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Profane and profound, Jerry Springer: The Opera arrives off-Broadway

"Profoundly moving" is just one way to describe the hilarious, controversial and unapologetic Jerry Springer: The Opera.
Jerry Springer: The Opera stars Terrence Mann at off-Broadway's Pershing Square Signature Theater. Credit: Monique Carboni
Jerry Springer: The Opera stars Terrence Mann at off-Broadway's Pershing Square Signature Theater. Credit: Monique Carboni

If you had to pick two forms of entertainment at opposite ends of the artistic spectrum, you couldn’t get much further than The Jerry Springer Show and operas.

But think of it another way, and they have more in common than it seems.

“There were eight people screaming, you couldn’t understand what they were saying and I thought, ‘This is opera,’” recalls British composer Richard Thomas of the original inspiration behind his musical Jerry Springer: The Opera.

After debuting in London in 2003, the irreverent and sentimenal production won the highest acclaim in English theater — four Olivier Awards, including Best New Musical — but also brought upon Thomas the wrath of the Christian community, which tried to file a lawsuit and protested many of the venues during a national tour.

Intrigued? Here’s what you need to know about the show, which is finally having a proper off-Broadway run through March 11.

It’s not your typical opera

Though it’s an opera, it’s not what you’d hear at Lincoln Center. Between the occasional aria, there’s tap dancing, an ode to wanting to be a stripper and a new peppy little ditty by Springer (Terrence Mann) called I Just Want to Make You Happy.

“I’m gonna really take it seriously — it’s not going to be a judgmental piece,” Thomas recalls about how he approached the show. “And it’s going to be really fucking funny.”

Speaking of profanity, “It annoyed be that the cuss words were beeped out,” says Thomas, so he’s made up for it with lyrics that include, just as a sampler, a chorus that ends with “what the fucking fucking fuck.”

About that controversy

Spoiler alert: At the end of Act 1, Springer is accidentally shot by a man in a diaper (he was aiming for somebody else), and when he wakes up he’s in Purgatory, where the Devil himself has his biggest reconciliation challenge yet: resolving some of the biggest millennia-old disputes between Biblical figures including Jesus and Mary, as well as Lucifer’s beef with God himself.

Though the real Jerry Springer’s talk show is, incredibly, still going (since 1991), we’re not sure even he could untangle disputes that date back to the dawn of time.

It’s meant to feel like an episode of the show

“We wanted a tight, private, closed environment,” says director John Rando. “It’s basically a kind of wonderful, wacky replica of the television show set, but it’s also kind of like a Greek amphitheater with steps that lead to the stage.”

They settled on the 200-seat Pershing Square Signature Theater, where the farthest seat is four rows back from the action, which sometimes packs the entire company of 17 actors onstage.

“The audience is as much part of the show as it gets," says choreographer Chris Bailey. "It’s very visceral.”

Prepare to shed some tears

The people who come on a show like Jerry Springer are ready to either tell their truth or confront the lies of the people in their life.

Combine that with the whole point of a musical, which is singing about emotions that are too big for ordinary words, and you’ve got a recipe for a “profoundly moving” production, in Rando's words.

And while at the end of Springer’s shows, families and friends forsaked each other as often as they came together, Jerry Springer: The Opera has a decisive message.

“The last sentiment of the show, Jerry’s final thought, is take care of yourself and each other,” Rando says. “After you’ve seen this provocative, sacreligious, at times vulgar, hilarious, brilliant, amazing musical, that’s something you can walk out of the theater with and believe that that’s actually what our society really does need.”

Jerry Springer: The Opera runs through March 11 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St. Tickets are $85-$125; more information at thenewgroup.org.