Jerry Springer – The Opera is a musical written by Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas, based on the television show The Jerry Springer Show. The show is notable for its profanity, its unusual depiction of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and surreal images such as a troupe of tap-dancing Ku Klux Klan members.
The musical was the subject of controversy in January 2005, when its UK television broadcast on BBC Two was the subject of 55,000 complaints prior to screening, and 8,000 more after it had been broadcast.
The organisation Christian Voice led street protests against the screening at nine BBC offices and announced their intention to bring blasphemy charges. The Christian Institute did attempt to level charges against the BBC, these were rejected by the High Court.
Act I - Earth
An anonymous mob assembles and reveals its hopes, dreams and secrets, and its love of the American TV talk show host, Jerry Springer. After a brief squabble the crowd dissipates into a TV studio where Jerry Springer's Warm-Up Man, Jonathan Wierus, works them into a frenzy of expectation, culminating in the arrival of Jerry himself. Monitors descend and explain that the Jerry Springer Show may not be suitable for children. Jerry introduces his first guest, Dwight. Dwight is cheating on Peaches, who reveals she once enjoyed a moment of tenderness during a sexual encounter in a toilet. Zandra, whom Dwight is also sleeping with, has drug problems and a nostalgic view of the past. The three argue and fight, and Steve, the senior of Jerry's three security men, breaks them up. A Valkyrie appears in Jerry's sub-conscious mind and admonishes him. Dwight is cheating on both Peaches and Zandra with a transsexual, Tremont, who arrives to tell his story, egged on by the Warm-Up Man. Finally, Peaches wishes death and destruction on all three. A commercial break follows. The over-zealous Warm-Up Man causes Jerry to fumble the introduction of the next guest, Montel, who is here to tell his partner, Andrea that he enjoys dressing as a baby and fouling in his own underwear. Jerry's inner-Valkyrie tries to stop his confession but it goes ahead anyway. Unburdened, Montel tells Andrea he is also seeing Baby Jane, a woman who likes to dress as a little girl. Baby Jane has a Jerry Springer moment of her own. The Warm Up Man returns to contribute to the general humiliation of Andrea who is eventually left alone to lament her situation. A second commercial break follows.
Backstage, the Warm Up Man explains his relationship with Jerry and is then fired for his unprofessional behaviour and expelled from the building by Steve, though not before Jerry has once again wrestled with his Valkyrie.
Jerry introduces his final guests, Shawntel who wants to be a pole dancer, and her disapproving redneck husband, Chucky. Shawntel is persuaded to dance and then her mother, Irene arrives. She alludes to a miserable incident in her past and then attacks her daughter. Chucky says he is the innocent one in the story, but Jerry calls on secret JerryCam camera footage which reveals him to be a patron of strip clubs and a member of race hate organisation, The Ku Klux Klan.
Amidst general brawling, Jerry welcomes the Klan to the stage. During the ensuing struggle, Montel is given a gun by the Warm Up Man which he aims at the Klan. The Warm Up Man jostles him and he accidentally shoots Jerry, who collapses into the arms of his faithful servant, Steve.
Act II - Purgatory
Jerry awakes, wounded and in a wheelchair. He is in a fog enshrouded wilderness, surrounded by nurses and accompanied by Steve. He is made to inspect a bed-pan and then introduced to shadowy incarnations of his former guests, all of whom have suffered unpleasant fates. Baby Jane returns too, with a household tool stuck in her skull. Jerry attemptes to justify himself to the dead guests. Baby Jane warns him of impending doom. The Warm Up Man and two of the security team make a grand entrance and reveal themselves as Satan and his servants. Satan extols the virtues of falling from grace. Baby Jane pleads unsuccessfully for Jerry's soul. Satan tells Jerry he wants him to go to Hell to do a special show for him. He shows Jerry the severed head of his manager, and explains that if he refuses to help him, he will be sexually assaulted with serrated fencing material. Jerry acquiesces and he and Steve descend to hell.
