jerry springer - the opera
Jerry Springer – the Opera Sydney Opera House, Concert Hall, 21-26 April 2009; www.sydneyoperahouse.com
Offensive is the tongue-in-cheek calling card of Jerry Springer – the Opera and the glorious thing is, this show is an equal opportunity offender – no one need feel left out. Anyone and Everyone can feel outraged, aghast, furious, shocked, indignant or appalled. Or you could be exhilarated, amused, delighted and hugely entertained by this most lewd, rude and fabulous to know musical theatre experience.
Put on by the Opera House production unit, they’re selling it under the banner “A sinfully short run – don’t miss out!” and they’re right in more ways than one. It’s extremely costly to stage – a large cast of necessarily first-rate singer-actors, a nine-piece live band, plus major star David Wenham, as well as the best possible choice of director in Gale Edwards – so this musically and physically complex show was pulled together with just two and a half weeks’ rehearsal and one preview before embarking on the six scheduled performances.
Yes. Jerry is wonderful, despite the major drawback of the Concert Hall acoustics – which are hopeless for this kind of multi-voiced, multi-directional piece where the words really do matter. Surtitles might have helped, but that’s a further cost, and anyway, the pace and wit of the book would be almost impossible to reduce to a line of text; never mind causing conniptions among the faint-hearted. The pity of it is that at the moment the Opera Theatre itself, right next door, is cold and gloomy as a dead dog’s doodle. Which is unfortunate as the space would have worked in favour of Jerry rather than against it. (Opera Australia, of course, is on its annual jaunt to Melbourne.)
That leads one to ponder the depressing thought that Opera Australia’s idea of a daring, non-operatic, box office crowd-pleaser is My Fair Lady, or a bit of G&S or, this year A Little Night Music – piquantly enough, starring Diver Dan’s old flame, Sigrid Thornton! Bearing in mind, however, that the “controversial” Jerry Springer played more than 600 performances in London before an equally successful national tour of the UK, it’s not exactly the pedigree of box office poison. On the other hand, a planned Broadway season fell through in 2008 and just two nights at Carnegie Hall happened instead, with Harvey Keitel in the title role. The sky did not crack, nor were raiments rent asunder, but they’re a nervous and PC lot in New York. Nevertheless, it’s hard to believe OA’s subscribers would be as easily scandalised as those weirdly proper Big Apple burghers.
Purists might put forward that Jerry Springer isn’t a “proper” opera – the title being deliciously subversive as it is – but it is no less high-mindedly musical or accomplished than the non-operas mentioned above. And a darn sight more so than, for instance, the gruesome Lindy. As a psychologically elaborate narrative it is as absorbing as Madeline Lee or Batavia; but when you remember how long it took for the latter to reach Sydney, perhaps it’s just as well the SOH has given itself a mission to stage “outstanding live performance” and should be applauded for doing so.
Meanwhile, back to the moment – the Jerry Springer moment, as the chorus gleefully sing. “We don't want this moment to end, so cover us in chocolate and throw us to the lesbians.” And if you don’t find that comical, then perhaps a shot of humour along with your next Botox jab is indicated. Jerry Springer is the creation of Englishmen Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee and it received the star subject’s bemused support when he saw what they’d done. His only comment being that he wished he’d thought of it first.
The first half follows the format of a Springer confessional TV show wherein members of the Lowest Common Denominator dig themselves ever deeper pits to achieve their craved moment of fame. This is done for the delectation of a baying studio audience and millions of viewers elsewhere. It’s definitely a situation where truth is stranger than fiction as the parade of misfits and wannabes passes by. A visitor from outer space might be forgiven for thinking the USA is populated by obese, multi-adulterous pole-dancers or nappy-wearing coprophiles who dream of being their wive’s babies.
All the while, Jerry himself stirs the pot but does not engage. He watches on the sidelines – eschewing involvement or responsibility. It’s a notorious and arguable stance and beautifully captured by Wenham in blond wig and sardonic expression. Around him swirl the horrendous makings of this modern social phenomenon while he – figuratively at least – says “WTF? Who, me?”
The choreography of the TV show is captured and embellished (Jenny Arnold) on a simple set of two tiers of studio bleachers with a big screen high up and centre above a flight of stairs down which the host smugly ambles. He is assisted by a menacing and muscular black-clad Security Man (Marcus Graham) and a sycophantic Warm Up Man (David Bedella pictured). Between them they orchestrate rising levels of audience and participant hysteria through choral pieces such as “Talk to the Hand” and solos such as “Diaper Man”, “Montel cums Dirty” and, in a magic moment from Kate Miller-Heidke (mini-pic) and friends, “This is My Jerry Springer Moment”.
The authors’ thesis seems to be the unfashionable one – denied by shock jocks, academics and TV advertisers alike – that carrying on like this will inevitably lead to the Lowest Common Denominator crawling ever lower and aping what they see portrayed on the box. Heartwarming then that it’s Jerry himself who is shot dead by his disgruntled (and sacked) Warm Up Man. And in a sequence of supremely delightful bad taste and ridicule, he is seen on his way to the other world by a chorus line of camp, tap-dancing Ku Klux Klansmen.
The second half is what generated all the controversy in the UK as characters from his life – show participants, the murderer and so on – become the very worst nightmares the Springer show could ever have dreamed up. Thus God, Jesus and Satan compete for fame and notoriety and it becomes apparent that Jerry has gone to Hell. This has been seen by some (whether or not they've seen it) as blasphemous. The latest on the Outrage Express is one of the Jensens, here in Sydney. But these people willfully misunderstand and misrepresent what Springer is about, which is the very opposite of blasphemy.
When the BBC screened a filmed version of the stage show at 10pm one evening, this aspect was what drew some 55,000 complaints to the Corporation’s in- and mailboxes. Amazingly, however, these came in before the screening and many were generated by a couple of energetic “Christian” outfits. After the screening, according to BBC managing director Mark Thompson, there were far fewer genuine complaints and these were about equalled by messages of support and praise.
It is a reminder – and one we should take note of in this country where the PM is so easily “disgusted” and where many pundits are so quick to jump on censorious bandwagons – of the UK’s last prominent guardian of pubic morals, Mrs Mary Whitehouse. She and her National Viewers and Listeners Association were able to hold hostage the broadcasters and publishers of a lot of grown-up material for many years until the old bat finally carked. At which point it was revealed that her claim to be the mouthpiece of “the silent majority” was a load of old cobblers. In a nation of more than 50 million her membership (kept a tight secret until her death) was under 10,000.
In an oblique fashion, Jerry Springer is also comment on that kind of self-appointed moral leadership – which is often less moral than the sinners under castigation and says a lot more about society than many deliberately “serious” works. Meanwhile, the Australian premiere production of the notorious f*ck-fest is a spectacular entertainment in its own right. In a dazzling, sharp and energetic cast of 31 it seems mean to single out anyone in particular. But. As well as the mentionees above, Adele Johnston, Jennifer Vuletic, Lawrence Clayton, Andrew Bevis, James Millar and Trevor Ashley shine and director Gale Edwards has done a superb job.
Come the end of the evening, having been beaten about the head by foul-mouthed wit and big ideas, you may find yourself agreeing with Jerry Springer that he abhors violence – “unless it’s in a carefully controlled environment." Then you’ll know you’re in trouble.