Thrilling musical theater can come from the most unlikely places. As I'm forever reminding my students, there's no such thing as a bad idea for a musical, only poor execution. If you amass the right collection of forces, talents, viewpoints, and luck, even the most improbable story sources can sing.
Even if the subjects themselves can't sing, which is part of the quirky charm of The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World, a new musical currently playing at Playwrights Horizons. The show tells the ultimately haunting story about what may be the worst singing group of all time. Or one of the most influential, depending on your point of view.
Some background. In 1968, Austin Wiggin took his three daughters out of school so they could focus full-time on forming a band, which he dubbed The Shaggs after the popular hairstyle of the time. (See the album cover below.) Trouble was, the girls couldn't sing, read music, or play instruments. What followed was a woefully misguided, and abortive, 7-year effort to launch the girls into the national spotlight. The group produced one studio album, Philosophy of the World, which has since become a collector's item. Upon the album's re-release in 1980, The Shaggs became a cult favorite, garnering praise from the likes of Frank Zappa and Kurt Cobain.
You really need to hear their music to get a sense of how monumentally bad The Shaggs were. Here are a few cuts from their album, including the title song:
Yeah, the drums don't match the beat of the guitars. The songs exhibit only a vague acquaintance with meter and rhyme. And the vocal tone is just plain creepy. But there's something oddly compelling about their music, and somewhat sweet about the naiveté of the lyrics.
One of the marvelous things about The Shaggs as a musical is that the creators have made what appears to be a deliberate choice not to make fun of their subjects. It would have been very easy, and wrong-headed, to create a knowing, snide, winking camp-fest about these easy targets.
But librettist Joy Gregory, composer/lyricist Gunnar Madsen, and director John Langs have something far more ambitious, and ultimately satisfying, in mind in teasing out the real people and fascinating family dynamic that made The Shaggs possible. What emerges is a touching portrait of obsession, desperation, and unfulfilled dreams. Like Grey Gardens, but without the mansion. Like Gypsy, but without the sense of redemption.
The show starts with an uneasy opening number that makes sense in retrospect but which was a bit inscrutable at the time. Then the show sets into drawing its compelling portrait of these strange but true, edgy but real people and their lives in 1960s New Hampshire, complete with broad New England accents, which at first seemed exaggerated, but only served to heighten the sense of quirkiness to these people. The resulting show is touching, funny, and thoroughly disarming. Gregory's dialog treads a very successful line of maintaining the show's heightened sense of reality while still giving the characters' words the ring of truth. The show builds to an intense climax, deftly evoking the numb catharsis of the characters as their collective ordeal comes to an end.
The pitch-perfect casting features the wonderful Peter Friedman as Austin Wiggin, and Jamey Hood (Dot), Sarah Sokolovic (Betty), and Emily Walton (Helen) as his "musician" daughters. Part of what makes this show so haunting is the depth of the characterizations, and the unified sense of portraying these fringe people with honesty and respect. Particularly compelling were newcomer Cory Michael Smith as Kyle, the decidedly non-traditional love interest, and the always fascinating Annie Golden, as the seemingly passive mother who tries to keep the family together amid the upheaval.
It's funny, but the score didn't really stick with me, although it certainly served its purpose in the context of the show. The most remarkable thing about the songs was that the characters sang with their internal voices rather than as they do on the Shaggs recording. A musical with a score totally in the style of The Shaggs would have been a fringe prospect at best.
The best illustration of this, and one of the best sequences in the entire show, came during the climactic recording session, in which the action alternates between how the girls (and their father) think the group sounds in their heads, and the actual sound that they're producing, heard through the ears of the horrified sound technicians in the control room. But the score did have its share of sonic pleasures, including an intense solo for Dot Wiggin defending her father (and protesting too much), as well as a hypnotic a capella trio for the girls later in the show.
One major complaint I had with the performance that I attended was the excessive amount of backstage noise during, and long after, the set changes. Perhaps this was a function of the fact that I saw a relatively early preview, and the crew members were having adjustment issues. But it occurred regularly throughout the performance, and was insulting to the fine performers on stage. I can only hope that the backstage crew has since gotten its act together.
But, that quibble aside, for me The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World is the sleeper hit of the season, and a must-see for anyone who wants to witness how off-beat subject matter often makes the most compelling musical theater. The show runs through July 3rd.