In a bright rehearsal room somewhere in the backstage labyrinth of London's Royal National Theatre, more than 30 men and women soaring sopranos, firm baritones are singing what sounds like a solemn Mass Bach, perhaps. Except the words don't fit.
They abruptly launch into an eyebrow-raising staccato fugue melodically intertwining the phrases "Chick with a dick," "My Mom used to be my Dad, snip, snip," and "I used to be a lap-dancing pre-operative transsexual" and it becomes evident that possibly this is not Bach. Instead, it is British theater's most talked-about new project: Jerry Springer The Opera, which opens on April 29. Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cameron Mackintosh and the Royal Opera House were all reportedly vying to produce it, but it was National Theatre boss Nicholas Hytner who won out, staging the show during the first season of his directorship.
It may seem perverse to take a trashy American TV talk show, on which guests with bizarre emotional problems routinely yell at and brawl with each other, and turn it into opera. Opera is still widely perceived as élitist, rarely relevant but always rarefied. The Jerry Springer Show delights in being consumer culture's dregs. But forcing a collision between high art and low is a dependable way to make sparks fly and besides, the two have more in common than one might think.
"The format of The Jerry Springer Show is very operatic," argues floppy-haired composer Richard Thomas, 38. "You have lots of people screaming at each other and you can't understand what they're saying. You have an audience who react like a chorus." Lyricist and director Stuart Lee agrees: "Opera also gets accused of phoniness because characters just step forward and sing their aria. But in Springer the host asks the guests to state their problem, which immediately sets up the song." The earnest pair are deeply convinced that the idea their first major piece works. "Everything that's a perceived weakness of opera is a strength of the TV show," adds Thomas. "People get put off by the extreme plots of grand opera. But the extreme stories are precisely what draws people to the talk show."
Although Thomas is an avid Springer fan, Lee never was. Yet that detachment enabled him to find an extra dimension: "Writing the people who appear on Springer into an opera dignifies them. And I realized that they are not figures of fun. Before working on this I found the TV show ridiculous and annoying. Now I find it very upsetting because of what Richard has done with his music. When a guest sings 'F___ you, I hope you die of cancer,' the music shows what the character is feeling: 'I'm lonely, please don't leave.'"
At a final rehearsal, Lee tensely kicks his shoes off and watches as music director Martin Koch anxiously conducts with a pencil. The music switches fluidly from baroque and Wagneresque bombast to blues, soul and, of course, modern opera. Characters trade obscenities. Michael Brandon's unerringly realistic Springer paces, arms folded, awaiting his cues. He speaks, they sing. It could all easily descend into chaos, but it works.
As a diaper fetishist rhapsodically sings "This is my Jerry Springer moment," and the chorus dance around him with garlands, the opera displays a touching charm. It's not just the unprintably foul language that is unique. The music is fresh and vibrant; the characters are at once pitiable and funny, and wholly original except for the uproarious tap-dancing Ku Klux Klan, a tribute to the prancing Nazis in Mel Brooks' The Producers. And that's just the first half. In Act Two Jerry goes to hell to counsel the ultimate dysfunctional family Satan, Jesus and God and is forced to confront his own role in people's lives. "We end with a message of peace and unity as glib, banal and yet utterly sincere as the TV show itself," says Lee. Legal problems with the producers of the real Jerry Springer Show look unlikely, since the man himself came to see a workshop production in Edinburgh last summer. "I only wish," he told the anxious writers, "I'd thought of it first."
At the first preview, more than half of the audience looked under 35. They loved it. "I rarely go to the theater," enthused 22-year-old student Rob, "but I'm a big Springer fan. This is amazing, so funny. I'll definitely go to more opera if it's like this." Alas, not much is. But with West End and Broadway producers hungrily eyeing the show for a transfer, Thomas and Lee could have a huge hit on their hands. This is their Jerry Springer moment.