I suppose I am an innocent where contemporary culture is concerned. I have never seen The Jerry Springer Show. And having now seen Jerry Springer: The Opera, produced by the New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center, I still can’t understand why anyone would want to see it — let alone make an opera of it, as composer-librettist Richard Thomas and his co-librettist Stewart Lee did in 2003. For that matter, I don’t particularly understand why anybody would want to see their operatic adaptation, fifteen years after its London premiere, though I can’t say I had a painful time watching the performance, which has been directed with zest by John Rando and features a great deal of excellent singing, topped by two smartly contrasted lead performances. Terrence Mann underplays elegantly as the mock-meek talk-show host himself, while Will Swenson sprays fierce showbiz energy in every direction as an obnoxious warm-up act. Fired by Jerry in the first half, Swenson’s character later comes back after intermission as Jerry’s worst nightmare: Satan in a Springerized version of hell.
You could probably construct several complete dramas out of the off-the-wall situations described in the operatic show’s first-half version of Jerry’s program: A man cheats not only on his fiancée but on the best friend with whom he’s cheating on said fiancée; another wants his girlfriend to help him relapse into infantilism; a large woman aspires to be a pole dancer, despite her husband’s disapproval. But to dramatize such stories would involve finding reasons for an audience to care about them as people and not simply to goggle at their kinks and jeer when they relapse into name-calling and fighting. While the guests remain merely acts in a freak show, at whom the studio audience (represented in the opera by a chorus occupying the front rows of the auditorium) can shout insults, their interest for the opera’s actual audience wanes rapidly. What little interest they hold is musical: Thomas’s score, though never reaching any notable expressive heights, is listenable and neatly crafted. Its chief problem is that it conspires with the dramatic material to create a lack of caring, and there’s no particular reason to sit through an opera you don’t care about.
The second act, in which Jerry imagines himself dead (shot by an enraged guest) and gone to hell, worsens the problem. Here, Jerry’s forced to host an on-air debate between Satan and God, with interventions by Jesus and Mary. The notion of linking the shenanigans that occur on Springer’s show with the great issues of Christian theology strikes me as strictly a one-liner, on which Messrs. Thomas and Lee have unwisely seized in their desperate need to fill out the evening. What it should have shown them was that their first act was equally unnecessary.
Inevitably, the attempt to construct a dialogue between Satan and the various heavenly persons is conducted on exactly the same level as the recrimination-fests between supposedly loving couples in the first act. Adam and Eve, who make an appearance, are just another quarreling couple playing the blame game with each other. Ho hum. Similarly, the Ku Klux Klan, which turns up to provide a showy climax to the first act, is presented as just a lot of people in funny hoods and white sheets who want to be on TV. What the Klan believes and why people join it never rate a mention. (Springer is Jewish, but the Klan doesn’t appear to notice that, either.)
Like some other U.K. imports, Jerry Springer: The Opera is a British work that, at least by implication, purports to make a statement about American culture. But the notion that Springer’s actual show marks a peculiarly American phenomenon is arguable, to say the least. At best, it constitutes an American way of commercializing an interest in the sordid, and in other people’s sexual peccadilloes, that’s part of human nature in every culture: The British and French had invented tabloid journalism long before we had newspapers. That our current national leadership has dragged down the level of political discourse by catering to a base seemingly made up of people who resemble Jerry Springer fans does not necessarily make the opera more relevant. Such catering has been a part of politics since people first ran for office; read some of the foulmouthed diatribes published against Lincoln during his campaigns and you’ll wonder why Trump hasn’t mined them for tweets. That this kind of popularity doesn’t last, and always takes a back place when people’s serious concerns are at issue, may be more to the point. For all the clamor editorializers make about the unyielding fidelity of Trump’s base, two-thirds or more of our population still think he’s doing a lousy job and can’t be trusted.
The New Group’s game cast takes this sung-through version of a reality TV show as far as it can possibly go, abetted by Sarah Laux’s suitably garish costumes and Jeff Croiter’s astutely varied lighting. In addition to Mann and Swenson, the impressive vocal presences of Jill Paice, Elizabeth Loyacano, Luke Grooms, Justin Keyes, and, most particularly, Tiffany Mann point up the essential paradox of Jerry Springer: Give these people something more worth singing, and you might really have an opera.