The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World (Playwrights Horizons) is a complexly unhappy musical about simple unhappy people. Its hook, making it both intriguing and unendurable, comes from its being a cockeyed showbiz story, about three small-town teenage sisters, of no particular musical ability, whose father decides they must become a rock band. Historically, Austin Wiggins pushed his daughters up to the release of one stunningly inept 1968 LP, from which the current show derives its title, before the family’s money and will power gave out. Rediscovered and reissued years later, the album now stands as a marker for a kind of flat-affect amateurism that’s distinctively American. Some have found it artistically meaningful.
The creators of The Shaggs, the musical, expend a lot of effort differentiating the show’s sound from the group’s helplessly lame performances. Authors Joy Gregory and Gunnar Madsen strive to articulate in song the inner reflections of the three girls, their parents, the fly-by-night rock promoter who lures them into recording, and the local boy infatuated with the flakiest of the sisters. The writing struggles to sustain musical-theater expressiveness while still keeping the score as artless and unforced as if the actual Shaggs had composed it; this bidirectional pull often brings The Shaggs to an aesthetic standstill.
Director John Langs, who co-wrote the show’s scenario with Gregory and Madsen, helps out with a vast array of inventive tactics to distinguish the songwriters’ work from the grim but necessary duplications of the girls’ actual worst-garage-band-ever results. One neat sequence finds the group rising and lowering on a winched platform: In mid-air, we hear the idealized sound they and their father think they’re producing; back down on the stage floor, we get the sorry actuality.
Though such devices provide constant diversion, they can’t stop the show from sliding into a gray limbo, produced by the strained effort to make wow-level music theater while honoring the characters’ wholly un-wow integrity. The whole work seems to echo, unconsciously, the Shaggs’ own blank affectlessness. Since the stage, like nature, abhors a vacuum, hints of prior showbiz musicals built on sturdier matrices soon seep into this stasis. Obsessive Austin Wiggins (Peter Friedman), driving his reluctant offspring into performance, starts to resemble a gender-reversed rework of Gypsy’s Madam Rose; when he talks to his deceased mother, whose second sight allegedly prophesied her granddaughters’ triumph, he sounds like Dolly Levi apostrophizing Ephraim. He even scoops up two famous predecessors in one short phrase by singing to his daughters, “I have a dream, girls.”
The overall story, a chronicle of grinding failure followed by bittersweet retrospective triumph, suggests an upside-down version not only of the fictional Dreamgirls but of more recent, historicizing shows: This is, essentially, the jukebox musical about the group that never had a jukebox hit.
Americans have a weird tendency to cherish certain kinds of public ineptitude. The willingness to display one’s inability openly seems to strike us as proving purity of heart. The public’s willingness, in response, to view the painful results as somehow meaningful betokens its distrust of expertise, of the skill and knowledge achieved through training or through experience, that has affinities on one hand with the democratic spirit, and on the other with the anti-intellectualism that historians like Richard Hofstadter have traced as a principal motif in American life.
The films of Ed Wood and the political pronouncements of Sarah Palin provide handy examples: Nobody intelligent could take these two ignoramuses seriously, but their blatant failure at what they intend produces, in a sizeable minority, a sympathy for the sincerity of their wholly misguided aims. Though real-world figures, they exist most comfortably as semi-comic fictions: Tina Fey is the more truthful Sarah Palin, just as the more convincing Ed Wood was Johnny Depp.
The Shaggs, obliged to carry the sisters’ drama as well as their “music,” hasn’t immortalized its subjects so securely. The reluctant girls register as blanks; Annie Golden brightens, with effort, the perfunctory role of their mother. Friedman, carrying the show, searches for variety in what’s basically an evening-long yowl of frustration; Kevin Cahoon (rock promoter) and Cory Michael Smith (local boy) offer occasional relief. But making a musical about the unmusical seems, as well as purely American, purely masochistic.