Thursday, January 22, 2015

Is that supposed to be me?

Among the profanity and often nasty spectacle in Jerry Springer: the Opera are many moments of surprising, haunting beauty.  One such moment occurs when the character of Baby Jane, played by the extraordinarily talented Taylor Pietz, sings about the rank nastiness of the world in an attempt to prove a point. "Society has an ugly face," say the lyrics. "...Jerry did not make it so; he merely holds a mirror to it," she pleads to Satan to be merciful to Jerry for seemingly making hay (and making light of) human misery, absurdity and ignorance. Seriously, when she sings - quite beautifully - about the common man, the people Jerry features - being "smeared with shit," you don't know whether to laugh or to cry.  The audience on the live performance recording, for their part, do not venture a giggle.

Society's face also has mashed potatoes on it.
Maybe it's true that Jerry Springer held a mirror up to the grossness of human beings, but one of the things I find striking about this work is not only its cleverness (please read some of my fellow JS blogger's posts on the matter), nor its hilarity, but the fact that it was written by Brits looking at us, Americans on the other side of the pond.  Jerry Springer, and our love for it, seemed to them fertile ground for growing some fine art, and they weren't wrong.  It should be noted that one of the writers, Richard Thomas, also wrote the libretto for the Anna Nicole opera, so the lowbrow (and classically American) drama-meets-highbrow-art-form-idea is probably appealing to him.

So, maybe it's not Jerry, but Brits looking at Americans using Jerry Springer, or rather, 'Muricans.  There are points at which the British-ness comes through in the lyrics: for example, when Satan offers Jesus "a little biscuit" (what we'd probably call a cookie), as a sarcastic token of reward, or when Satan says Jesus is "banging on" about something (going on and on) and Jesus tells the others they "didn't give a toss" (but hey, that rhymes with cross)!  Most of the time, however, they're pretty much spot-on with plain-old, ill-bred American dialects...those filthy, filthy dialects.  But go one layer deeper, and you're looking at some even more - I might argue affectionately drawn - outrageous, unhinged American stereotypes that were Jerry's regulars: cheating partners, aspiring poledancers, transgender people, and of course, diaper fetishists.  In America, such people are stars!

There's definitely a diaper in the onesie somewhere.  Also, good luck sleeping soundly tonight.

The most telling part of this "Brits'-eye view" for me comes with the sung "ads" during the opera as the first act unfolds much like the eponymous show.  Some are utterly ridiculous - ads for Novocaine or intestinal parasites, but some - like ads for health insurance, finding Jesus, plastic surgery or guns...are completely on the nose and hilarious.  The audience that The Jerry Springer Show was aimed at would have very likely been shown ads for supplemental health insurance and for joining a church/proselytizing, and though firearms advertising laws vary from state to state, no country loves its guns more than America - I mean, 'Murica. 

Ads for Viagra, Prozac, etc., round out the selection - common fare here, but we have to keep in mind that in other countries, direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising is considered profiteering on illness and is banned, as are most privately-owned firearms in general, and our healthcare system appears shockingly misguided, dysfunctional, expensive and just immoral to other countries who see it as a right. Not to get all political, I love many, many things about this country, but no wonder we're such easy targets.  

Am I the only one particularly insulted that this dude wore a Cardinals shirt?
So maybe we do sometimes have a collectively ugly, shit-smeared face.  Thank goodness for art, particularly satire and humor, to hold a mirror to it.  I see this opera both celebrating and condemning the sometimes ridiculous circus of humanity - especially America - and then leaving us with an admonition to "take care of yourselves...and each other."

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Jer-nalism in the new Millennium

Jer-ry! Jer-ry! We just finished the first rehearsal for Jerry Springer: The Opera. My stomach was in knots, my head felt like I was underwater, but dang - it's going to be awesome.  What a cast - every single voice is on-point, and I have my work cut out for me.  Still, it's surreal and amazing.  I remember reading about the show when it came out in London over 10 years ago.  Dad, knowing I loved musical theater, brought the New York Times over to me in the kitchen and pointed out and article about this opera - not musical theater but actual opera - of the lowest-brow entertainment available at the time, short of donkey shows.  Brilliant! 

It's been awhile, and we've had time to reflect on the Jerry Springer show.  All throughout the first rehearsal, as these gorgeous voices of Luke, Zak, Taylor, Lindsay and the cast, all saying gloriously dirty things, I kept having flashbacks to being in middle and high school. It was 1995 again, and I was checking out the latest redneck fight on Jerry as I finished some homework.  While I wasn't a dedicated watcher, my favorite episodes were the ones with the Klan, though.  I mean, at least I could pity the trashy cheaters, the purported white supremacists, however?  Delicious disdain - and even if you changed the channel, you could STILL feel superior as you sighed and rolled your eyes at the modern-day freak show.  It was before many folks had taken their kinks and niche interests to the Internet, and before the age of the "reality TV" show.  So really, a simpler time.  A time when we had a live studio audience to hoot at the Mama Junes and Honey Boo Boos of the world.

Remember her name.

Honestly, though - if you think about it, all throughout recorded history, literature and entertainment, we've enjoyed the schadenfreude (yeah, thanks, auto correct, you had my back just now) of watching people we consider weird, outlandish, exotic, just freaks, strange acts, odd bodies, faces, lifestyles, interests...far-out stuff.  That was one of my favorite numbers we rehearsed yesterday - "bring on the losers!" As much as we like to pretend we don't go for stuff like that, never underestimate the power of prurient interest and morbid curiosity to grab the imagination of the masses.  The tradition of the palace fool or jester, the fascination with extremes - dwarfs, giants, etc., the raucous and bloody circus of Roman times, the freak show or side show, talk shows, and now...TLC?

The L stands for Learning.  LEARNING.
I'm not saying without Jerry, there wouldn't be reality TV today, in its endless spinoffs and countless varieties, but there has always been an appetite for this, and Jerry just mainstreamed it quite a bit more, and real or fake, gave it the subtle yet critical spin of these losers WANT this fame - some have always needed the money or means, no matter how dehumanizing things like traveling freak shows have beenThat one element alone has been huge in popularizing shows like Jersey Shore or Here Comes Honey Boo Boo

Now, there's also the idea of inviting the viewer into this world.  By giving us the studio audience and inviting freaks and weirdos on as "guests," Jerry seems to have filled our historic void for gazing at odd stuff (while patting ourselves on the back for our normalcy) and embraced and celebrated fully the wacky spectacle of it all.  Now we have Twitter and such to boo and jeer at society's out-there types - but Jerry did it first, and you can't throw a chair on the Web.