One notable aspect of the major obituaries for the late US tabloid talk show host Jerry Springer, at least in the UK, where he was born, is that they all make prominent mention of the musical it inspired: Jerry Springer: The Opera.
As famous as that tooth-and-claw TV show was, its many controversies were nothing compared to the groundbreaking, expletive-filled theatrical extravaganza it inspired. Springer himself may have ushered in a fad for gritty reality TV, but only Jerry Springer: The Opera caused a stink that made it all the way to the High Court.
After taking us from a TV studio to Hell (literally) and back, the play (co-written by composer Richard Thomas and comedian Stewart Lee) suggests, as its fictionalized Springer is dying, that what will survive of us is the ‘Love. And what also survives of us, sometimes, is art.
Whether Thomas and Lee had created anything of consummate craftsmanship was in doubt when their musical, fully developed after rapid development, ushered in Nicholas Hytner’s reign as director of the National on April 29, 2003 (20 years ago exactly). This despite the fact that it was the roughest and grittiest show to ever grace the Lyttelton stage, the opening bars and lyrics alone topped it all in terms of bizarre imagery, wanton swearing and schoolboy glee.
To cite one of the moderately printable examples: “Man 1: Excuse me, is this the right room for the Dave Letterman show?” Man 2: Wrong room man, loser! Man 1: Fuck you! Man 2: Fuck you!”). As one critic wrote, enraptured by the singing rants: “Think of Handel, Verdi and Wagner, all affected by Tourette’s syndrome.”
The collision of beautiful music with crass verbal content—what Hytner called “its violent marriage of high and low culture … vulgar chaos subjected to the disciplines of classical opera”—was, of course, droll and startling. But Thomas’ musical verve – it was a daring joke to pitch “Jerry” like a ‘Kyrie’ – quickly transcended accusations of one-note gimmicks and took the evening from the ridiculous to the sublime.
Like The Producers – an unavoidable comparison, given that Springer’s Act I Ku Klux Klansmen sequence knocked its pointy hat off the Nazi chorus line in Mel Brooks’ musical – here was a show that championed musical comedy as the supreme form , combining brains, courage and populist appeal.
But while the run at the National Theater was a serene, sold-out occasion, Springer’s afterlife has come to resemble a vision out of the television show itself, causing mayhem and clashes in ways that led its creators and producers to reach the sick bag.
Usually with a major experiment like this, it’s the genesis that’s problematic and needs to be sorted out. Indeed, the evolution, from the first trial workshops at Battersea Arts Centre, where Thomas rewarded good suggestions from the public with cans of lager, to the acclaimed 2002 Edinburgh Fringe ride, seems unusually blessed. It was the show’s second coming after its 2003 move to the West End, first in the form of a BBC Two broadcast in January 2005, and then a harried tour, looking unnaturally cursed.
If the idea behind the telecast was to whet the appetite outside of London, it backfired faster than Mary Whitehouse can be told. In a manner comparable to Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), there was an uproar about “blasphemous” art in relation to the Christian faith.
The Corporation was inundated with complaints (around 55,000) and there were protest vigils held outside BBC premises in London and elsewhere. “In all, some 1,500 Christians have come out … to defend their lord and savior, knowing that he has endured agonies for them,” wrote Stephen Green, head of the Christian Voice advocacy group, which led the protest, in a letter to those running venues on the proposed regional tour, threatening prosecution and further protests (“The use of council taxpayer money…to subsidize an offensive, disgusting and blasphemous production will be difficult for local councilors to justify,” read one typical line).
While there was much media interest in the number of profanities in the show – put as high as 8,000 obscenities in some reports and as high as 174 by Lee, who also directed the show – it was the scenes in Hell, with Springer who presided over bickering between Adam and Eve, Jesus, Mary and Satan (the former admits he is “a little gay”) with God’s self-pitying It Ain’t Easy Being Me singing most fueling the ire.
Green and company could not even see the funny side of Jesus’ upside-down rewriting of “speaking to the hand” into “speaking to the stigmata”. It was no laughing matter when BBC executives were reported to have gone into hiding. This was later denied, but what is clear is that the locals pulled out of the tour under pressure from the Christian Voice, Lee stating that a third of them became scared, causing “four years of work to collapse into a non financial feasibility”.
“I’ve made about the same amount over the past three years as I would have made if I’d worked as the chief accountant for a food supply company in the Thames Valley corridor,” he wryly told me in 2004 after the show began. success. “I know because I checked. It’s not a life-changing sum. With the tour conducted in 2006 more on principle than any hope of profit, and plans for a Broadway move dashed due to backlash, neither he nor Thomas got their due dessert for a show that was a landmark British musical .
On the plus side, Jerry Springer: Play became a cause celeb and the experience fueled into one of Lee’s most combative and entertaining sets to date, ’90s Comedian, where he informed his audience about how to avoid being taken to court for blasphemy (“The High Court dismissed the case because it’s not from 1508”), undergoing a hospital procedure for colonic diverticulitis, and doing unprintable things involving the same region of Christ’s anatomy in a feverish routine that gave two fingers to censorship.
In a 2009 interview, Lee said that “it made me feel like there was little point in trying to reach a mass audience with something interesting and provocative.” The debacle can therefore be seen as a stage in her artistic development.
But who has the last laugh? In hindsight Jerry Springer: The Opera, and its bitter meta-drama, seems prophetically to have heralded an era of offense, made easier than in Whitehouse’s day by online technology. Though re-edited, and recently – at the Hope Mill theater in Manchester – with its comic portrayal of fringe characters, the ‘chick with a dick’ and ‘pre-op transsexual’ and diaper fetishist, it doesn’t look fanciful. imagine the outrage, fabricated or otherwise, outside religious circles if it were attempted on a larger scale.
And as the recent Wakefield ‘Koran’ incident suggested, while the offenses of blasphemy and blasphemous libel were formally abolished in England and Wales in 2008, believers have not shied away from policing works of art or life itself.
Conceived before 9/11 and long before identity politics became an insidious shadow of cultural life, Springer might seem like the high point of a society confident in breaking taboos and unhindered by sensitivity. It pays off revisiting. As long as recordings exist of Lore Lixenberg’s Baby Jane singing the rousing number This Is My Jerry Springer Moment (“I don’t want this moment to die / So dip me in chocolate and throw me to the dykes”), Springer’s legacy beyond the grave will be insured.