Springer Breaks Ground & Busts GenresDate: 7 April 2003
The first-ever 'opera' staged at the National premieres this month. Mark Shenton traces the development of Jerry Springer - The Opera from a one-man show to a 36-strong, full-fledged production that defies definition.
The National Theatre is making a break from the past - literally. As Nicholas Hytner seizes the reigns of the artistic directorship this month from Trevor Nunn, the first show to premiere under his auspices in the NT Lyttelton couldn't be further removed from the kind of old Broadway musicals that Nunn's regime specialised in. It's new, British-written and goes by the improbable but intriguing sounding name of Jerry Springer - The Opera. And it brings within the embrace of the National not just a glorious celebration of contemporary American trash television but also a pair of 30-something writers - Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee - previously best known for their work on the comedy circuit.
Lurid but Lively
It's a long way from Oklahoma! and My Fair Lady to the scabrous world of Jerry Springer, the lurid American television show (now in its 12th series) in which members of the public confess their darkest secrets. As Richard Thomas, the former comedy performer inspired to turn this into a modern opera, says of the source material: "It's got tragedy. 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".
It was two years ago that Thomas first had the idea for the show and started its development at Battersea Arts Centre (BAC), with a showcase of an embryonic and incomplete first act performed by himself alone at a piano in February 2001. It was one of BAC's so-called 'scratch nights', at which artists are invited to present works-in-progress to audiences who are then sounded out for their reactions. A second set of scratch nights followed in May - this time with four singers joining in at the piano - before Johnson was invited by BAC artistic director Tom Morris to workshop the show further as part of the south London theatre's annual Opera Festival in August. By now, Thomas' comedy contemporary Stewart Lee had come on board, initially to contribute story ideas but by default, to direct said workshop.
Lee picks up the story: "Richard asked me originally if I'd help make a story for him. He had a first act which was like an episode of the show, and had some ideas for a second half as a kind of purgatory environment in which people who had been on the show were coming back and telling Jerry about things that happened to them in their life afterwards. We tried to extrapolate that out into a story with a plot. I only ended up directing it because we did it on no money at Battersea, and it was cheaper to use me."
Dignity in Humour
Thomas traces his journey through Jerry Springer - The Opera back to seeing Richard Eyre's revival of Guys and Dolls at the National in the early 1980s. "I've spent the last 17 years trying to recreate that," he says.
Lee, on the other hand, had never seen a musical, let alone an opera, before he came on board: "I'm not sure if that's an advantage or a disadvantage. This is just like doing any piece of theatre or comedy; you're trying to tell the story and not spoil it. Since I started working on this, I've done a crash course and seen about 15 musicals and operas. But it's not really like either. And apart from Deborah Warner's staging of The Passion of St John at ENO by Bach, there wasn't anything I saw that really helped me with this. She wasn't afraid to just let the music do the work. There wasn't any stuff going on to gloss it or emphasise it, and it had a real dignity. That's important to bear in mind for this. If I can give it that kind of dignity, it's funnier - the core of what Richard's doing here is that here's a serious genre but here's a stupid thing."
It was at the August Opera Festival version - then with a cast of 16 - that Nicholas Hytner first saw and began tracking the development of Jerry Springer - The Opera. He calls the piece "groundbreaking" and says: "It's exactly the kind of work the National should be doing: bold, scabrous, funny and beautiful."
Hytner wasn't the only one to see the show at that point. Following the August workshops, five offers came from UK commercial theatre producers, three from international opera houses and six from Broadway producers. But the writers declined transfer offers in favour of continuing the development at BAC, with a further workshop in February 2002.
The show was taking form. Lee recalls: "It was quite good doing it at Battersea originally. I'd made a lot of cheap telly on tiny budgets, so I was used to pasting over the cracks". Both Lee and Thomas also aver that their own performance background has stood them in good stead for the process of trying it out, as they went along, in public. "Comedy is the best apprenticeship for anything," says Thomas. "You get a sense of pace and timing. And because we're both from a comedy background, we're used to trying things out in front of audiences. Rather than wasting two years and then doing a workshop, we were in front of an audience from the beginning."
All of this experience fed into the process of refining the show, distilling and compressing it. "It's like I've written three hours of music for a two-hour show," says Thomas. "There's no intro, we've cut the ends, so it's straight in, it's all about pace and drama". The operatic form also means, says Lee, "that there are two languages at the same time here: the music and the words. I have to think as a director whether to stage it for the words or the music, and it's usually for the music. That seems to be where the truth of it is told; what they say is probably a lie, but what the music says is probably true."
Freedom of speech
An expanded concert staging at last summer's Edinburgh Festival was finally seen by the real-life Jerry Springer and happily endorsed by him, which was a relief for all concerned. "There was a point when we were not sure if we'd be sued about it," says Lee, though Thomas adds: "I had a hunch that Jerry would come out on the side of freedom of speech, so I thought he'd be cool about it and he was." It's not, Lee insists, "a piss take on him", but there were worries that the studio that produces Springer's shows would object. "In America, they have a law called passing off, which we don't have here," says Lee. "But no one is going to come here and think that Jerry Springer himself is in it!" Though, replies Thomas, "If they did that, our Jerry Springer looks so like him that we may get away with it!"
But will the National get away with doing a show like this? "I heard Nick Hytner asked on the radio if he was trying to get new audiences into the National with this show," Lee says. "He replied that he hadn't given that any thought, but had seen it and thought it was a good piece that the National could help develop in a useful way. When I've done telly stuff, where you come unstuck - irrespective of the quality or lack of it of the work - is that you get commissioned or decommissioned depending on an imagined view of who will watch it and who they are. But that would make no sense for this. People are going to come to this who don't know who Jerry Springer is, and others who don't know what opera is".
Thomas agrees that the show will defy categorisation. "The opera crowd regard it as a musical, and the musical crowd think its an opera," he muses, "but I'm very happy to be in a grey area, a no man's land!"
Jerry Springer - The Opera starts performances at the NT Lyttelton on 9 April 2003.