Baby Jane announces the arrival of Jerry and Steve in Hell, which is a smouldering and charred recreation of their own TV studio, with burned-out chairs and an audience imprisoned in cracks in its walls. Monitors descend and explain that the Jerry Springer Show In Hell may not be suitable for those without a strong grasp of Judeo-Christian mythology. Baby Jane gives Jerry cue cards which introduce Satan, who is clearly running the show as something of a kangaroo court. He wants an apology for his expulsion from Heaven and forces Jerry to work only within the boundaries of the cue cards he has been given. Jerry is made to introduce the next guest, Jesus, who bears striking similarities to the diaper fetishist Montel. Jesus and Satan indulge in a battle of wits. Satan's next witnesses are Adam and Eve, who resemble Chucky and Shawntel. They take Jesus to task, with Eve eventually physically attacking him. Jesus' mother, Mary, who reminds us of Irene, is called and she leads a general condemnation of Jesus. The frustrated audience and guests eventually turn on Jerry himself, who says he will not be able to solve their dispute without a miracle.
God, Angel Gabriel, Archangel Michael and a host of lesser angels arrive. God asks Jerry for help judging mankind. Jerry accepts his offer to reign alongside him in Heaven and the two opposing sides fight over Jerry, the devils eventually restraining him in a gibbet, swinging high over a pit of flame.
Jerry pleads for his life with a series of glib homilities, but eventually abandons hope and in doing so makes an honest statement which resounds with his audience. Heaven and Hell put aside their differences and join in a hymn of praise to all life.
Everyone disperses and Jerry is lowered into the ground where he meets Steve and Baby Jane, who tells him he must, against his will, now return to Earth. There, Jerry awakes in his studio, dying in Steve's arms. He makes a final speech and his audience and guests are joined in sorrow.
A sumptuous closing number of 33 dancing Springers then makes the show's opaque doctrine of moral relativism more acceptable to Theatre Audiences.
Battersea Arts Centre
Richard Thomas's first opera, Tourette's Diva, was performed at London's Battersea Arts Centre in May 2000, and featured two members of a dysfunctional family singing obscenities to each other. This was an inspiration for his one-man show How To Write An Opera About Jerry Springer, which was performed at the Battersea Arts Centre in February 2001.
In May 2001, Thomas returned to the Battersea Arts Centre with his show How To Write An Opera About Jerry Springer, accompanied by four singers in a tiny studio theatre. It was a little hit and attracted press and investment. Stewart Lee teamed up with Thomas, adding additional dialogue and the two began to write Jerry Springer – The Opera.
The show received its first performance, while still under development, at the Battersea Arts Centre in August 2001, with a cast of twelve. It ran for a week, and sold out. When the show returned to the centre in February 2002, it was nearer completion, and the three-week run sold out in advance.
The show was performed in concert at the Edinburgh Festival in August 2002. It was a critical success, selling to packed houses in the 750-seat Assembly Rooms. Jerry Springer himself came to see the show and endorsed it, stating, "I wish I'd thought of it myself."
The Edinburgh run included the introduction of character of Tremont - previously two different characters. Australian born Actor Andrew Bevis was brought in to create the new role. He continued the role again at the Royal National Theatre and the first year of the West End transfer, establishing the character as a favourite.
Following the show's success, Nicholas Hytner requested to include the show in his opening season as director of the National Theatre in London.
The first fully-staged production of the opera was performed at the National Theatre on April 29, 2003, with a cast of 33, including Michael Brandon as Jerry. It was a major success, playing to packed audiences, and receiving extremely favourable reviews. All the tickets for the first run of performances were sold a week before the first performance.
The show had its final performance at the National Theatre on September 30 2003, before moving to the West End.
On November 10, 2003, the show opened at the Cambridge Theatre with the same cast as the National Theatre production, and ran there until February 19, 2005, before starting a tour of the United Kingdom.
The West End run was sponsored by British Sky Broadcasting, slashing ticket prices with a London-wide poster campaign. The option of first television broadcast was not exercised as part of this sponsorship deal.
On July 12, 2004, David Soul took over the role of Jerry from Michael Brandon.
