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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows, and various online archives preserve still more vintage productions. Even as things return to normal we continue to review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

Jerry Springer - The Opera
BBC and YouTube 2005   Autumn 2023

A high opera about the lowest form of television, not only filled with but built on copious doses of obscenity and blasphemy, and premiered at the august National Theatre, Jerry Springer – The Opera set out to shock, offend and delight, and wound up winning awards as Best Musical of 2003.

And this fully professional recording, made by the BBC and broadcast in 2005 to a record number of viewer complaints, is now available online to offend or delight you, or just let you discover what all the fuss was about.

Jerry Springer (who died in April 2023) was for 27 years the host of an American TV chat show that found success by deliberately aiming for the lowest level.

Members of the public would come on to tell secrets or confront rivals, always of the most bizarre and tasteless sort.

If a woman had something to tell her lover, it was either that she was sleeping with his best friend (or father) or that she was actually a man, and the braying studio audience was not satisfied until a fight broke out and the onstage security staff was unable to break it up until someone's clothes were torn off.

Composer Richard Thomas and comedian Stewart Lee began workshopping a musical satire of the Springer show in 2001. Workshops at the Battersea Arts Centre and the Edinburgh Fringe led to further development at the National Theatre and a full production there in 2003, which then transferred for a West End run and national tour.

The first act is a parody – not really all that exaggerated – of a typical Springer episode. A man tells his fiancée he's been cheating, another admits to dressing in diapers for erotic satisfaction, and a woman confesses her secret ambition to be a pole dancer.

All this is presented in song, and a central joke of the show is operatic voices applied to obscene language – one song is made up almost entirely of the many-times repeated reaction to a revelation, “What the fuck?”

And yet there is also a softer and even moving side to the musical. When the onstage studio audience sing “We eat, excrete and watch TV” and cry “Bring on the losers” we glimpse the emptiness of lives that need to find someone – anyone – they can briefly feel superior to.

When the overweight woman sings, to one of the show's sweetest melodies, of being a pole dancer, we sense a small life whose smallest dreams will go unfulfilled.

And when everyone gets a chance to reprise the anthem “This is my Jerry Springer moment” we hear the yearning hope that just maybe the universe will notice they exist.

That first act was the original workshopped version, and in expanding it Thomas and Lee chose not to continue with more of the same, but to take a different tack in Act Two, moving from irreverently comic obscenity to irreverent comic blasphemy.

Dragged down to Hell, Springer is forced to conduct a version of his show in which a bitter Satan confronts an idiotically blissed-out Jesus and a bored God, with passions and language more akin to Act One than the bible (and with the added gag of being played by the same performers as Act One's losers).

This part of the show actually offended religious groups more than the obscenity-fueled first act. But it doesn't seem to have inspired Thomas and Lee with as much comic invention, and the energy level of the opera drops significantly.

I would never suggest anyone leave a performance in mid-show, but in the privacy of your own home you might be excused for losing interest partway through.

The BBC recording (which, to their credit they did broadcast after wavering a bit) represents the West End production, with a number of cast changes (notably David Soul in the non-singing role of Springer) from the National Theatre version.

Let's be clear on this. Jerry Springer – The Opera is not merely recommended only for those unlikely to be offended by bad taste, foul language, blasphemy and bizarre behaviour.

It is designed specifically for those who can take delight in the free and shameless celebration of bad taste, foul language, blasphemy and bizarre behaviour.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Jerry Springer - The Opera (BBC 2005) 2023