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JERRY SPRINGER THE OPERA
background and analysis by Scott Miller
Is it really an opera? Yes, not just because it’s almost entirely sung (though Jerry and Steve never sing), but also because several of the roles really can only be sung by classically trained singers. The score also dabbles in jazz, rock, pop, and Broadway, but much of it really is contemporary opera music.
It is an opera, though it also operates as a neo musical comedy; the trick is to play it all as seriously and honestly as possible, to let the outrageous situations and language take care of the crazy comedy, while the actors plumb the deeply human emotions at the core of all the lunacy. This is serious comedy, like Bat Boy or Little Shop of Horrors. No camp. No commentary. No winking. 100% honest. As the Bat Boy writers put it, “the height of expression, the depth of sincerity.” The more seriously we take this crazy world, the funnier it will get.
Why make this an opera? Why does that idea seem so funny? Because it’s both surprising and truthful. These characters and emotions are already operatic, even without music. Richard Thomas and Lee Stewart merely followed the First Law of Sondheim: Content Dictates Form. These huge emotions, these sky high stakes, this ravenous crowd (the ensemble as “studio audience”) demand the size of opera.
When Dwight sings “I’ve been seeing someone else,” in a soaring operatic melody, we understand not only the fact of his betrayal, but the self-importance of his decision to drag his loved ones onto national television. What seems trivial to us does not seem trivial to Dwight or his multiple paramours. After all, this small moment in their lives that we’re witnessing may destroy or salvage those various lives. We laugh at the over-drama, at the meta joke of the operatic music, at the excessive chaos of these interlocked lives; but most of us also know we’ve been dumped or almost dumped, we’ve felt old, we’ve felt trapped. These are universal human emotions. And maybe that, at the root, is why the show works so well.
Take a look at this lyric, in which Shawntel tells us how desperately she wants escape from her life. The show’s ironic, meta edge remains – she’s talking about being a pole dancer, and she sings this clutching Jerry’s famous stripper pole – but the emotion is unmistakably real.
I don’t give a fuck no more,
If people think I am a whore –
I just wanna dance,
Oh, I just wanna dance.
Things are going bad for me,
I am feeling sad for me,
So I just wanna dance,
Oh, I just wanna dance.
I’m tired of laughing,
And I’m tired of crying.
And I’m tired of failing,
And I’m tired of all this trying.
I wanna do some living
‘Cause I’ve done enough dying.
I just wanna dance.
I just wanna fucking dance.
She may be uneducated and lacking the exact vocabulary to express what she’s feeling, but this lyric captures her 21st-century discontent quite eloquently in the list of what makes her tired, including “all this trying.” Her line, “I’ve done enough dying,” rises above the show’s gleeful crudity to a place of piercing truthfulness. We can feel how beaten down this woman is, how weary she feels, how desperate for escape. By the end of the song, dance is no longer rebellion; it’s survival. This lyric sneaks up on us (as the show does from time to time) and surprises us with its gravity and its seriousness.
What music does best is emotion, which is why the most emotional stories make the best musicals. And here’s a show that actually subordinates plot to emotion. Who’s sleeping with whom is far less important or interesting (on the real show or in the opera) than what each character’s individual quirk or fault or path may be. Like the TV show it’s based on, this is a show not about story, but about betrayal, loss, triumph, love, rejection, dreams. It doesn’t matter that the emotions are extreme, that they’re exaggerated, even ridiculous; they also ring true.
And in many cases, these guests are taking back their power. They are choosing the time and place for confrontation. They are choosing to change something in their life. We all relate to that too. All the issues on the show (and in the opera) are moral ones – the guests’ needs/desires are at odds with mainstream morality. But are the guests “wrong” or “sinful” while the mainstream is “right,” or are they just different from the mainstream? Do these people have the right to construct their own moral universe? What does that do to the people around them? Do those people get to choose...?
Richard H. Smith’s The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature offers good insights into all this. Talking Trash: The Cultural Politics of Daytime TV Talk Shows by Julie Engel Manga, is a study specifically of how women connect with shows like Jerry Springer, Oprah, and the others.
In Talking Trash, Manga suggests that we generally judge Springer’s guests by three criteria:
I Want to Sing Something Beautiful
Originally opening in 2003, the show ran over 600 performances in London, before touring the UK. The production won four Olivier Awards, including Best New Musical, and it was the first show ever to win all four Best Musical awards in the UK (Olivier, Evening Standard, Critics’ Circle and What’s On Stage). The first North American performance opened at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, and it was performed by a number of American regional theatre companies, before making its New York debut in 2008 at Carnegie Hall. The show has been controversial from the beginning, due to its adult language and its irreverent treatment of religious themes, and it’s been accompanied by protests wherever it’s played. It was the subject of major controversy in the UK when a 2005 broadcast of the show elicited 55,000 complaints. A Christian organization led street protests against the screening at nine BBC offices and announced their intention to bring blasphemy charges.
The New York Times wrote about the show, “Oh hear America singing, citizens of New York, as you never have heard it before. Hearken to your everyday sisters and brothers — the lost, the lonely, the fetishists, the freaks — as their voices swell and meld into one common chord of longing: to be seen, to be heard, to be (oh yes) famous. Will it turn out that the great American musical of the early 21st century is an opera born in Britain? A convincing case for the rights to that title was made by the celestial Jerry Springer The Opera, the notorious show from London about the transcendent within tabloid television. . . Now ‘celestial’ might seem an ill-chosen adjective for a work devoted to the raw and nasty public doings of a throng of aspiring celebrities with dirty little secrets expressed in dirty little words. But this remarkable work – which features a spectacularly inventive score – uncovers something grand within the small, squalid lives it portrays. . . It hears genuine beauty in the hunger for glory of the attention-starved souls it portrays. If the real Jerry Springer Show turns its rowdy, angry guests into objects of sneering sport, Jerry Springer: The Opera sees them as figures of passion, whose impulses, however base, translate into song that reaches for the stars. Laugh, if you will, with smug urbane knowingness. But the soulfulness in the music rises again and again to rebuke you.”
