A cult favorite on British TV, Jerry Springer comes to the National Theatre stage as the subject of an opera.
There’s a tingle of anticipation in the house tonight. A youngish audience, incited by a warmup man, punches the air rhythmically, chanting “Jerr-ee! Jerr-ee! Jerr-ee!” A trio of muscular security guys in black, arms crossed and glowering fiercely, separates the crowd from the stage. A distinct frisson of guilty pleasure is in the air, based on an expectation of imminent angry arguments, outrageous accusations and confessions, and even attempts at physical violence and the hurling of stage furniture.
If this sounds reminiscent of a certain infamous daytime TV show, it should. But here’s the catch — this isn’t a TV studio. It’s one of the large auditoriums at Britain’s august National Theatre, founded by Laurence Olivier in 1963 and still a secular temple of high dramatic art. One expects to see Shakespeare on such a stage, or maybe Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill; until now, the National’s idea of light relief was thoughtful, even dark revivals of classic American musicals like “Carousel” and “Oklahoma!”
But times have changed under the National’s new artistic director Nicholas Hytner, who took over April 1. This is the prelude to a preview performance of the first major production under his aegis — the National’s remarkable, hilarious new “Jerry Springer — the Opera.” It’s a title embracing two concepts one never expected to find in the same sentence. The show’s opening pales beside what follows. A 36-strong company, of varied shapes, sizes and ethnic types, files on stage quietly, singing “Jerr-ee” in soft, devotional tones, like a Kyrie eleison. A hush of surprise descends on the audience: Despite its jokey title, the show really is an opera.
Then all hell breaks loose.
We meet a series of “guests with guilty secrets”: Dwight, a portly serial adulterer; Montel, who admits to his fiancée his fetish for wearing diapers; and Shawntel, who wants her backwoodsman husband Chucky to know of her ambition to be a pole dancer. These characters sing their confessions in the straight-faced manner of grand opera. Half of the company flanks the stage, becoming the show’s “audience,” functioning as a chorus and hurling insults at guests: “Hillbilly!” “Trailer trash!” and “Loser!” are among the more polite ones. Yet the guests are thrilled to be on the show, catapulted briefly from obscurity to TV fame. As one musical number proclaims: “This is my Jerry Springer moment.”
Cast members, from left, Lore Lixenberg, Benjamin Lake and Michael Brandon, as Jerry Springer, in rehearsal at the National Theatre.
For most spectators, all this produces a sense of faint unreality. It is decidedly odd to sit in the National’s Lyttelton auditorium, listening to an exquisitely sung melody that includes the lyric: “Dip me in chocolate and throw me to the lesbians.” It’s a long way from Rodgers and Hammerstein.
In the midst of this bedlam is “Jerry” himself, played by American actor Michael Brandon ( who starred in the 1985-86 TV series “Dempsey and Makepeace”) looking uncannily like Springer in dark suit, white shirt, yellow tie and gold-rimmed glasses. He alone speaks rather than sings his thoughts.
Brandon, who has lived in Britain since the late ’80s (he is married to his “Dempsey and Makepeace” co-star Glynis Barber) was first approached by show creators Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas late last year. “They sent me the script, and without the music it seemed such a puzzle, and so gross,” he recalled. “But when I heard the music it all fit, and I became intrigued.”
“Jerry Springer — the Opera” had an unusual genesis: Two years ago, it was a 30-minute show, with singer-composer Thomas alone at a piano, at Battersea Arts Centre, a small fringe venue in South London. Its first performance attracted an audience of seven; they gave Thomas a standing ovation.
Three months later, writer and stand-up comedian Lee joined Thomas to help expand the show gradually at Battersea. Last year, with a cast of 20, it became a sellout hit at the Edinburgh Fringe festival, where Hytner saw it and offered Lee and Thomas a slot at the National. “Nick had first come to see it early on,” Thomas recalls. “He liked it, but said to me: ‘This is a cult show, why don’t you write me another?’ Then when he saw it in Edinburgh after we’d developed it, he changed his mind.”
“I’m really thrilled at the work they’ve done on it even since Edinburgh,” says Hytner. “They’re terrific, the pair of them. In Edinburgh I could see the show was still relatively small in scope and scale, but it had the potential to communicate with a large audience.”
‘Not suitable for children’
Still, it’s a provocative production to usher in Hytner’s regime. With discreet understatement, the National warns “Jerry Springer — the Opera” is “not suitable for children.” Its characters are remarkably foul-mouthed; no expletive is deleted, though hearing bad language sung by beautiful operatic voices creates a curious distancing effect.
