Problems might arise if Rudy Giuliani gets wind of Shockheaded Peter. The show, a musical
adaptation of Heinrich Hoffmann’s 1844 book of doggerel for youngsters, is satire, but since irony doesn’t play well to upstate voters, the art-policing mayor might choose to misunderstand it. In the English import, opening at the New Victory Theater on October 14, a disobedient child called Suck-a-Thumb has his offending digits snipped off and bleeds to death. He’s only one of several children who come to violent ends in a play that can be considered hysterical in both senses of the word.
Hoffmann wrote the book-known in Great Britain and Germany as Struwwelpeter-after concluding that the mid-19th-century literature available for reading to his three-year-old son was tiresomely moralistic. Deciding to outdo the scolds at their game, he composed six grandiose cautionary tales-all of them in rhymed couplets-which, at the urging of friends, he published with scarifying illustrations. By 1847 he’d added four more, and the editions started mounting. Today there are over 300.
Perhaps Hoffmann knew Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s work when he set out, perhaps not. But his stories share some of the elements that make those fairy tales simultaneously frightening and endearing to children. One of Hoffmann’s odious odes begins:
Here is cruel Frederick, see!
A horrid wicked boy was he;
He caught the flies, poor little things.
And then tore off their tiny wings.
For his comeuppance, Frederick is sent to bed with a tonic. Not the worst fate, which the creators of Shockheaded Peter have remedied. “I upped the death rate,” says songwriter and performer Martyn Jacques. Jacques wrote the original Kurt Weill-ish songs, and as an accordian player in the troubadour band the Tiger Lillies (which also includes Adrian Stout and Adrian Huge), sings them throughout the play.
Director Phelim McDermott agrees that the brothers Grimm are part of the tradition to which the play belongs, and doesn’t balk when Grand Guignol and Edward Gorey are mentioned as other influences. McDermott works with designer Julian Crouch-together they won a 1998 Obie for 70 Hill Lane. It was the two of them who helmed what was in the development stages an improvised effort, a project also involving Julian Bleach, Anthony Cairns, Tamzin Griffin, Graeme Gilmour, and Jo Pocock, the last two being puppeteers who had never performed before as actors.
With Crouch refining a cramped, middle-class Victorian set, the actors went about turning Shockheaded Peter‘s story-he’s an obstinate lad who never cuts his nails or combs his hair-into a mock-instructive narrative amplified by the Tiger Lillies’ eerie songs. With crudely made puppets and tattered costumes, they assembled their “junk opera.” “We literally flung the whole thing together in the last few days,” McDermott says about their opening at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds after a five-week rehearsal period. The premiere, he reports, was “dreaded” by administrators. They had reason to worry after the first-and rocky-performance, but not after the second, when everything fell into place and a hit emerged.
Because McDermott considers his show to be about “glorious failure,” he encouraged unpolished acting and dramatic loose ends during the development process. He also kept in amusing mistakes. At an early run-through, Jacques-who wears pancake makeup and imitates a castrato-neglected to pick up a song cue. Crouch-dressed like a berserk ringmaster-covered for him by interpolating a speech from Richard III. It stayed.
McDermott isn’t bothered that Shock-headed Peter might give kids the heebie-jeebies, because he sees the frights as double-edged. Hoffmann’s collection, he notes, “is one of those books with which people have a love-hate relationship. You keep going back to it because it scares you.” “The stories are quite ludicrous,” Jacques adds. “Hoffmann wrote them definitely sending up the whole thing. You do get these po-faced types who say it’s awful.” Jacques admits to taking some liberties with the poems but not so many he wasn’t able to write the songs “in about a week and record them in a day.”
Shockheaded Peter was originally the brainchild of Michael Morris, who heads London’s Cultural Industry producing outfit. When he was struck with the notion of staging Hoffmann’s book five years ago, he thought he’d get a number of artists from different disciplines involved, each doing one of the rhymed scarers. Once he’d heard the Tiger Lillies in a London pub, however, he decided they were the only way to go. “It’s a very personal thing,” says Morris. “It’s the first book I remember reading when I was a child, and it sort of haunts you once it’s there.”