And though narrative is not the show’s primary agenda, each segment does give us a glimpse into someone’s personal hero myth story, complete with obstacles to overcome and enlightenment to be attained (if they’re lucky). And maybe that universal hero myth story is what makes us tune in to Springer. Storytelling is the foundation of each Springer segment, as Jerry welcomes the next guest and says, “So what’s goin’ on?” Humans need storytelling, to learn lessons, to connect, to preserve our history and culture, to feel less alone.
TV Guide called The Jerry Springer Show the worst show in the history of television. In 1995 critic Janice Kaplan wrote in TV Guide that coming on television to tell one’s secret is like “defecating in public.” Then why has it been on the air for more than two decades, to such consistently strong ratings? It’s easy to smile smugly and conclude America is just stupid. Talk show host Sally Jesse Raphael famously said, “Nobody wants to watch anything that’s smarmy or tabloid or silly or unseemly – except the audience.” But it goes deeper than that.
A big part of the appeal is that humans crave narrative. It’s how we learn, how we preserve our history and culture, how we share experiences, how we explain ideas, and how we entertain ourselves. Narrative is the primary form of human communication, and the most universal is the narrative of a human life. The Jerry Springer Show offers up two or three narratives every day, human hero myths in miniature. And in those stories, no matter how outrageous (and no matter whether we think the stories are 100% true or not), we see ourselves because we recognize human themes – love, loss, betrayal, lust, revenge, humiliation, despair. We’ve all felt these things, just maybe not to the extreme degree we see on Springer.
The Jerry Springer Show offers us what Bat Boy, Little Shop of Horrors, Cry-Baby, and Urinetown offer us, exaggerated but truthful human behavior under a magnifying glass. But the exaggeration doesn’t always obscure the truth. Like Springer, all the shows mentioned above are about the Other, the outcasts. As Elayne Rapping wrote in The Progressive, “The people on these TV shows are an emotional vanguard, blowing the lid off the idea that America is anything like the place Ronald Reagan pretended to live in.”
Despite its gleefully wicked humor and its monstrous vulgarity, this is also a very serious show, in a crooked kind of way. It looks at a huge, pervasive cultural phenomenon and asks us to think about two things.
The first question is why would anyone go on The Jerry Springer Show? It’s hard enough to understand why the first guest in each segment is there, but at least they’re taking power, by choosing the time and place of engagement. But it’s almost impossible for most of us to understand the subsequent guests in each segment, the people who don’t know why they’re there, but for some inexplicable reason, they’ve agreed to come on The Jerry Springer Show. Surely they know this can’t end well.
The book Freaks Talk Back: Tabloid Talk Shows and Sexual Nonconformity, by Joshua Gamson, speaks directly to this question: “The interesting thing here is not just that talk shows are seen as a threat to norms and normality – as we will see, they are indeed just that, and the fight is between those who think this is a good thing and those who think it is not – but just who threatens whom here, who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’?”
Gamson also writes, “In fact, the talk show genre has always operated as an oddball combination of middle-class coffee-klatch propriety and rationality, and working-class irreverence and emotional directness. Talk shows, in a general sense, stretch back to earlier public traditions emerging from different and sometimes opposed, class cultures, and they still operate with the awkward tension between sensation and conversation growing from these roots. Propriety, of course, is not a middle-class property, and working-class and underclass people certainly do not own irreverence and emotion, but the talk show genre is fashioned from particular cultural pieces historically associated with different classes: relatively sober, deliberative, ‘polite’ middle-class forms of participating in and presenting public culture, embodied in literary circles and the lyceum, for instance; and irreverent, wild, predominantly lower-class public leisures, such as the carnival, the cabaret, the tabloid, and the nineteenth-century theatre.”
Gamson lays out exactly the elements of the TV show that make the opera succeed. “Puzzle pieces begin to emerge from these criticisms. How exactly do poverty and lack of education, sex and gender nonconformity, and race come to be lumped together and condemned as monstrosities? What are we to make of these equations? Are they the result of exploitative programming that scripts and markets weird people most of ‘us’ wouldn’t talk to in a supermarket, selling the middle-class audience its own superiority? Are they the result of willful distortions by guardians of middle-class morality and culture, part and parcel of the ongoing ‘culture wars’ in the United States? Are they, as defenders of the genre suggest, the result of a democratization process that threatens those who are used to the privilege of owning and defining public discourse?”
About the guests, Gamson writes, “For people whose life experience is so heavily tilted toward invisibility, whose nonconformity, even when it looks very much like conformity, discredits them and disenfranchises them, daytime TV talk shows are a big shot of visibility and media accreditation. It looks, for a moment, like you own this place.”
The second big question is why do we watch? Another book, Tabloid Culture: Trash Taste, Popular Power, and the Transformation of American Television, by Kevin Glynn, might help with this question: “If Reaganism entailed a widespread cultural repression of voices and identities representing social difference, Reaganism’s repressed others returned with a vengeance on TV’s tabloid talk shows, whose numbers grew impressively from the mid- to late 1980s and exploded spectacularly during the early nineties [around the same time Jonathan Larson was writing Rent, also about society’s Others]. By widening both the sense of social distance and the power gap between the haves and the have-nots, and by stepping up the surveillance and policing of alterity, twelve years of Reagan-Bushism intensified already bitter conflicts around social difference. The oft-noted intense conflictuality of U.S. daytime TV talk shows is symptomatic of social conflicts that escalated sharply during the Reagan decade and the Bush years.”