But the show’s outrageous elements go beyond mere cussing. The increasingly surreal first act features a show-stopping dance number by Ku Klux Klan members, hooded in white sheets. Then “Jerry” is killed by a bullet, aimed at a Klansman by a guest.
Act 2 takes place in hell, where Springer confronts his show guests from Act I, now playing biblical characters, including Jesus and Mary, Adam and Eve. Serial adulterer Dwight becomes God, descending from heaven in a white suit and with an Elvis coif, singing “It Ain’t Easy Being Me” in Presley-esque tones. And Jerry is called upon to mediate the eternal dispute between God and Satan.
“It isn’t a shocking show,” insists Thomas, relaxing with Lee in a hospitality room at the National. “We’re not out to offend anyone. It’s just puerile swearing.”
“The bigger the show gets, the less offensive it seems,” muses Lee. “It feels legitimized by the amount of work that’s gone into it. You wouldn’t waste two years of your life just for the sake of annoying someone. You’d have to think it’s a good idea too.”
Yet both men admit to a faint sense of disbelief that their little show ended up at the National. “For the first three mornings [after previews], I’d wake up and smile and think, ‘No, last night wasn’t a dream,’ ” Thomas says. “We’ve worked hard at making it a two-act show, and now finally it feels like a two-act show.”
“I find I’m laughing both at the show and the very idea it’s here at the National,” Lee admits. “The title Richard came up with is two things you wouldn’t think go together. And the operatic ideals dignify the guests. But now it’s ‘The National Theatre presents Jerry Springer — the Opera,’ so that loads the high-culture end even more. So we can have more fun playing around with it.”
The Springer show has a cult following among British TV audiences, though it is especially popular with college students. Over the years, it has aired on smaller channels and is invariably marketed as an example of taste-free Americana. Thomas admits he watched the real Springer show “religiously” over a six-month period (“I changed my sleeping patterns and everything”) before he was inspired to write his embryonic 30-minute work. “His show’s got tragedy,” Thomas says. “It’s got violence. There are people screaming at each other, and you can’t understand what they’re saying. It’s perfect for opera.”
The two men cast the show entirely with people who could sing. One cast member, Lore Lixenberg, is among Karlheinz Stockhausen’s favorite sopranos, while a handful of others have had operatic training, and the rest have extensive credits in musical theater.
But both men are adamant their show does not aim to poke fun either at opera or the kind of people who become Springer’s guests: “If anything,” Lee says, “it dignifies them.” Nor, though they know many Americans feel embarrassed by Springer, do they see the opera as a satire. “I don’t think it makes any comment about America,” says Lee, adding flippantly: “I’d be happy to see an anti-American show at the National. But this show is not it.”
For the lead role, Lee and Thomas talked to actors in New York and Los Angeles but came back to Brandon with a firm offer. “I was under contract to [the Hallmark/ABC series] ‘Dinotopia,’ but I so much wanted to do ‘Springer’ that I asked to be released from my contract,” Brandon said.
“I’d seen the Springer show on visits to the States, and it’s the kind of thing you stay with when you’re surfing channels, even with the sound down. What interests me about him is that he never passes judgment on the people who appear on his show. But he tries hard to understand them, and he gives them time to be heard, to express their opinions.”
Reaching out to the young
Brandon met Springer when the latter visited Britain recently to appear on a TV talk show, and they discovered they were born a year apart, and at one time in adolescence lived within a block of each other in Kew Gardens, Queens, N.Y.
“A lot of theater appeals to gray- and silver-haired audiences,” Brandon observed. “But I think we are going to bring young audiences back. I feel like we’re at the start of a wave, a tsunami.”
The real Jerry Springer (who was born in Britain) saw the opera at Edinburgh last year and met Thomas and Lee afterward. “I think he was expecting to hate it,” Lee recalls. “But I get the impression he thinks the opera is quite good for him. It takes him seriously when he’s used to having to defend himself.” Springer told them he would not pursue legal redress over the opera, but Universal, owners of the Springer show, have reserved their rights. Springer could not be reached for comment.
“We asked them to invest,” says Lee. “But they said no. It’s a form of aggressive non-investment, because even the fact they might sue places us in a tough position. The show may transfer from here to the West End, but with that threat from America, Broadway might be a problem.” Still, Lee and Thomas are so delighted by the long journey the show has taken — its official first night at the National is Tuesday — they’re living in the present rather than worrying about the future. “It was never our plan to end up here,” Lee reflects. “The show has just grown incrementally.” For Lee and Thomas, this is a Jerry Springer Moment beyond imagining.