a ‘blasphemous’ musical that made his television show look dull

Hell: David Soul in Jerry Springer The Opera – BBC

A notable feature of the main identities of the late US tabloid talk show host Jerry Springer in the UK, where he was born, is that they all make significant reference to the opera that inspired him: Jerry Springer: The Opera .

As popular as that TV show was with Tooth and Claw, its controversies paled in comparison to the groundbreaking theatrical masterpiece it inspired. Springer himself may have introduced the vogue for raw 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 show (co-written by composer Richard Thomas and comedian Stewart Lee) suggests, as its fictional Springer dies, that love that will survive us. And what lives away from us, too, sometimes, is art.

There is little doubt that Thomas and Lee created something of a total artistry when their opera, which was entirely after rapid development, attacked Nicholas Hytner’s reign as director of the National on 29 April 2003 (20 years since just that). This despite being the funniest show to grace Lyttelton’s stage, the opening lines and lyrics alone reaching straight to the top shelf in terms of distressing imagery, unbridled swearing and glee schoolboy

To cite one of the relatively printable examples: “Man 1: Excuse me, is this the right room for the Dave Letterman show?” Man 2: You got the wrong roommate, loser! Man 1: F___ you! Man 2: F___ you back!”). As one critic wrote, extolling the infections of singing: “Think of Handel, Verdi and Wagner, all afflicted with Tourette’s syndrome”.

Of course, the collision of beautiful music with rough verbal material – what Hytner called “a violent marriage between high and low culture…a vulgar chaos that disrupted the disciplines of classical opera” – on of course it’s surprising. But Thomas’s musical flair – it was a cheeky joke to call “Jerry” like ‘Kyrie’ – quickly overcame the charges of one-note gimmickry and tipped the evening from the ridiculous to the sublime.

Like The Producers – an inevitable comparison, since Springer’s tap-dancing sequence In Ku Klux Klansmen tipped its hat to the Nazi chorus in Mel Brooks’ orchestra – this is a show that argued for musical comedy as its highest form. , combining brains, guts and populist appeal.

But while the National theater run was a quiet, sold-out event, Springer’s afterlife came out like a vision from the TV show itself – creating turmoil and conflict in ways that made the creators and producers sick of the bag.

Usually with major traits like this, it is the genus that is problematic and needs to be unpicked. Indeed, the evolution has looked unusually blessed, from early trial workshops at Battersea Arts Centre, where Thomas received rave reviews from the audience with cans of lager, to the legendary Edinburgh Fringe run of 2002. The show’s second coming after his 2003 West End transfer, first in the shape of a BBC Two broadcast in January 2005, and then a bedevviled tour, which seemed unnaturally cursed.

Jerry Springer: Opera co-writers Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas - PA

Jerry Springer: Opera co-writers Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas – PA

If the idea behind the telecast was to strike a chord outside of London, it backfired faster than you can say Mary Whitehouse. In a way comparable to Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), there was an outcry about “blashemous” art in relation to the Christian faith.

The Corporation was inundated with complaints (around 55,000) and vigils were organized in protest outside the BBC premises in London, and elsewhere. “In all, about 1,500 Christians came out… to stand up for their lord and savior, remembering that he suffered for them”, wrote Stephen Green, head of the advocacy group Christian Voice, which led on the objection, in a letter to them. venues of the proposed regional tour, threatening prosecution and further protest (“It will be difficult for local councilors to justify using council taxpayers’ money to subsidize an offensive, shameful, blasphemous production” ran one typical line).

While the media was intrigued by the profanity count in the show – as high as 8,000 obscenities in some reports, and as low as 174 by Lee, who also directed the show – it was the scenes in hell, in which Springer in charge of. spaces between Adam and Eve, Jesus, Mary and Satan (the first person to admit that they were “a little gay”) with God singing pitifully that it is not easy to be Me is what made the story sink the most.

David Soul in a scene from Jerry Springer: the Opera - Alastair Muir

David Soul in a scene from Jerry Springer: the Opera – Alastair Muir

Green and co failed to see the funny side of Jesus’ rewriting of “speaking with the hand” as “speaking with the stigmata”. It was no joke when BBC executives were reported to have gone into hiding. This was later denied but the venues apparently pulled out of the tour under pressure from Christian Voice, with Lee saying a third of them were scared, resulting in “four years of work falling into heaven -financial viability”.

“I’ve made about the same amount in the last three years as I would if I was working as a chief accountant for a catering supplies company in the Thames Valley corridor,” he told me angrily in 2004 after the show started. success “I know because I’ve checked. It’s not a life-changing interest.” With the 2006 tour being run more on principle than profit, and plans for a Broadway transfer scuppered as a result of the back-and-forth, neither he nor Thomas got their just desserts for a show that was is a prominent British musician.

On the plus side, Jerry Springer: the musical became a hit and that experience led to one of Lee’s funniest sets to date, Comedy 90s, where he put his audience on the information about avoiding being taken to court for blasphemy (“The High Court dismissed the case on the grounds that it is not 1508”), going through a hospital procedure for colonic diverticulitis and doing unprintable things related to the same region of Christ’s anatomy in a feverish routine that gave two fingers to the censors.

Protesters burning their TV license outside the TV Center - Clare Kendall

Protesters burning their TV license outside the TV Center – Clare Kendall

In a 2009 interview, Lee said: “It made me realize that there was never much point in trying to reach a mass audience with anything interesting and provocative”. So the debate can be seen as a stage job in his artistic development.

But who got the last laugh? Jerry Springer in retrospect: The Opera, and its bitter meta-drama, seem to have anticipated an era of crime, made easier than the Whitehouse by online technology. Although he has dressed again, and recently – at the Hope Mill theater in Manchester – with his comic portrayal of characters on the fringes, the “pre-op transsexual” (“chick with a dick”) and the diaper fetishist, he does not . it would not matter to imagine the outrage, manufactured or otherwise, outside religious circles if an attempt were made on a larger scale.

And as the Wakefield ‘Quran’ incident has shown, although the common law offenses of blasphemy and blasphemous libel were formally abolished in England and Wales in 2008, holders of the faith have not retreated from works of art, or life. own, to police.

Conceived before 9/11, and long before identity politics became the stalking shadow of cultural life, Springer may come to look like a high-water mark for a society that trusts taboo-breaking and doesn’t hold back on sensitivity. It pays to revisit. As long as there are recordings of Baby Jane of Lore Lixenberg singing the rousing number This Is My Jerry Springer Moment (“I don’t want this moment to die/ So I dip in chocolate and throw it to the lesbians” ), Springer’s legacy beyond. grave to be sure.

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