In October 1995 Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman joined forces with the self-anointed public morality czar William Bennett to host a press conference denouncing U.S. daytime TV talk shows as sites of “moral rot” and “cultural pollution.” Lieberman observed quite rightly that the shows unsettle distinctions between the perverse and the normal. As Glynn puts it, “Daytime talk shows, staples of the new tabloid media, do indeed thrive on contestation over the difference between normal and abnormal. They invite the participation of people whose voices are often excluded from U.S. commercial media discourse, such as sex workers, ordinary women, blue- and pink-collar laborers, the homeless, the HIV positive, people living with AIDS, youths, gay men, lesbians, the transgendered, people with unconventional body shapes and sizes, alien abductees, convicted criminals, prison inmates, and other socially marginalized ‘abnormals.’ Says Elayne Rapping of the daytime talk shows, ‘There is something exhilarating about watching people who are usually invisible – because of class, race, gender, status – having their say and, often, being wholly disrespectful to their ‘betters’.”
But maybe the most powerful message Springer offers his audience is the most important message we can get from culture – You are not alone. In the opera, the guests sing to Jerry:
We eat excrete and watch T.V.,
And you are there for us, Jerry.
Jerry, can you understand,
We sit out in nowhere land,
Wanting and yearning,
Our bloated stomachs churning?
Eat, excrete and watch T.V.
You are there for us, Jerry...
It suggests some conclusions. Jerry Springer and shows like it subvert the mainstream culture and mainstream values, so for anyone who feels left out of that mainstream culture, Springer is a welcome poke in the eye to the world that excludes them, whether for economic, social, sexual, or other reasons.
Is Springer’s audience all that different than the Romans at the Coliseum or the groundlings at Shakespeare’s Globe? Or today’s boxing fans? Or football fans? No matter who’s cheering for what, it’s all a metaphor for the journey of a human life. And just like when we watch a movie or TV drama, we want conflict, drama, surprise, and always, resolution.
The Springer Show is one of the few places where The Other can have their say, where they can take power and demand that “Attention must be paid.” That opportunity to be Heard and Seen can be a powerful, seductive drug. It’s also the place where those who’ve done wrong usually get their comeuppance. Though it may seem to some as an amoral space, it’s not. There is a morality in Springer World, but it’s not the same morality you might see on network sitcoms. The Springer morality is less arbitrary, really just about personal dignity (seriously), freedom, respect, not really much more than The Golden Rule.
There are moments in the opera of surprising seriousness and poignancy in several of the songs, moments when the authors take a close look at the real emotions of these characters. Andrea’s “I Want to Sing Something Beautiful,” Baby Jane’s “This is My Jerry Springer Moment,” Shawntel’s “I Just Wanna Dance,” and the company number “Take Care,” all take us somewhere unexpected, into the honest emotions of these people who we’ve otherwise seen only as cartoon characters.
It’s as if the authors are reminding us that no matter how outrageous The Jerry Springer Show gets, these are real people who often have very deep, very profound feelings. Like the TV show, the opera alternately dishes up both mockery and respect for these folks.
In 2010, President Obama hosted an evening of Broadway music at the White House, and he said, “Over the years, musicals have been at the forefront of our social consciousness, challenging stereotypes, shaping our opinions about race and religion, death and disease, power and politics.” That’s certainly true of Jerry Springer the Opera. Like Cry-Baby, Rent, Passing Strange, and many other contemporary musicals, Springer is about the outcasts, the Others.
Because they’re more interesting.
It Ain’t Easy Bein’ Me
Jerry Springer the Opera might seem like two, very different pieces. It’s true, the tone shifts from one act to the next, exactly like Fiddler on the Roof, Camelot, Sweeney Todd, The Fantasticks, and other dramatic works, but the two halves (in three acts, really) are tightly integrated. And these two “episodes” of The Jerry Springer Show we witness aren’t the action of the show, just its circumstances. There is a real linear plot here, and there are lots of hints in the first act to that developing arc.
As the opera opens, Jerry hosts another wild show, but this one gets more than usually out of control (one might argue, taking the real Jerry Springer Show to its logical extreme). At the end of Act I, lots of different forces collide and it all comes to real violence. That violence takes on extra creepy resonance if you know the story of the kid who was murdered after appearing on The Jenny Jones Show in 1995.
To clue the audience into the bigger story being told, there’s a plot-driven, backstage “book scene,” in the middle of Act I, that lays the groundwork for all the conflicts in Acts II and III. There’s also an “unscripted,” off-air moment in Act I with Andrea (“I Want to Sing Something Beautiful”), that hints at the themes that return in “The Haunting” in Act II. Even more obvious, the show’s moody, ritualistic prologue – a mirrored bookend to the finale – is not an introduction to a night of naughty sketch comedy. The prologue announces the show’s agenda quite clearly: a comic, ironic dissonance between music and content (i.e., “high” and “low” culture); the exploration of the marginalized in our culture and how they take their power back; and the bigger question of our part in it all. Like any good theatre score, the writers establish all of that in the first number.
In Act II of our opera, in Purgatory, all the characters rejoin us and Jerry learns of the consequences of his actions on Earth. Paul Friswold wrote in his Riverfront Times review of the St. Louis production, “These are surprisingly high stakes for a Springer episode, if only because Jerry finally has something to lose.” Right. He’s not just a host here; he’s the protagonist.
Some in the audience may assume throughout the first act that Jerry is just a facilitator, like on TV; but when the first act ends with a big cliffhanger, suddenly everything you thought you knew changes. Suddenly, Jerry is at the center of the action, not off to the side. Suddenly, we realize Jerry is actually our hero. Then in Act II, it’s made even clearer that this is Jerry’s story. And really, the title of the show tells us that, though without most of us noticing. After all, it’s not called The Jerry Springer Show the Opera; it’s called Jerry Springer the Opera. This is not the TV show as an opera; it’s the man himself as an opera.
Ultimately, the consequence of Jerry’s actions on Earth is that Satan shows up and takes Jerry to Hell for Act III. As in many Hero Myths, our hero must travel to the underworld to gain the wisdom he needs, so he can bring it back to his people.
So far, this is textbook Hero Myth. Jerry has his wise wizard (Baby Jane, and maybe also Steve?), his companions (Steve and his audience), his magic amulets (his cards and his mic), and he ultimately does battle with an evil wizard, in this case, Satan himself. (And as in many Hero Myths, Jerry even loses his magic amulet right before the big climactic battle.)
