I probably should stop apologizing for my lack of time to properly blog. But in response to seeing The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World last night, I essentially wrote a fan letter to its creators (songwriter Gunnar Madsen, bookwriter and co-lyricist Joy Gregory, and director John Langs). Rather than reshape it for the blog, I'll just reprint it here.
Dear Joy, Gunnar, and John:Alas, the lukewarm reviews mean the show hasn't been extended past its announced July 3 closing, and there is unlikely to be a cast album (c'mon, Sh-K-Boom! I'd pay full price). Ultimately, the Shaggs musical may be as much of a cult piece as the Shaggs' original album has been, and though on one level that seems entirely fitting, it would be a shame if the show doesn't find a wider audience. But, to slightly rephrase Dot Wiggin's famous lyric, you can never please everybody in this world.
I was in L.A. for the TCG conference last week, so I didn't get to see The Shaggs until last night. I was semi-dreading it after the mixed reviews and my fear that I had hyped the show with my Times piece, and what if I'd steered people wrong?
I shouldn't have worried: It's the most exciting, moving, intelligent, and freakishly good new musical I've seen in a long time (and yeah, I liked that Mormon show a lot, too, but I don't consider that especially groundbreaking, and both Scottsboro and Bloody Bloody were drastically overrated, in my opinion). The first act I more or less recognized from L.A., but that second act—wow, it's a whole other show, and what a revelatory one it is. I love Annie's new song; the "empty birdcage" tune sounded brand new to my ears; Charlie D's rap hits the right note of outsider appreciation; and the car rant, with the keening sisters' vocals, is one of my favorite musical-theater moments in the theater in years.
It's been my experience that in a form as encrusted by routine as musical theater, it's really easy to spot when a show is going through the motions, falling back on old tricks, when it's essentially "vamping." What I loved about The Shaggs is that not a moment felt that way; all of it felt alive and pulsing with weird energy and subtext. As my musical-writing colleague put it, on both the "macro and micro level" (set, vocal direction, staging, pacing), everything has been shaped with such care and attention to the story's unique needs.
In short, I think you three pulled off the big trick of telling this odd, haunting but life- and even joy-filled story in a correspondingly odd, haunting, joyful way, and for that you have my extreme admiration and praise (and envy! The aforementioned musical-theater colleague and I are working on a musical about Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi, and facing similar issues of tone).
Congratulations! And thanks for following the Shaggs muse all the way.