Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Jerry Springer: The Opera

You'd think that a cutting-edge opera about American popular culture would have taken less than five years to make it across the pond, but never underestimate the temerity of the American theatre producer, who will use the word "controversial" to describe something that is more ho-hum than, well, a Jerry Springer show segment. For exactly the same reason that it was not created on these shores (we can only make fun of other people, not ourselves), it will never play for more than a couple of nights in a (how dare you make fun of us?) concert version in a city less than 100 miles from an ocean. So: Yay New York.

As someone who has only seen Jerry Springer via clips and videos of chair-throwing brawls (and, yeah, okay, the Austin Powers parody), I laughed so hard during Act One that I gave myself a headache. I don't know about you, but hearing nasty-ass swear words sung like a Bach cantata (would that make it a c*ntata?) on the same stage where Toscanini, Bernstein and Von Karajan conducted the classics? That never gets old. It's like watching the David Mamet version of Rabbit of Seville. I had a slight problem with the three-segment structure (interrupted by hilarious commercials) -- I thought segment two was funnier and more over-the-top than segment three. Until, that is, the KKK danced on stage for their Jerry Springer moment. Which is pretty much the high point of the first half. But then it's easy to laugh at twenty hoofers doing coffee-grinders in sheets and hoods. Easy targets, easy laughs. Controversial? Not really; at least not in this city (yay us twice).

Which means, okay, what constitutes controversy here? Is it just the tinsel? The trimmings? Take away the choral profanities and the Conflict-Resolution-In-Hell between God, Jesus, Mary and Satan, and what do you have left? A first act that is perfectly-pitched satire, and a second act which attempts to (a) redeem a character we don't really care about, and (b) deliver a message that undercuts all the guilty pleasure you feel hearing Satan sing the longest FU coloratura in history.

Sidebar: I ghosted the book of a musical called Hamelin in the mid-80's, and for an act and four-fifths the nasty Mayor and his Wife were wonderfully hissable larger-than-life villains. Until they got to sing the "Where have our children gone?" ballad, after the Plaid Piper has stolen their daughter away. Every night we did it, you could feel the bottom drop out of the show at just that moment, as the audience said "You want us to care for them? Forget it!" and crossed their arms in front of their chests and turned to stone. Stone. It was like a free-fall ride at Six Flags.

There isn't that kind of drop-off here, but Act Two was definitely less sharp than Act One. (Heave a sigh for the lost art of writing the successful second act. It's like the Holy Grail -- there are so many maps with shortcuts to get there, but the true one is impossible to achieve without a daunting quest through despair, humility and sacrifice.) In short, the second act feels like it's controversial for the sake of controversy, instead of organic. But then how do you make satire organic? How do make people care about straw men set up for mockery? Glib answer: the same way you make satire sting -- by going for the laugh that dies in your throat.

Since we're talking about controversy: a word about blasphemy. No -- two -- two words about blasphemy. (1) In much the same way some people use Hitler as the epitome of human evil on earth, I always use Rudy Giuliani as my litmus test for blasphemy. I always ask myself questions like, "If His Rudeness was still Mayor of New York, what would he say about Jerry Springer: The Opera?" If the answer is, "He'd call for removing all city funding from Carnegie Hall for presenting it," then I get out my check book and ask the Carnegie Hall people who I make the donation out to. Bottom line: if Rudy's in favor of banning it, I'm in favor of supporting it. And (2) I believe in a God who is secure enough in Her own divinity to laugh at Herself. I mean, really -- if you don't think God has a sense of humor, then you've never ridden on the L Train.

So yes, even with the usual second-act problems, it was a great show. And it was actually a reunion of sorts, at least for me. Because in front of Carnegie Hall were (I remember you!) the same protesters who were in front of the Ziegfeld 20 years ago protesting Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ! With the same banners and everything! And their grown-up kids! I don't know about you, but I can't wait to see them when The Life Of Brian opens at the Shubert.

Hey guys--where you been?

No -- wait -- three -- three words about blasphemy. I would have a lot more sympathy for those who protest when an object of worship is treated like a human being if these same people were protesting whenever human beings act like or are are treated like animals. Doing that makes you a true Christian. Not doing it makes you a Pharisee.

And it's all your fault, Jerry!

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