What Jerry ultimately learns in those last fifteen minutes – sort of by happy accident, he doesn’t know his own power! – is how to heal the rift between Heaven and Hell. Jerry learns in a roundabout way that the morality of The Jerry Springer Show (via William Blake) is the answer: Energy is pure delight. Nothing is wrong, and nothing is right. And everything that lives is holy. And once Jerry teaches his new friends The Answer To It All, they embrace their newfound wisdom in a gorgeous, joyous chorale. They sing:
Everything that lives is holy.
Energy is delight.
We stand together,
Joined in might.
Energy is pure delight.
Nothing is wrong and nothing is right.
Energy is pure delight.
Nothing is wrong and nothing is right.
Let poets through the ages tell
How Springer united heaven and hell.
They have learned something important, not to label, not to judge. They are “joined in might” because they have abandoned their divisive, petty ways. Understanding the idea that nothing is objectively wrong and nothing is objectively right is empowering. Erasing the line between good and bad erases the line between Heaven and Hell, and between Us and Them. We’re all the same, Jerry is telling us, and that point is driven home at the end of the second-to-last song, when the whole cast repeats Dwight’s watchcry from the very first segment, “I’ve been seeing someone else...” We all have our Jerry Springer moments. There’s little difference between me, you, Chucky, Shawntel, and Tremont. However the details may differ, we all face the same things, and we all stumble on our road now and then. We hurt people sometimes. We’re selfish sometimes. We love too much sometimes. We all live our own Hero Myths. And sometimes, like Jerry, we are called to account for ourselves. And often, that’s when we grow and learn to connect. And that is holy.
But even beyond all these ideas, that last fifteen minutes is a lesson in structure. It goes from a surprise reversal, to the biggest crisis yet, to resolution and celebration; then to another reversal and a final, fuller resolution, and an even bigger celebration. Meanwhile, it’s also chock-full of rich, philosophical content, and for those looking for it, references to Blake, Milton, Dante, and others. That’s really good writing.
And then there’s the music. “This is My Jerry Springer Moment” returns in celebration of Jerry’s success, the lyric now changed to “This is his Jerry Springer moment,” underlining the point that this show, this story, really is Jerry’s story. It is his triumph, his wisdom, that saves us. “Take Care,” the song in which the denizens of Hell come to understand at last another important lesson (Jerry’s variation on the Golden Rule), proves that even though Jerry never sings in the show, his philosophy does. And it is set to the same music as the fight between Jesus and Satan earlier in the act. The re-use of this music (even for those who don’t consciously recognize it) gives us a sense of healing. Music that once accompanied fighting now accompanies reconciliation. And then the song segues into God’s theme, “It Ain’t Easy Bein’ Me,” but now as Jerry’s theme. After all, Jerry has saved mankind. But it’s never easy...
In the beginning of the finale, the whole cast sings “It Ain’t Easy Bein’ Me” again, this time for themselves. It’s another reminder that all these guests’ problems are universal ones. We all sometimes think it ain’t easy being us. Here we identify with all the crazy characters onstage, and with Jerry, and with God! The finale takes a whirlwind tour through all the problems we’ve witnessed – God’s, Baby Jane’s, Shawntel’s, Tremont’s, Peaches and Zandra’s, and it caps off with a final quote of “This is My Jerry Springer Moment.” But the pronoun changes again. This song starts in Act I as personal (“This is my Jerry Springer moment”), it changes to our/their for the Klan at the end of Act I, it changes again to his as all these self-involved characters understand what Jerry’s done for them, and then it finally changes to our in the finale, as the cast takes on the universal nature of all this craziness, the word our now referring both to all the characters onstage, but also to us in the audience.
This really is our Jerry Springer moment.
The finale suggests that they/we are all God, Baby Jane, Shawntel, Tremont, Peaches, and Zandra. There is no us or them, no “wrong” or “right.” Because everything that lives is holy. And then, literally the last word in the show both connects back to the Act I finale, and also makes an ironic joke on the whole second half of the show.
Pimps in Bad Suits, Mothers Who Are Prostitutes
This show’s text is so dense, often with laughs coming every few words. Any complex staging or gimmicky stage pictures takes focus away from this brilliant text and the genuinely funny musical jokes. In this show, words reign over all. The language, the jokes, and the references come fast and furiously.
Boil them down, and all three segments in Act I are basic, archetypal stories, though slightly askew. Dwight’s segment is just a simple story of boy meets girl, and girl, and “girl,” boy loses girls. Montel’s segment is a story of being coupled to the wrong person, de-coupling from them, and re-coupling to someone else. Same as A Little Night Music, Cry-Baby, Bat Boy, Little Shop. And Shawntel’s segment is essentially the story of the struggle for women’s rights over the last 50 years.
There have now been scaled-down productions of Springer, some of them tiny compared to the original productions in London, and there is surprising power in stripping away all the bombast. The original production was a massive, overblown spectacle, as part of the meta-joke that this nasty, “common” content is being treated as grand opera. But as is often the case with shows like these, small theatre companies come at the show differently. Instead of making fun of opera conventions, they follow the lead of Little Shop, Bat Boy, and Urinetown, knowing that the more straight-faced they play it, the funnier it gets.
Instead of mocking the conventions of opera with this content, as the original productions did, smaller productions let the ridiculous coupling of this form and this content to speak for itself, without imposing anything on top of that. The Jerry Springer Show is presented as an opera because it already is one, just without the music on TV. The emotions and drama and stakes are already that high. Making it an opera reveals so much about the TV show and the culture that has embraced it (even while condemning it) for so long. This show is not just some elaborate joke, though it is relentlessly funny. No, this show is a really smart and insightful social commentary. You can ignore that part of it and still be wildly entertained, but there are real guts to this show.
