Back in its first flush of life in Britain in the early to mid-2000s, the musical Jerry Springer: The Opera—now back in New York in a New Group production at the Signature Theatre—seemed funny because the show on which it was based was observed on British TV screens as a chaotic zoo of a singularly American making.
The comedy and satire its British creators Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas’ musical crafted from its confrontations involving the cheated-upon, the deadbeat parents, the abusive boyfriends, the girlfriends suddenly revealed to be transgender, and the cheated-upon coming face to face with “the other woman” were as riotous as the show itself.
The show was famous for its insults, anger, hair-pulling, screeching, and the audience’s braying call of “Jerry, Jerry,” made musical in the opera itself.
There was also the doughty background presence of security guy “Steve” (Wilkos, who went on to get his own humans-in-trauma show and is presently facing a drunk driving charge); Steve was there to look responsible and break up the confrontations, half-heartedly, as the handsome Billy Hepfinger does in this production. A little hair-pulling, he winks to us, is A-OK.
Presiding over it all was Springer himself, played here by Terrence Mann, whose careworn stewardship of this circus of dysfunction, topped with a hokey, closing “final thought,” were in vivid contrast to the verbal and physical violence, or characters like the man who dresses up as a baby in the show, that preceded it.
In the New Group production, Derek McLane’s stage is brilliantly designed as close as possible to the Jerry Springer set—weird ventilation units and all, a kind of twilit underground prison cell bunker—which director John Rando uses as a fluid arena of fighting and ugliness and song and dance, choreographed by Chris Bailey to flow into the audience.
If the production is energetically sung and performed, the material watched in the present day is more confusing to decode. Jerry Springer: The Opera aims to have its satirical cake and eat it, skewering the guests in their supposed freakishness and also the moral bankruptcy upon which the show was founded, and through which they are being exploited.
The musical revels in “chicks with a dick”—it even makes that phrase into a collectively sung refrain—and also seeks to reveal the cynical machinery behind the guests’ exploitation and manipulation, eventually putting Springer on trial in Hell.
Perhaps the authors of the musical would claim that “chicks with a dick” is a fair reflection of the language of Jerry Springer’s show. But the show restates disparaging or mocking LGBT descriptors throughout, including another refrain of being dipped in chocolate and thrown to the lesbians. Is it funny once? Maybe, not really. Over and over again? Nope.
Sure, this kind of language, sung in high operatic harmony, is mocking the Springer show’s use of such name-calling, but the people around me appeared to be laughing at the name-calling and refrains in themselves.
Also, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to suggest that in 2018, especially post-Charlottesville, a tap-dancing Ku Klux Klan troupe doesn’t play as hilariously as it might have in the mid-2000s, even with a cloak of satire and irony around it.
The Klan and white supremacy are forging a path in modern American life, with—according to our president—“very fine people” within their ranks. Jerry Springer: The Opera gives the hooded ones a comic legitimacy. And again, people laughed all around me at their energetic song and dance routine. (The look on my face? Imagine the audience in The Producers watching “Springtime for Hitler.”)
My increasing chill as the show progressed (many in the audience were finding it as hysterical as intended) also made me smile. Back in the day, the show most angered Christian groups in the United Kingdom, furious at its representation of God, Jesus, and its scattershot profanity. So you can at least conclude that its power to provoke has not diminished.
Regardless of the language, or the musical’s ranging moral compass, Jerry Springer: The Opera’s biggest problem is now time, and being outpaced by it. To run the show now, without mention of Donald Trump, without any recognition of the political and cultural landscape of now, almost invalidates it. We are told it is set “sometime in the fairly recent past.” You wouldn’t know it.
The transgressions of Springer, its stain on civility and decency as Lee and Thomas see it, now look hoarily antic, and more cartoonish and ludicrous than what followed it.
Jerry Springer: The Opera in 2018 would be so much better if it found a way of referencing a trajectory of how the show itself laid its bed of seeds for what has come to be. The carnival got bigger, the staged confrontations got more high-stakes, the ringmaster became president, the lunatics have taken over the asylum and now have White House-headed notepaper.
Jerry Springer: The Opera exists in blithe denial of this. But, especially when the Klansmen pop up for some laughs, its lack of engagement with what happened after its birthdate, becomes more damning; especially because, as Springer says, before he got to do the show he was a serious politician with serious political aspirations. The show is what he will be remembered for, a daily exercise of social carnage rather than social change.
The second half of the show, which sees Springer shot and in purgatory and then Hell face to face with a high-octane, salivating devil (a deliriously athletic Will Swenson, who also plays Springer’s vengeful warm-up guy), then Jesus (Justin Keyes) and an array of other biblical figures, is supposed to be an exercise in atonement and explanation.
“I Just Wanna Make You Happy,” he sings at the beginning of Act II with a troupe of backing Jerrys. All the figures Springer has exploited from the show return to haunt and jolt him out of moral complacency. As he hovers between life and death, will he become good, or simply revel in what he has already?
The songs remain excellently composed and sung; just wait for Luke Grooms as God to deliver “It Ain’t Easy Being Me.” Elizabeth Loyacano-as-Andrea’s “I Wanna Sing Something Beautiful” is a heartfelt plea to lift ourselves out of cultural and personal degradation. The signature “This Is Your Jerry Springer Moment” still has a twirling charm, bizarre LGBT riffs and all. The show gets softer and less serrated as it progresses, leading to the almost hymnal “In This Heart You’re Home.”
If Jerry Springer: The Opera feels lost in time, it is also piercing for the same reason. As much as Lee and Thomas are in a mocking and satirical mood, the musical, in its hammering way, was a cultural warning about the demons unleashed by a media-fed and -watered desire for fame and notoriety. Lee and Thomas were proved right. The wider culture ignored their warning at its peril.
Jerry Springer: The Opera is at Signature Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street, New York City, until March 11. Book tickets here.