Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World

When I first heard about The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World*, a joint production of Playwrights Horizons and New York Theatre Workshop, I was intrigued. How would the creative team--Joy Gregory (book and lyrics), Gunnar Madsen (music and lyrics), and John Langs (director)--handle such an unusual band? The Shaggs were a sister act from Fremont, New Hampshire in the late 60s who achieved a cult following when their music was rediscovered in the '80s. Would Langs cast actors who couldn't sing? Would Madsen's original music be as dissonant as the music of The Shaggs? No and no. Most of the musical numbers in the shows are imagined, allowing the cast to showcase their talents while not betraying the material.

Austin Wiggin (Peter Friedman) formed the Shaggs as a result of his mother's prediction that his daughters--Dot (Jamey Hood), Betty (Sarah Sokolovic), and Helen (Emily Walton)--would form a successful band. He took them out of school, bought them instruments, and forced them to practice and write songs. My theater companion accurately described him as the "male Mama Rose." The band released only one album on Third World Records, but the man running the label disappeared, taking 900 of the 1,000 copies with him.

One of the best scenes in the show is when the girls record their album. You see and hear the girls playing cheerful poppy versions of the songs (also arranged by Madsen) and then what the music actually sounds like as the engineers listen in the booth. Madsen's original music has a haunting quality that blends well with the quirky music of The Shaggs. The musical does not present the Shaggs as a joke, but rather serves to highlight some of the beauty in their seemingly artless music. Take these simple and innocent lyrics: "There are many things I wonder. There are many things I don't. It seems as though the things I wonder most are the things I never find out."

There are some moving and powerful performances happening onstage and among those who make the strongest impression are Walton, who balances Helen's tormented soul and youthful spirit, Friedman, as a man the audience both fears and sympathizes with, and Cory Michael Smith as Helen's boyfriend, a positive force among the darker characters.

The off-Broadway season is only just beginning, but other musicals have their work cut out for them as The Shaggs has set the bar high and is truly an original musical.

Special SHAGGS offer:
Order by June 1 with code SHAGGLOG and tickets are only:
· $60 (reg. $75)
· Order online at Use code SHAGGLOG.
· Call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 (Noon-8pm daily)
· Present a printout of this blog post to the Ticket Central box office at 416 West 42nd Street (Noon-8pm daily).

*Note: I know that the show has not officially opened yet, but I was invited to see a preview and asked to post my thoughts about it.

Photo credit: Joan Marcus

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