On the other hand, one of the hallmarks of The Jerry Springer Show is chaos. On his TV show and in our opera, most of the characters are agents of chaos. You never see what’s coming, except that you know it will be chaos. Sometimes that chaos is emotional, sometimes it’s narrative, and sometimes it’s physical. The writers of the opera do an amazing job of creating that chaos in the words and in the music – and it’s tough to do chaos this well in music.
Going Down with Me
The literary references in this wild opera abound. There’s a fictional character in Jerry Springer the Opera, the warmup man Jonathan Wierus; and the actor playing Wierus also plays Satan in Acts II and III. The name comes from the 16th-century Dutch physician, occultist, and demonologist Johann Weyer (or Wier), whose name in Latin is Ioannes Wierus. According to Wikipedia, he was among the first to publish against the persecution of witches. His most influential work is De Praestigiis Daemonum et Incantationibus ac Venificiis (On the Illusions of the Demons and on Spells and Poisons), 1563.
There’s also a strong similarity between Dante’s Inferno and this opera. In both, we visit both Hell and Purgatory. In our show, as in Dante’s work, a Jerry’s punishment is a kind of poetic justice. In Dante, the lustful are punished by being thrown around by a violent storm. The gluttons are rained upon by garbage, and stand in worms decomposing the mess. The greedy and the spendthrifts are forced to push stones against each other, each telling the other that they handle money badly. The angry and the sullen are put on the bank of the river Styx to forever fight in the mud. The violent are made to boil in blood, and shot by arrows if they rise up higher than they should. The flatterers are burned in shit.
In the opera, the poetic justice is that Jerry has to do his show for the first time in which his stakes are the high ones, not his guests, and where someone else (or maybe no one) is in control. The writers of Jerry Springer the Opera seem to agree with Sartre, that Hell is other people. Why hasn’t anyone made No Exit into a musical yet...?
Inferno (Italian for Hell) is the first part of Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century epic poem Divine Comedy. It is followed by Purgatorio and Paradiso. It is an allegory telling of the journey of Dante through Hell, guided by the dead Roman poet Virgil. Likewise, in Jerry Springer the Opera, Jerry arrives in Hell, and is guided by Baby Jane, the dead adult baby. In the poem, Hell is depicted as nine circles of suffering located within the Earth. Allegorically, the Divine Comedy represents the journey of the soul towards God, with the Inferno describing the recognition and rejection of sin. There are some overt references to William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell late in the show as well.
But does Jerry actually goes to Hell or is it all in his head? It can be played either way, but it makes (marginally) more sense if it’s all in his head. In many ways, it’s like The Wizard of Oz, where the characters in the fantasy world look a whole lot like the characters in the “real world.” Plus the show returns at the end of Act III to a moment at the end of Act I, implying that all of Acts II and II didn’t actually happen. But the writers go even further, with Adam and Eve singing pretty much exactly what Chucky and Shawntel sang in Act I, and much the same for others. A lot of musical themes and melodies return in Acts II and III, often in altered form, to connect the fantasy world back to the real world, further suggesting that this is all a hallucination in the moments before Jerry dies. And maybe also suggesting that Jerry’s regular TV show is already pretty Hellish, so though Hell itself might be worse, it’s not a whole lot worse.
What’s the Big Picture point of Jerry Springer the Opera? Why did Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee write this wildly unique show? It’s clearly more than just an elaborate goof. There’s real weight tucked away amidst the vulgar, high-energy lunacy. At one point in Purgatory, Baby Jane tries to save Jerry from going to Hell, by telling Satan:
Wait, Prince of Darkness, punish him not.
Jerry is not to blame.
With or without Jerry’s show,
We’d all end up the same.
Men and women, black and white,
Transsexual girls and boys,
The burned and crippled, blind, the maimed,
For society has an ugly face,
Contorted, smeared with shit.
Jerry did not make it so;
He merely holds a mirror to it.
It’s a legitimate argument, right? Does Jerry create that culture or just pander to it? Or is it really some of both? Satan clearly thinks Jerry controls his guests and his show, but the real Jerry would be the first to admit he’s just a ringmaster, not God. In another of the show’s quirkier moments, Jerry takes his show back, despite being on enemy turf, and he gives Satan, Jesus, God, and the others a good talking-to, just as he might on his real show:
You’re never gonna agree about everything. And what’s so bad about that? Satan, you’re never going to get your apology. God, you just don’t get a shoulder to cry on. And Jesus, grow up for Christ’s sake and put some fucking clothes on. Haven’t you people heard of yin and yang, love and hate, attraction and repulsion? It’s the human condition we’re talking about here.
Energy is pure delight. Nothing is wrong and nothing is right. And everything that lives is holy.
The cast then repeats those last few lines as a chorale. It’s a beautiful piece, but it’s there for a reason. After an evening of such crazed, vulgar, wackiness, there is a serious point to be made here about it all. We’ve given the audience two hours of crazy people to look down on, and then we call the audience on that judgment. The writers elevate Jerry to wise man here at the end, as he quotes poet William Blake in those last lines. Maybe it’s not until this moment that we realize Jerry is the Wise Wizard of a whole bunch of Hero Myth stories in this show. Jerry is Ben Kenobi to all his guests, including Satan. Of course, the Wise Wizard figure doesn’t usually survive to the end of the story...
In his Final Thought at the end of Act III, Jerry says, “I’ve learned that there are no absolutes of good and evil, and that we all live in a glorious state of flux.” Nothing is wrong and nothing is right. Life just is. Accept it on its own terms, Jerry’s telling us. It’s all beautiful. Everything that lives is holy. These people who come on Jerry Springer are not less deserving of our respect or consideration just because they have different values and live different lives from us. Who are we to judge, after all? Dwight, Peaches, Tremont, Montel, Baby Jane, Shawntel, Chucky – they’re all “holy” merely because they live, because they’re human, because they’re here. Because energy – life – is pure delight.
Here in the latter part of the opera, the writers invoke the English poet William Blake and his eighteenth-century work The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (which is also the title of one of the songs in the opera), in which the author descends into Hell, in imitation of Dante’s Inferno. In the show, the cast sings:
Let poets through the ages tell
How Springer united Heaven and Hell.
