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December 29, 2004

Chamber Music - Jerry Springer: The Opera

Posted by David Conway

Jerry Springer: The Opera
Cambridge Theatre, London

During the past twenty years I have often taken my daughter to the Opera. On some occasions I have also been gratified to see (and hear) her on-stage at Covent Garden and the Coliseum. However, this Christmas Eve witnessed a first – my daughter took me to the Opera – or more precisely, to Jerry Springer: The Opera.

This piece has clearly come a long way, via the National Theatre, from its Edinburgh Festival roots. I suppose that by now most will be familiar with its origins in Springer's American TV talk-show, and will know about its liberal use of four-letter words and graphic (if hilarious) representations of the gruesome social incompetences on which the TV show thrives. The staff at the Cambridge Theatre have clearly been trained to encourage everyone to enjoy their "Jerry Springer Moment" – the lad taking my ticket brightly enquired whether everything was OK with me, to which the only possible reply was "So far, but who can tell how I'll be at the end of the show?"

Actually I was fine at the end of the show, but I was even better at the end of the first half, which is (almost) pure joy throughout, and which the second half proved unable to match. I would like to begin (or at least to justify my pretensions as a music critic) by expatiating on the music itself but I find this is not possible, as not a single bar has remained in my memory. This is not necessarily to be regarded as a black mark; the rhythms, and occasional melodic inflections with which they are varied, throughout the piece are the essence of Hindemithian Gebrauchsmusik, serving their purpose of keeping things moving efficiently and absolutely anonymously. Some of the set pieces remain indelibly in mind as theatre – for example, the complete cast (of around two dozen) dressed as Jerry and doing a tap-dance whilst chanting a well-known expletive, or Satan's cadenza on another familiar expletive, addressed to Jesus Christ. (Yes, I'll come back to their presence later). The cast representing the audience and the 'guests' are to be congratulated on having uncannily accurate body-shapes and behaviour (and the wardrobe staff on clothing them with similar accuracy). Amongst these I have to single out the sensational acting and singing and tremendous (in every sense) stage presence of Benjamin Lake as Dwight and God, and Alison Jiear as Shawntel and Eve. David Bedella has the difficult dual role of the Warm-Up Man and Satan and seethes convincingly with contempt and resentment in both. If David Soul (who has recently taken on the role of Springer) seems a bit detached, that is partly because of his close engagement with the real Springer's techniques – with his constant use of "I'm confused" or "Do you have something to tell your partner?" as prompts for his guests - he can simultaneously feed the frenzy and claim the innocence of the interested enquirer.

We start with a more-or-less direct transcription of a typical show, with three or four guests retailing their multiple infidelities and/or preferred perversions, starting fights, arousing the (stage) audience, etc. The idea of doing this in song is a hoot and is thoroughly entertaining. (Springer himself apparently said "I wish I'd thought of it"). There are still a few minor details and interruptions which indicate that the writers didn't quite have the courage of their convictions to do it more or less 'straight' – these could be usefully excised (and perhaps will be before the show has its US premiere in Spring 2005). At the end Springer gets shot and this provides the opportunity for the second half fantasy which sees Springer in Hell hosting various heavenly and biblical personalities to try, at Satan's request, to get them to apologise for having had him thrown out of Heaven.

I can see the writers' problem; you can't just follow the first half with more of the same, so what can you do to make it a full-length show? I myself would favour keeping it as a one-acter and maybe programming it with another such – how about Ravel's L'infant et les sortilèges'? (OK, only joking – Puccini's Suor Angelica is of course a better fit). Part II is all mildly amusing, certainly, but then it gets spoilt by the need for some sort of moral, which it appears is not just kidding but is meant to reassure the audience that Jerry's work does have a worthwhile purpose, no really! First Jerry goes all Blakean ("Energy is eternal delight"), and then he reconciles both sides by getting them to agree that we need all the range of the spectrum and that nothing is either "really good" or "really bad".

