A Bad Show Has Been Sprung On Hart House

Sitting in the audience for Jerry Springer-the Opera at Hart House Theatre reminded me of that scene in Marvin Hamlisch/ Neil Simon’s The Goodbye Girl when Elliott is playing Richard III off-Broadway and his soon-to-be-girlfriend Paula sings from the audience, “I’m dying, he’s dying, he looks a miserablah and it breaks my heart to see how hard he’s trying…” Like in this fictional Richard III, I’m sure there are a lot of talented people involved with Jerry Springer, who are giving it every ounce of energy, commitment and bravery, but it’s just not enough to make it work.
I am currently reading a book called The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical by Mark N. Grant who argues that since Lerner and Lowe (who wrote My Fair Lady in 1964!!) there has been no show written that is worthy enough to be considered great Broadway material, with the exception of a few musicals written by Stephen Sondheim. While reading this book, I felt strongly that Grant was being nostalgic, and slightly pretentious, in dismissing contemporary musicals and contemporary music as being inferior to that which he had grown up listening to. Jerry Springer- the Opera, however, I think demonstrates perfectly Grant’s issues with the direction in which musical theatre seems to be heading.
Grant writes, “The problem today is that there is no longer any dialectic between the lyric’s content and the way the lyric is presented musically, there is no ‘dance partnering’ going on.” In Jerry Springer Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee’s music and lyrics don’t have any connection to one another whatsoever. The lyrics sit sloppily on top of the music with an entire lack of corroboration. The lyrics repeat the same words over and over, which, I realize is a characteristic of opera, but it just seems like an easy escape to avoid having to write witty lyrics, and then the anguish of having to write even more clever, witty lyrics that rhyme with them. The rhyming is consistently awful; “take a leak” doesn’t really rhyme with “physique,” and there are so many ooohs and ahhhs that are obviously just filling space so that the writers don’t have to come up with more words.
This show has the potential to be really clever and political, but it’s not funny enough to be played solely for humor, and not smart enough to offer any satirical message of worth to its audience. The whole premise hinges on the shock factor and relies on the audience to laugh simply because an actor sang “cocksucker,” or “cunt” or “crackwhore” or “fuck.” And it’s simply not enough. In his Director’s note, Richard Ouzounian writes that this musical is “blasphemous,” and it’s true that it may offend audience members or at least gross them out, I’m left with the question, “so what?” As an opened minded liberal girl, who has sat through The Pillowman (in a tiny theatre she was certain was going to alight accidentally and set fire to them all) and King Lear, Palace of the End, and has read Sarah Kane’s Blasted, this show isn’t going to shock me out of the theatre.
Its complete lack of any sort of nuanced, detailed portrayal of any of the characters definitely does not pull me into their experience, or cause me to relate to them, or sympathize with them at all. And there isn’t enough of a strong, clear, political message to pull off any sort of Brechtian alienation effect either. Some of the images are strong, a crucified Springer, the Ku Klux Klan, but there is no follow through, and they don’t emerge organically from the story. These moments have been placed sloppily overtop the action to assault the audience’s senses, and this drains from it all its potential power.
I felt Richard Ouzounian’s direction of the show was functional and kept the show visually interesting, although nothing was particularly novel or innovative. He may have relied a bit too much on some gratuitous lighting choices, but overall, I felt he kept the actors moving and some of the dancing was particularly well done. The opera singing was well executed by the cast, but seemed to descend into screaming within the context, which caused it to lack most of its beauty. Jocelyn Howard (Peaches/Baby Jane) has a particularly beautiful voice, Ian Bender (Tremont) and JP Bevilacqua (Jonathan) have strong and irresistible stage presence, and Byron Rouse gave a strong portrayal of Jerry Springer. Like Paula in The Goodbye Girl, their valiant efforts to make this show work made me want to give them a chance to do something better.
As Grant writes in his book, we have come to a place where producers seem to think that the only viable Broadway musicals that can be produced beyond Disney are the ones that make fun of themselves, satirize everything, and declare war on sentimentality and sincerity. I disagree with Grant that every single musical since My Fair Lady has done just that. There is a moment in Avenue Q where the audience connects and sympathizes with a very sincere, honest, genuine little puppet named Kate Monster, and her song A Fine, Fine Line can break a person’s heart. There is a moment at the end of The Rocky Horror Show where the audience doesn’t know who to sympathize with, but feels emotional attachment to a murderous drag queen and his sexually deviant slaves. Richard O’Brien can elicit a complex response from his audience and dare them to look beyond the fishnets (and Patricia Quinn’s nipples) and ask themselves some very difficult questions about the human experience.
Jerry Springer does declare war on sentimentality and sincerity. It offers up everything simply to tear it apart. It shows us the underbelly of humanity and arguably human nature at its very worst, making weak connections to Jesus, God, Adam, Eve and Mary, suggesting meekly that maybe they too were just as fucked up. But why? And if we are all fucked up, what does that mean? Why don’t I care? Why haven’t the authors made a case for why I should?
It was in this moment at the theatre that I understood exactly what Grant was saying in his book, and I realized how dangerous this type of musical theatre can be. There must be some sort of balance between satirizing and paying homage, or else we are murdering our own art form with within, an art form that is in desperate need of a champion. We have to stand up bravely and admit that sentiment and sincerity, laughter, song and dance are legitimate. They are valuable, meaningful, and worthy of exploration. If the writers, directors, actors and lovers of good musical theatre don’t loudly believe in and support the art of it, why should anyone else?
Jerry Springer- the Opera plays until January 31st, 2009 at Hart House Theatre. Visit http://www.harthousetheatre.ca/ for more information.

Leave a Reply