How did he do that? In Blake’s poem and in our opera, Heaven and Hell are united simply by the realization that the bright dividing line between good and evil is arbitrary and doesn’t really exist. Jerry unites Heaven and Hell by erasing the line between these artificial constructs, by showing them/us that good and evil are just parts of the same whole. Only Jerry has the wisdom (like the great Wizard of Oz) to show us what we already know deep down inside. We are all both Heaven and Hell. To live fully, we must embrace both the Heaven and Hell within each of us.
According to Wikipedia, “Blake’s theory of contraries was not a belief in opposites but rather a belief that each person reflects the contrary nature of God, and that progression in life is impossible without contraries. Moreover he explores the contrary nature of reason and of energy, believing that two types of people existed: the ‘energetic creators’ and the ‘rational organizers,’ or, as he calls them in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, the ‘devils’ and ‘angels.’ Both are necessary to life according to Blake: “Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate are necessary to Human existence. From these contraries spring what the religious call Good and Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy. Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.”
Jerry has clearly read Blake. The point of Jerry Springer the Opera, and Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, is that you can’t be a whole person if you love only the good parts of life. You have to love all of it, the “yin and yang, love and hate, attraction and repulsion” of it. Jerry teaches us not to divide the world up into good and bad, us and them. Only oppression (like religion) comes from doing that. We’re all ”us.”
In fact, one might argue that the Springer Megamix (“Finale de Grand Fromage”) at the end is more than just superfluous reprises. You might argue that this is when we see that these people have learned Jerry’s lesson, and they celebrate their new enlightenment. As they revisit each of the guests’ stories in this medley, they find connection there and they celebrate these lives of quiet desperation. They see that we’re all crazy, we’re all high maintenance, we’re all contradictory, and vindictive and lonely and confused and weird, and we all just want to be loved.
The writers wrote this megamix as music for curtain call that’s sung, but there’s an argument to be made that the story is not over until these people celebrate their newfound wisdom and perspective on life. It’s no accident that they finish this finale with a verse of “This is Our Jerry Springer Moment” – significantly, the song is no longer called “The is My Jerry Springer Moment.” Now it’s about this community of misfits who finally see their place in the world and their connection to the rest of us.
At the beginning of the show, Jerry is the audience’s surrogate, our way into the world of the show; but at the end, it’s the guests we identify with. Very sneaky.
Sondheim has often said that he prefers writing musicals to operas, partly because he really loves the yin-and-yang interplay between spoken and sung text; and probably unintentionally, Thomas and Lee have written an opera that would satisfy Sondheim. They use that interplay between spoken (only Jerry and Steve) and sung (everybody else, including the studio audience), to place Jerry “outside” the crazy world of these Jerry Springer Show guests. He doesn’t sound like the rest of them; he “speaks” a different “language.” As in real life, he’s just an observer (at least, in Act I). That dichotomy between spoken and sung text is a very effective device, which mirrors the show’s central themes, of the duality in everything.
Content dictates form – again, Sondheim would be pleased.
Nothing is Wrong and Nothing is Right
Since its debut, Jerry Springer the Opera has been protested and boycotted. There’s so much in the show that would seriously freak these protesters out, so it’s good they won’t ever actually see it. Even more than the adult language, even more than the blasphemous religious symbols, the thing that would most upset these people is the message the show leaves us with, that “Nothing is wrong and nothing is right.” It’s okay to eat pork, handle leather, and pay your employees monthly, even though the Bible says those things are terrible, horrible, no good, very bad things to do. It’s also okay to be gay, which the Bible doesn’t really ever address, even though the simple-minded pretend that it does.
Some religious folks will hear this lyric and think it means that there is no such thing as morality, but that’s not what William Blake meant (in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell), and that’s clearly not what the Springer authors meant when they quoted him. Their point is that nothing is inherently wrong or right, that no single person or source can decide that for each of us. Life is too complex than that. As much as the Religious Right rages, morality is not fixed.
In India, it’s immoral to eat beef; in St. Louis it’s not. In Biblical times, husbands “owned” their wives; today that would be called slavery. Even just 60-70 years ago, most American thought it was immoral to marry interracially; today only a small minority still believes that. A hundred and fifty years ago, many people believed it was not just okay but Biblical to own African Americans, and to beat them and lynch them if they misbehaved. Today, only a few dead-enders in the South and the Republican Party still believe that. And likewise, the “morality” of gay marriage has changed drastically for many Americans, just in the last 5-10 years. Nothing is wrong and nothing is right. And everything that lives is holy.
Yes, even frightened bigots are holy. Even Jerry Springer, and all his guests. Even Satan. In other words, shut up and keep your eyes on your own paper.
There Is No Greater Act of Love
A lot of actors say that when they play a villain, it’s very important for them not to judge the character, just to understand him as much as possible, his worldview, his motivations, his past; then play him as honestly as possible, from the inside. The same is true with Jerry Springer the Opera, and by extension, The Jerry Springer Show on TV. The opera’s writers are alternately saying pretty serious things and telling us not to take this all too seriously. It’s the ultimate ironic meta musical. But this is no simplistic frat joke, and these writers are no lightweights. As ridiculous and outrageous as the show is, it is also remarkably subtle in many ways. The real artistry of the show is in how Acts II and III raise the surface trivialities of Act I to mythic proportions, while simultaneously bringing these mythic Bible characters down to relatable, human size.
The secret to all of HBO’s dramatic series is that while most TV series show us the extraordinary in the ordinary (i.e., preternaturally witty children, alien house guests, etc.), HBO series show us the ordinary in the extraordinary (i.e., the family pressures of a mafia boss or a bigamist, family life in a mortuary, daily life in a maximum security prison). Interestingly, Jerry Springer the Opera does both. In Act I, we see the extraordinary feelings and actions of these ordinary people; and in Act II, we see the very ordinary feelings and actions of these iconic Bible characters.