Now this clearly won't do in the era of Al-Qaeda. Not only is it self-evidently wrong and unacceptable, but it goes against the whole grain of what the (real) Jerry Springer Show is all about. At a guess, I would say that those who appear on it, and those who watch it, are not likely to be bleeding-heart liberals. Although Springer was apparently once Mayor of Cincinnati (I don't know for which party), he doesn't seem to me to be a fighter for moral relativity. Indeed, his show appears to make even bleeding-heart (or at least slightly-grazed heart) liberals illiberal, as when Sen. Joe Lieberman expressed his objections by trying to cut public funding for sub-titling the show for the deaf. What (if anything) is good about the Show and the Opera is their self-indulgent tackiness, utterly transcendental to any considerations of morality. Let's face it, we all need to have people to whom we feel immensely superior from time to time (which might make a better moral). I (and my daughter) gorged on it, anyway, and we didn't feel too sick afterwards.

Whether there is a real future for opera of this format remains questionable. We have already had, for example, Newsnight: The Opera, which was really just a string of sketches. Again the problem was with libretto. Great opera is about the great themes – love and power. So I am waiting for someone to send me the libretto for David Blunkett: The Opera, and I promise to compose an unforgettable setting.

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To answer the question about Jerry Springer's term as Mayor of Cincinatti in this entertaining review:
Jerry Springer was Mayor of Cincinatti for the Democrats. He was elected Mayor in 1977 - aged 33 - and served till 1978. He had previously been a member of Cincinatti council - although he had to stand down for a time over a call-girl scandal.

Jerry Springer is still a major Democratic donor in Ohio and was considering running for Senate in 2004. He decided against this - citing that the show would get in the way. He is however actively considering running for either Governor of Ohio or the other Ohio Senate seat in 2006 - but believes he would have to stand down from the show before this. Springer is the darling of Ohio Democrats.

Considering that Ohio turned out to be the crucial state in the 2004 Presidential election - and giving Bush 20 key electoral votes and thus the presidency - it is interesting to speculate what might have happened if Jerry Springer had been the Democratic senate candidate for Ohio. Would an extra 120,000 odd - roughly Bush's winning margin in Ohio - "trailer-trash" Ohio residents have been motivated to vote for Jerry Springer - and when they were at the polling station also voted the Democratic ticket and for Kerry? This would have given Kerry Ohio and thus the Presidency. (The Electoral college result was Bush 286, Kerry 252 - if Kerry had won Ohio - with Jerry's help - the outcome would have been Bush 266, Kerry 272). Jerry could have swung the election for Kerry - just a thought.

Posted by: Jim at December 29, 2004 11:50 PM

What an entertaining and well-written review. I'll buy tickets.

Posted by: s j masty at December 30, 2004 02:15 PM

The review seems to glide delicately over the content of the second act. I've heard that it contains a lot of insults against Christianity, of the sort that disgusting little Jones Minor makes at school in order to impress his classmates. What's up with these entertainment / media people? They put stuff like this about and then whinge when George Bush gets re-elected. (Or was that the intention?)

Posted by: R. H. Olley at January 2, 2005 03:23 PM

It is difficult for me to see how much more explicit I could be about the second act's contents without giving the actual expletive traded between Jesus and Satan. If I have 'glided delicately over' the action of the second half it is because, as I hope I made absolutely clear, it seems to me to makes far less theatrical impact than the first. It didn't, however, seem to me to insult Christianity in any way that would make a reasonably intelligent viewer change his mind about Jesus, but maybe as a practising Jew I am not qualified to comment. Or maybe, as the neo-Con talk programmes in California consistenly rope my lot in on their side by droning on about 'the Judaeo-Christian ethic', I am. I didn't (and don't) whinge about Dubbya's re-election, anyway. Happy New Year, and, while I am at it, l'shonoh tovah.

Posted by: David Conway at January 3, 2005 11:09 PM
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