laughing now?
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