The Jerry Springer Show is still running on television. I know; that surprised me, too. And yet, 27 years after it began, the syndicated carnival of infidelity, fetishes, and polymorphous sexuality continues to shock and titillate studio audiences. I guess it makes cultural sense, given the omnipresence of reality-TV celebrities and the constant waves of oversharing, public shaming, and doxing that flow out of social media. Still, a TV talk show dedicated to American narcissism and vulgarity seems so passé, so ’90s…right? The same thought may occur to you at Jerry Springer—The Opera, the 2003 British satire now getting an off-Broadway debut. A musical version of Springer’s show that includes the host being shot, then saving his soul from eternal damnation by brokering peace between Satan and Jesus, the piece cracks jokes about a “chick with a dick” that wouldn’t fly in these trans-enlightened times.
Yes, some of the sex jokes are a tad heteronormative, a bit 10 years ago. But you know what? Donald J. Trump is president of the United States. A prostitute-hiring, KKK-excusing, fast food–gobbling, semi-illiterate, alleged sexual predator, and reality-TV star is head of the world’s most powerful nation. “This is my Jerry Springer moment,” characters croon before strutting before the cameras. It’s a line we can collectively say about our country.
It’s almost unfortunate, then, that Jerry Springer—The Opera is pretty goddamn funny. With its singing and dancing Ku Klux Klansmen, its Act II descent into hell, and the cheekily gay piss-take on Christ, the piece owes a massive debt to Mel Brooks’s The Producers and South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, as well as Monty Python and a dozen other bad-taste trailblazers.
The book, cowritten by Richard Thomas and comedian Stewart Lee, efficiently skewers philandering blue-collar trailer trash, soul-sucking TV ads for plastic surgery or Prozac, and the moral pabulum peddled by Springer (Terrence Mann), who signs off each show, “Take care of yourselves and each other.” Will Swenson gives a performance by turns swaggering and manic as an annoying warm-up comedian and later Satan. The lovely soprano Jill Paice turns up as Baby Jane, a woman who does sexual role-play in toddler’s clothing. And the young, hugely talented Tiffany Mann stops the show as Shawntel, an unfulfilled wife who longs to be a stripper. Her performance, in particular, leads us to contemplate the things on which Jerry Springer has built a fortune: human frailty and our insatiable desire to see it exhibited in public.
Thomas’s score—a gleeful mélange of Handel, Broadway, and Hair—is genuinely tuneful and sung by a terrific cast. What’s shocking for anyone who attends bona fide opera is how well this material, however silly and gross, suits the operatic form. As the real Springer has noted in interviews, the show has everything real opera has: revenge, sexual misidentification, violent jealousy, forgiveness, and melodrama.
Why You Should Go: Raucous, crass, and nasty, this orgy of bad behavior is cathartic for these dire political times.
Jerry Springer—The Opera
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street (between Dyer and Tenth Avenues), Hell’s Kitchen
Through April 1