In May 2004, the show's producers announced that it would be moving to Broadway, New York City, in October 2005, following a short run in San Francisco in the Spring. The move was cancelled, allegedly following the failure to attract the necessary backing.
Prior to the cancellation, Harvey Keitel and Kevin Kline were approached to play the lead role, and David Bedella (Warm-up Man/Satan) was under contract to resume his role on Broadway.
There are still rumours that the show will be playing Broadway after the 2006 UK Tour.
UK Tour 2006
In September 2005, seven months after the show closed in London's West End, it was announced that the show will be going on a tour of 21 regional theatres around the United Kingdom. Nine theatres originally scheduled to host the show pulled out after Christian Voice threatened to picket them. It was claimed that a further setback to the tour was the decision of Arts Council England to turn down a bid for funding; the Arts Council released a statement that the decision was based on the show's commercial pedigree rather than "pressure from extremist groups".
The tour will run for 22 weeks, starting at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth on January 27. Immediately prior to the show's opening in Plymouth, it was reported that members of the far-right British National Party were part in a local campaign against the performances, although the pressure group Christian Voice claimed to disapprove of their involvement.
According to Ticketmaster UK, ticket sales have been very good for theatres countrywide so far.
The cast for the tour includes several cast members from the final London cast, including Carrie Ellis, Benjamin Lake and Annabelle Williams and also some returning from the original London cast, including Valda Aviks and Wills Morgan. American actor Rolf Saxon replaced David Soul as Jerry Springer. The tour has a scaled down set and scaled down effects as well as a smaller on-stage "audience", but has lost none of its quality, and is able to stand alone as a separate version instead of a scaled down copy.
In the tour, the character Tremont has been reworked, and is now less feisty and more holier-than-thou, with a completely new outfit, new personality, and has moved towards a Drag Queen look as opposed to a more traditional Transvestite look, such as stronger theatrical make up, a big wig, glitter, and sparkly rings.
In the tour, the song "It Aint Easy Being Me" has been extended to include another 2 verses.
On the preview night at the Theatre Royal Plymouth a group of about 40 Christian Voice supporters turned out to sing hymns and hand out leaflets to the audience as they entered the theatre.
In York, leaflets were handed out by small numbers of Salvation Army and Christian Voice protesters.
The Manchester leg of the tour had only 10 protestors on the opening night, but these were out-numbered by an anti-protest of people holding up signs for freedom of speech and such. Subsequent nights saw either one female protestor or no protestors.
Protests at the Oxford venue were also at a minimum, on most nights only consisting of several elderly Christian protesters.
Cambridge protests were also minimal, with only a handful of protesters handing out leaflets on opening night. When asked if they had actually seen the show, one protestor answered 'No'; when asked what the leaflets were actually about he continued 'about the protests, and God, and...stuff'. But because of the timing of this leg of the tour (the week prior to Easter Sunday), protestors were particularly present on "Good Friday", the events of which are referenced in Act 2 of the show.
The Edinburgh protests were also very quiet, with only one man from Christian Voice handing out leaflets on a few of the nights.
Bristol had about 100 on opening night, lots of different aged Christians but quite noticeably many mothers with young children. Many came from the Carmel Evangelical Church in Brislington. In their leaflets, they said the Bristol Old Vic had edited a "classic production" to avoid offending Muslims. When questioned, none of the protestors knew which production the leaflet referred to and when it was alleged to have taken place. All protesters had left by the interval.
Newcastle-Upon-Tyne surprisingly saw over 300 protestors on opening night! However, only 2 of them had seen the show or even heard the soundtrack.
Brighton saw just two protestors on several of the performances. When leaving the theatre after the Saturday matinee, many of the audience were accosted by the Christian Voice protestors and, when asking why they opposed the show, one of the protestors replied "because it's evil" despite going on to say she hadn't seen the show, leading theatregoers to criticise her for believing rumours and not using her own judgement, much to the protestor's displeasure.
The opposition by Christian Voice caused the cancer charity Maggie's Centres to reject a £10,000 donation from Jerry Springer: The Opera. Christian Voice said it had warned the charity that accepting cash from a show full of "filth and blasphemy" would be a public relations disaster.