Traditional TV shows tell us these people look like you, but they’re not really like you. HBO shows tell us these people may not look like you, but we’re really all the same. Likewise, Jerry Springer the Opera tells us in the end that we’re all the same, mortal or divine, resident of Heaven or Hell, Catholic or Protestant, Christian or atheist, aspiring pole dancer or tranny. And it also suggests that there’s more truth and more wisdom out there than can be found in human religion, which is by definition as flawed as its creators.
In fact, in one of the moments in the show that drives angry Catholics crazy is when God sings to Jerry, “Sit in Heaven beside me, hold my hand and guide me.” The implication is clear, God needs Jerry’s help too. Only Jerry can save mankind. It does not imply that Jerry is God, as some hysterical protesters have claimed, but it does imply that Jerry may be wiser and less emotional than God is. And honestly, after all God’s temper tantrums in the Old Testament, maybe Jerry is wiser than God. Jerry never told a father to kill his son. Jerry never made up arbitrary, impossible-to-follow rules with horrible consequences. Jerry never drowned all of humanity…
Still, it’s a shame that protesters of the opera will never get to see Act III in Hell. Yes, some of the language would bother them and some of the jokes too, but maybe they’d see the bigger picture. Act III of Jerry Springer the Opera does for the characters in the Bible what 1776 did for the real people who founded our country. The magic of 1776 is how real and flawed and contradictory these men were, and how difficult it was for them to bring together so many different kinds of people with so many opinions, all into this single great experiment in self-governance. 1776 teaches us the real lesson of history – we are the people who move us forward. Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin weren’t superhuman, and their superhuman feat is all the more magnificent and inspiring because they weren’t.
Likewise, Jerry Springer the Opera takes characters from the Bible, who are little more than cardboard cutouts to many people, gives them full emotional lives, and lets them air their legitimate grievances. Why did ”one little apple” have to lead to a life of misery? What an arbitrary and unfair test! And why did Jesus have to go through the horror of the crucifixion in order to redeem mankind? Why didn’t God just redeem us without torturing his child? After all, God’s the one who makes all the rules, isn’t he...?
The one line in the show that may be the hardest to take for religious folks is when Mary enters and the Hell audience of demons and dead people sings, “Raped by an angel, raped by an angel, raped by an angel, raped by God.” Sure, that’s there for its shock value, but the authors clearly want that. They want to yank you out of your comfort with these ancient stories, to confront the implied questions here. But the point isn’t really about rape; the point is how arbitrary most religious doctrine is. Why did God have to impregnate Mary, i.e., why did Jesus have to come to earth as a human, i.e., why did he have to be tortured and crucified in order to redeem mankind? If you believe all that really happened 2,000 years ago, these four lines in the show force you to confront the arbitrary nature of all these stories. And that really bothers some people.
So what’s the bigger point of all this? Well, first, much of the fun in Act III comes from the comic juxtaposition of these weighty, mythic Bible characters with their petty bitching. But more importantly, it makes a bold statement about The Jerry Springer Show itself – the guests on Springer’s show aren’t The Other; they are us. By taking these ancient archetypes and placing their relationships and conflicts in modern terms, the writers of our opera both illuminate and humanize these characters, shining light on our own contemporary lives. Which, after all, is the whole point of human storytelling. Ultimately, the overriding message of the show is Jerry’s last line: “So until next time, take care of yourselves. And each other.” Why does that sound familiar...?
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4)
“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32)
Yes, that’s right, Jerry Springer the Opera is more Christian than the angry people protesting it.
Where Were You When the Condom Split?
Those who are outraged by Jerry Springer the Opera can see it only as trivial vulgarity that’s sort of mindlessly funny. But the show’s fans see the show for the very ballsy, very intelligent deep-dive it is into Springer’s show, its audience, its guests, and our culture in which it thrives. Most unexpectedly, it’s a deep-dive that ultimately surfaces in an uplifting, even optimistic spirit.
Some audiences – and some reviewers – can’t make sense of this more serious second-half, because they can’t conceive that this show could be getting at real truths about our country and our times, that its purposes might extend beyond laughs. They see only offense and The Other in Act I, and so can’t see what else is there. With that basic misunderstanding, they see little of value, where the rest of us find questions and insights of great import and intelligence.
Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee do a lot more in this show – and a lot more in Act III – than just make us laugh, though they do a lot of that too. One song in particular, “Where Were You?” in Act III, gets forgotten sometimes amidst the insanity of everything else. There’s not a joke anywhere in it. It’s angry. It’s revealing. It’s serious satire. It also leads us to the central theme of the show and the climax of the plot.
“Where Were You?” is a song about people who draw a direct connection between God’s omnipotence and their own needs or wants. If God can do anything, surely he can help me pass this test! Conservatives often criticize liberals for wanting government to solve all our problems, yet this song is a razor sharp commentary on how many Christians expect God/Jesus to solve all their problems, praying for sick people to get better, praying to win football games, praying for good weather, praying for a good performance, praying for politicians to win, praying for a safe trip, praying for advice.
The lyric of “Where Were You?” starts out with some arguably legitimate grievances – why did Jesus abandon his mother and not take care of her in her old age like a good son should? Of course Jesus has a good answer, as we all know, but this is from the point of view of the left-behind mother. The Bible doesn’t cover that part. In fact, the Bible doesn’t give us full characters at all, only relationships and events, no psychology, no motivation. That’s part of why any dramatization of the Bible upsets some people – to write a good story, you have to fill in so many blanks left open in the Bible, all the whys.
Satan seizes the opportunity in “Where Were You?” to remind everyone that Jesus didn’t solve all their problems, that their prayers weren’t answered, that Jesus must not have cared about them and probably wasn’t even there like he’s supposed to be! Satan (and Thomas and Lee) deconstructs Jesus’ hero identity, exposing Jesus’ followers’ shallow misunderstanding of how Christianity is supposed to work...
