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Jerry Springer - the Opera started out as a one-act spoof
at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and now has been inflated into a full-blown musical at
London's prestigious government-subsidized National Theatre. Received with apparently
unanimous praise by the London critics, accompanied by a degree of hype reminiscent of
Barnum and Bailey themselves, there is little doubt that the show is a smash hit here and
will in time transfer to the West End and then on to Broadway. America will get back as an
import the deserved backlash of that which it has exported, rather like a gaseous
transatlantic belch from a greasy Big Mac.
The television program, The Jerry Springer Show, is undeniably a phenomenon, an odious curiosity made up of equal parts unprincipled exploitation, unbridled cynicism, and unrepentant pandering to the basest nature of television audiences, both at home and in the studio. Enormously popular and still going strong after more than a decade on the air, Springer has perversely tapped into a seam of thinly veiled self-righteous savagery in his viewers--it's a modern-day version of the Roman Coliseum that substitutes verbal mockery for the spilling of blood, that revels in the humiliation of some for the purported entertainment of others. It is, perhaps, most disturbing as a symptom of a regressive strain in the contemporary mass psyche that defies optimistic hopes for the progress of civilization.
The "guests" on the show are almost invariably gleaned from the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, uneducated, unsophisticated, and inarticulate, lured by the apparently irresistible attractions of a fleeting moment of TV fame, travel expenses to Chicago and a hotel stay, selected for their willingness to air their private lives before an audience of unsympathetic, often downright hostile, hecklers. The latter (carefully protected by an array of bouncers) are eager to assert the distance between themselves and the guests, to establish their marginally superior status by flinging verbal taunts, egging on the pathetic guests with encouragement of exhibitionistic nudity and physical conflict.
The guests appear to be selected based on a combination of physical appearance and gender or sexual peccadilloes. Dwarves, the grotesquely overweight, and transsexuals are typical, displayed for public ridicule like so many Christians facing the lions. They confess to such proclivities as adultery, incest, prostitution, homosexuality, and fetishism, often in complex combinations and permutations, creating for the target audience a sense of moral superiority as well as the primitive titillation of a carnival sideshow.
Presiding over this display is Springer, a smarmy interlocutor who feigns sympathy for his guests as his questions lead them to the rehearsed disclosures. Garbed in a veneer of righteousness, Springer ends his exploitational episodes with homilies of cornball banality, asserting the moral high ground, having choreographed a public wallow in degradation. Springer raises hypocrisy to new levels, lending credence to his political ambitions at a time when hypocrisy seems a prerequisite for elective office in the United States. Off stage, he maintains a certain distance from this circus, attempting to rise above it personally, even as he rakes in his profits.
There are those who maintain that their interest in the television show is on the level of satire, but one is hard-pressed to find a shred of the wit or ironic self-awareness that would inform the show with that degree of sophistication. One might imagine, then, that the show would be a ripe target for proper satirization and, one suspects, that is what happened with the original theater presentation in Edinburgh. As a one act skit, sufficient humor might be accumulated to overcome the foulness of the subject matter itself.
In the first act at the National Theatre, it's clear that the writers know their subject well and there are occasional flashes of such wit as might be expected from the base material ("I used to be a lap-dancing pre-operative transsexual...a chick with a dick"). They also have the Springer style nailed with his deliberately coy understatements and a line to the effect that "it's easy to take the moral high ground, but much harder to comfort the moral lowground." American actor Michael Brandon catches the Springer persona well; in a curly blond wig he looks quite like a younger, trimmer version of the MC.
But the fundamental problem of the concept quickly becomes apparent: How do you do over-the-top satire on material that is already over the top? The principal solution here is to have the characters say on stage all the things that get blipped out on TV -- the four letter words endlessly repeated, for example, or the sung fantasy of a necrophiliac ("When you're dead and buried in the grass, I'll dig you up and fuck you in the ass."). If that strikes your funny bone, then by all means join this theater audience which responds appreciatively with gales of laughter--in short, buying into the same Springer audience sense of superiority, one very small step removed. There is a stab or two at humanizing the victims ("I want to learn to dream again...to feel again."); these fall particularly flat and seem included as an attempt to ameliorate the fundamental flaw of the material--its all in too close synchronicity with its source.
In need of a second act for the commercial stage, the writers have Springer shot at the first act finale (as a chorus of the Ku Klux Klan tap dance and a cross burns center stage). Act II then allows for a confrontation with the devil, not to speak of appearances by Jesus, Mary, and God himself. There's plenty of material aimed to offend, but it has become so obvious and uninspired that there's little bite to it. Production values are pumped up in the second act, attempting to inject some life into what seems overall a poorly conceived afterthought.
In its favor, the music, though without notable melodic invention, does build in powerful, hymn-like crescendos, most often sung in full voice by the entire chorus of participants. There are some fine individual voices in numbers written in operatic style, if lacking operatic substance. No single theme is pursued for long, a smart strategy when the tunes have so little intrinsic interest. A talented cast is skillfully directed by Stewart Lee (also co-author of the book and lyrics), who knows not to linger too long over thin material, to fill the gaps with a bit of visual spectacle, and that deliberate and blatantly "politically incorrect" quips will invariably appeal to the adolescent mentalities attracted to this genre in the first place.
May 19, 2003 - Arthur Lazere