In response, David Soul, playing Jerry in London at the time, accused the religious group of "strong-arm tactics" and blackmail - adding that cancer is not just a Christian problem. Many other members of the cast at that time were also disgusted at Christian Voice's actions, Leon Craig (Montel at the time) adding "They've no right to pressure a charity to refuse a donation", and Alison Jiear (Shawntel at the time) said, "Just because THEY don't like the show doesn't mean they should let cancer sufferers continue to suffer without what could be a considerable help. They aren't Christian!"
The show won four awards at the 2004 Laurence Olivier Awards–Best New Musical, Best Sound Design, Best Actor In A Musical (David Bedella) and Best Performance in a Supporting Role in a Musical (the Chorus). It also won Best Musical at the 2003 Critics' Circle Awards, Best Musical at the 2003 Evening Standard Awards and the 2004 Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers' Choice Awards Best New Musical and London Newcomer of the Year (Benjamin Lake). The show won four awards at the 2004 Nowt2Do.Com awards, Best actor in a musical (David Bedella) Best Actress in a musical (Alison Jiear) Best London Show, and Most Entertaining Show.
Jerry Springer – The Opera was then the subject of controversy when the British Broadcasting Corporation televised the opera as part of an evening of Jerry Springer-themed programming on BBC TWO, on January 8, 2005.
News of the screening had prompted TV standards campaigners Mediawatch to write a letter to the BBC Chairman of the BBC Governors, Michael Grade, asking him to reconsider the decision to show the opera.
On January 7, 2005, the day before the broadcast, the BBC announced that it had received over 47,000 complaints about its plans to screen the opera – the most complaints ever received about a British television broadcast. Many commentators, including the BBC, attributed such a high volume of complaints to an orchestrated campaign by various Christian groups. Channel 4's screening of Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ in 1995 received 1,554 complaints. Supporters of the BBC's broadcasting of the show pointed out that the supposedly blasphemous content was clearly presented as a fantasy in the mind of the dying central character and was not intended to be a serious comment on Christ or Christian theology. John Beyer, chairman of Mediawatch-UK, argued that the BBC should shoulder much of the blame for the campaign against the opera since they had promoted the opera as "pushing back the boundaries of taste" and "controversial" when it had never been intended to offend the groups who campaigned against it.
In November 2005, a DVD of the show was made available in the UK. However, because of complaints by customers, Sainsbury's and Woolworths decided to stop selling the DVD. Many blogs and Liberal Democrat MP, Lynne Featherstone condemned the action from the stores as being corporate censorship, something which both retailers deny. Most other retailers continue to stock the DVD.
On the DVD's commentary, it was revealed that it would not be possible to tour the show in the UK due to pressure from religious groups, but since the release of the DVD, the UK Tour 2006 was given the green light.
Additionally, the DVD commentary revealed that Stewart Lee was unhappy with an unscripted action by Alison Jiear. In the "Adam and Eve and Mary" scene in Act II, Jiear runs her hand under Jesus's loincloth, prompting a surprised look from Leon Craig, the actor playing Jesus. Lee said, on the commentary, "I wish she hadn't done that". It is not clear why he said this but it is implied that he felt the action took away from the style of serious characterisation over funny actions and lines and because of the possibility of antagonising the Christian Voice protestors.
The opera is noted for its profanity. It has been accused of including "8000 obscenities"—it is not known where this count originated, but the 8000 figure is popularly quoted.
Several publications, including the Daily Mail and The Sun, noted "3168 mentions of the f-word and 297 of the c-word". As stated in the BBC's findings, "the reported figure was in fact a vast exaggeration. In reality, there were 96 uses of the f-word and nine uses of the c-word. While a substantial number, this was not necessarily unacceptable in terms of late night terrestrial television."
The numbers of 3168 and 297 are arrived at by multiplying the number of occurrences, 96 and 9 respectively, by the number of people in the choir, 33.
According to director Stewart Lee, there are 174 swear-words in all.