The strange fate of Jerry Springer—The Opera is one of the mysteries of the recent theater past. The show, an operatic send-up of the tawdry daytime reality show, was a smash hit when it opened in London in 2003, a sellout at the National Theatre and winner of the Olivier Award for best musical of the season. I saw the show there, thought it was pretty terrific, and — at a time when virtually every big London musical was making its way to the U.S. — assumed it would soon be the Next Big Brit Thing on Broadway.
And yet, strangely, the show disappeared. What happened? To be sure, its satire of TV sleaze-mongering — cross-dressing husbands, pole-dancing wives, a guy with a diaper fetish — is as foul-mouthed and scatalogical as any musical in history. (Sample lyric: “What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fucking fucking fuck?”). But hasn’t The Book of Mormon, a huge Broadway hit a few years later, proven that puritans no longer have much clout on the Great White Way?
Now, nearly 15 years later, a New York production of Jerry Springer has finally arrived off-Broadway. I still think the show is a whole lot of fun — but not quite as pungent, or as relevant, as it once was. The reality TV world is much different today. The game now is not to coax trailer-park losers into acting like freaks on national TV, but to put good-looking celebrity-wannabes (or celebrity-used-to-be’s) into “ordinary” situations — sharing living quarters, or picking a girlfriend, or executing a business plan to please a self-absorbed billionaire — and hyping it into high melodrama. Jerry Springer’s show (I was surprised to discover) is actually still on the air. But satirizing it now, in Trump’s America, seems an exercise in nostalgia.
That said, John Rando’s production for the New Group is sharp, and Richard Thomas’s faux-operatic score (with its catchy “This Is My Jerry Springer Moment” refrain) is beautifully sung by a cast displaying more body fat than you’ll normally see in an entire theater season. Broadway vet Terrence Mann is spot-on as Springer, and a new song has been added for him (in the original, Springer’s was the only non-singing part). Other changes have been made since London, and though I can’t pinpoint them exactly, the first act, with its mounting parade of outrageous guests airing their dirty laundry, now seems overly hysterical, while the second act (the weaker half, in which Jerry goes to hell and bargains with the devil) is a bit improved. But I’m afraid Jerry Springer’s moment may have passed.