MARY (to Jesus)
Where were you when I was on my own?
Where were you when they rolled the stone?
Where were you when I was getting old?
Where were you when I was sick and bald?
Where, where, where were you?
Jesus wasn’t there, he didn’t care.
EVE (to Jesus)
Where were you when the children cried?
ADAM (to Jesus)
Where were you when the children died?
But Jesus has some gripes too...
Where were you when I was crucified?
Where were you when they pierced my side?
In fact, everybody has some gripes at Jesus...
Where, where, where were you?
Where, where, where were you?
Wasn’t there, didn’t care...
Where, where, where were you?
Where where where where where where
Where where where where where where?
Doesn’t know, didn’t show, never there, doesn’t care...
Where were you when he got fleas?
Where were you when he lost his keys?
Where were you when her pants don’t fit?
Where were you when the condom split...?
And the music stops abruptly, as this bitching rises to its logical extreme. If Jesus is responsible for winning or losing a football game, why isn’t he responsible when you lose your car keys or you gain weight...? Thomas and Lee are trapping their audience once again (they do this throughout the show). Those in the audience who find it uncomfortable hearing these Bible characters complain in such a petty way, are really just uncomfortable with the way they view God, Jesus, prayer, and other related issues.
In an interview with author James Grissom, Tennessee Williams once said, “I came to see that Christianity, in some of its forms, was very much a version of Let’s Make A Deal, and God a shiny and ebullient Monty Hall, who came and asked what you had. God may not ask if we have a carrot in our purse or a clown wig in a pocket. God may not ask us if we have a kazoo or a camera. But in order to play the game, in order to play for prizes, we must sacrifice things: a lover, a limb, a sense of calm; health and happiness. We happily sacrifice these things. Crosses to bear. But as with the game show, we do not know what God has behind his doors and his curtains. But we believe and we hope and we play the game. This is called faith. It has its limits.” Those limits are what “Where Were You?” is about, when the grind of reality crashes down around the fragile construct of faith.
After the music has stopped so abruptly, the next moment in the show is really unexpected and really insightful. The angry crowd eagerly, easily turns its recriminations from Jesus to Jerry. If Jesus won’t/can’t solve all their problems, they’ll demand that Jerry solve all their problems. And they’re ready to kill (crucify?) him if he won’t. Talk about taking on the sins of man! And then God shows up, as a literal deus ex machina, and bemoans the exact same thing we’ve just witnessed – “millions of voices making all the wrong choices, then turning ‘round and blaming me.” It’s a harsh indictment of Christianity – or at least, of unthinking Christians. And it’s why so many people find this show so rich and insightful and genuinely brilliant, while others find it so disturbing and offensive.
Once in Happy Realms of Light
If anyone doubts that Jerry Springer the Opera is a serious piece of theatre, note some of the more emotional, more unexpectedly beautiful moments in the show. For example, early in Act III, Jerry is being forced to do a Jerry Springer Show in Hell for Satan, and as this bizarre faux show begins, Satan tells us his sad story in the song “Once in Happy Realms,” and it always surprises the audience with its aching beauty and its depth of feeling. It’s not an exaggeration to call it an art song. Look at this lyric:
Once in happy realms of light,
I was transcendental,
Golden and bright.
But I rebelled and was cast down,
Forced to surrender
My celestial crown.
Oh, my crown...!
Then God hurled me from the sky,
Not merciful enough to let me die...
Let me die...
Confounded immortal I,
And pain eternal...
This is not sketch comedy. This is not a joke. As the scene continues, Jerry asks Satan what he wants, and the music turns light, even childlike, as Satan remembers back...
I want it to be just like old times,
With Baby Jesus by my side.
I want my old wings back as well;
I want to get out of this dump called Hell.
But then the music turns dramatic (Springnerian?) again...
But first and most importantly...
I want a fucking apology!
It’s not hard to understand Satan’s feelings here, particularly when accompanied by Richard Thomas’ beautiful, emotional music – and that makes some people very uncomfortable. Which is the point. Nothing is wrong and nothing is right, and everything that lives is holy. Satan is the protagonist of his story (aren’t we all?), with Jesus and God as antagonists. That’s quite unsettling for people who haven’t read Milton.
Another really serious moment in the show comes at the end of Montel’s segment in Act I, when the humiliated Andrea refuses to leave the stage, and she sings, broken but defiant:
I want to sing something beautiful...
I want to sing something positive...
I want to learn how to dream again,
To feel again...
I wanna stand on top of a hill,
In the arms of my lover,
Bathed in the light of rainbows,
With spring in my heart
And love by my side...
Oh, stay with me, stay with me,
Stay with me, baby...
Stay with me, stay with me,
Stay with me, baby...
And she falls apart, and Steve leads her offstage. It’s a very sobering end to a very wild, rowdy segment, and it catches us off-guard. But it also signals to us that there is more than just Springer episodes happening in this show. Her humiliation here is so palpable, her sadness so profound, and this song seems almost like an (unsuccessful) exorcism.
The other very cool moment that often gets overlooked is the Warm-Up Man’s solo in Act I, “The First Time I Saw Jerry.”
The first time I saw Jerry on TV,
I knew that there was hope for me.
When I saw how he worked the crowd,
I knew that he could help me out.
Before that I was empty inside,
I had considered suicide;
But now I’m a vital member of Jerry’s team.
But sometimes I wonder how much he values me...
Foreshadowing! Also, clearly not sketch comedy. Also, some interesting insights into Jerry’s audience and his relationship with them. And some more beautiful music to deepen the emotional impact.
Jerry Springer the Opera is vulgar, outrageous, offensive, blasphemous, and lots more, but it’s also serious, insightful, intelligent, and a major work of theatre art. Some people cannot get past the offensive to the insightful. They’re unable to see all the richness and artistry, and then they condemn the show for lacking richness and artistry.
But it’s there.
Copyright 2015. All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre, Deconstructing Harold Hill, Rebels with Applause, Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR, From Assassins to West Side Story, and Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals.