Popular folklore has it that everyone has one moment in Jerry Springer: The Opera they find truly shocking, although it’s not always the same scene.
After catching the show in London over Christmas, mine was definitely the moment when a nappy-clad coprophile sang that he didn’t feel truly himself unless he was defecating. The more obvious choice, I was told, was the first act finale, when tap-dancing Klan members set fire to a cross singing This Is My Jerry Springer Moment.
It was a freakish night in the West End, but the show’s impact wasn’t simply to do with the unusual mix of content and form. This is staple university revue fare after all, evoking the moment I witnessed fellow student Karen perform an aria from Madame Butterfly dressed as a geisha, only to segue into Butoh writhing as an atomic cloud was projected against her.
But Jerry Springer: The Opera (JSTO) was something special, and a ludicrous chorus of critics have concurred. The posters plastered in tube stations across town consisted of entire reviews for the shows, including Michael Billington’s assertion in The Guardian that the chorales and anthems evoked Bach and Handel and that it was comparable to The Threepenny Opera.
One could argue last week’s Olivier Award for Best Musical was the ultimate nod, but the greatest affirmation was that a show that began two years ago as a half-hour skit ended up being produced by the National Theatre -“ their first opera, no less. The shift to the West End was the end of a long and ridiculous performance history.
What on earth does this mean? Perhaps very little, except maybe it’s time to declare that the musical has entered a new age and it’s filthy. Weeks later in New York at the Plymouth Theatre on 45th Street, Boy George sang an anthem to beat sex, complete with chorus boys in cubicles, in Taboo. Just next door, Avenue Q is the hot ticket, a satirical rewiring of Sesame Street with puppets singing ditties like I Wish You Were Gay, The Internet Is For Porn and Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist.
The much-maligned musical form has emerged from its bipolar existence of fluffy/earnest into something that’s truly edgy and a bit filthy. Rent and Urinetown are worthy precursors, but JSTO is the king of them all.
The music and structure were truly operatic, with arias like Chick With A Dick With A Heart and I Just Wanna Fucking Dance (sung by a pole dancer), offering a confessional pathos all the more profound for their uncomfortably white-trash aesthetic. With the second act set in hell, the show echoed Don Juan, with Jerry asked to account for his sins by the Devil, God and Jesus (who shared that, actually, he is a bit gay).
Perhaps a little embarrassingly, it’s also the first show since my early 20s to convince me to buy one of their tee-shirts, surely the height of show queen dag-wear. But I treasure my black tee (a far cry from my long since destroyed Les Miz waif-print number) because it’s inscribed with the sheet music of one of my favourite JTSO songs: Mama Gimme Smack On The Asshole. Oh yeah, baby.