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Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas

Published 17 April 2008

“I Married A Horse”, “Sex With My Sister”, “Honey, I’m A Call Girl”, “Surprise! I Have A Bisexual Lover”… When composer/lyricist Richard Thomas and lyricist/director Stewart Lee told Richard Embray why Jerry Springer is a suitable case for operatic treatment, there was strong language, right from the very start.

“There’s a song in it about a bloke who s***s his pants. He likes to s*** his pants, that’s his thing. And it had that quality where you think, why do I find this upsetting and moving and involving when it’s just about some poo in a bloke’s nappy?”

If you hadn’t already twigged that Jerry Springer The Opera wasn’t your standard high classical offering, then Stewart Lee’s description should give you some idea of what to expect. The National’s box office has had callers interested in seeing a new opera, but having no idea who Jerry Springer is. For those of us familiar with the low-rent, high-shock American talk show, what’s harder is imagining how the cast of shows like “I Married A Horse” or “I Refuse To Wear Clothes” would transfer to an operatic setting. But what surprised audiences who saw concert versions at the BAC and in Edinburgh was that it was much more than a one-joke idea.

Junior was very precocious for his age”People do have assumptions about it, but their assumptions are usually defeated,” agrees Lee. For a start, they do not expect Jerry Springer The Opera actually to be an opera and have opera singers in it who sing to opera house standard. And Richard’s music is that good. And also, they expect a laugh, but they don’t expect to be upset by it or to be emotionally or morally challenged.”

Lee reckons that a lot of people who’ve heard about the show without having seen it will say “oh what will he do next? Countdown The Opera?” “Quick! Get the rights!” shouts Thomas. “

“I think most people think it’s going to be a spoof or a parody,” says Thomas, “but clearly that’s the last thing we want to do because we want to ennoble the subject.” Lee’s intentions seem equally high-minded: “My main reference points for staging this are two things: one is Deborah Warner’s production of Passion of St John at the ENO which had this real grandeur and dignity to it. And the other thing is The Muppet Show.”

“Countdown The Opera?” “Quick! Get the rights!”

Stewart Lee is best known as half of Lee and Herring, who starred in TV shows Fist of Fun and This Morning With Richard Not Judy. More recently, he’s worked as a novelist (The Perfect Fool) and a director (Arctic Boosh on stage at the Lyric Hammersmith and Attention Scum on television for the BBC). Richard Thomas has been a composer and musical director for countless comedy shows (including many of Stewart Lee’s) but it was when he founded Kombat Opera that people began to sit up and take notice. Kombat Opera’s appearances (including the show Tourette’s Diva) consisted of classically trained opera singers appearing on stage and singing thoroughly filthy lines to beautifully composed music.

“To be fair I’ve toured with Richard doing comedy,” says Stewart Lee, “and he’s the most foul-mouthed person I’ve ever met. His casual level of swearing is just astonishing. So he’s been lucky to do Tourette’s Diva and now [Springer] which can accommodate it.” “But once the word damn or bloody used to be like pornography,” complains Thomas. “The great thing about swearing is that you can throw it in anywhere,” Lee admits. “Because all swear words are largely meaningless, they can be verbs, nouns, adjectives. It’s just a rhythm.” “Because language is music anyway, you’ve got to bring something to it.” “And you’ve brought swearing to it. That’s your main innovation.”

Michael Brandon as Jerry Springer”There’s an aria [in Jerry Springer] that goes ‘what the f***, what the f***, what the f***ing f***ing f***’ over a diminished scale. And when you hear that, you can just relax, because it’s just ridiculous. It’s just a silly, childish form of swearing.” “You’re kind of purged by it,” agrees Lee. “And also, it has a knock-on effect afterwards.” In Edinburgh, last summer, a group of men hurled abuse at Thomas and his boyfriend in the street. Lee’s response, after months of working on the opera was: “it doesn’t rhyme, it’s not over music – where’s the skill in that?”

Thomas’ music, in fact, needs a tremendous amount of skill to perform: “it’ll never become the Rocky Horror Show,” Lee points out, “where everyone comes along and joins in because with this they’d have to be classically trained.” Richard Thomas is more ambivalent. “I don’t know, I’d be very happy the day that this becomes a sing-a-long-a opera and you follow the bouncing ball.”

Thomas’s music employs a wide range of styles from blues, to big band and classical, a mix of influences that he attributes to working in a studio between an Italian rock band, a drum ‘n’ bass studio and “a German technohead” upstairs. “You have to be very wealthy to have silence in London, but all this cacophony introduced me to different sounds. And [in Springer] you flip between big band and chamber orchestra. It’s not pastiche, though. You write what is right for that moment. Say someone like Bach would have used all the tonality available. If the blues scale had been around, he’d have used it, clearly. Not that I’m saying I’m Bach.”

Lee leaps in delightedly: “Can you make the headline for this ‘I am the new Bach, says Man, 38’?”

‘I am the new Bach, says Man, 38’

Bach or not, the high emotional pitch and desperation of the Springer guests does connect them to the operatic tradition of Puccini and Verdi (although neither of those wrote an opera called “Bring On The Bisexuals”). “Opera’s about extremes because it can soak it up,” agrees Thomas. But Stewart Lee has a problem with conventional operas and musical theatre.

“The reason why Jerry Springer is a good idea for an opera is that you’ve got the guests who are the principles and are in a heightened emotional state, you’ve got the audience who are the chorus. But when you see an opera, you’ll see this person go into something where they’re singing about their inner emotional state. And it might be really beautiful music and it might be really well performed, but the square part of me goes ‘why are you doing that? Why are you telling me about this?’ Whereas on Jerry Springer, he goes ‘what’s your problem then?’ And they go ‘well, I’ll tell you what it is, it’s this-‘ and then they go into it. But in musical theatre, you have these scenes where people are talking and then at the end someone will say ‘I wish I had a hat’. And then everyone will go: [he launches into song]

Michael Brandon as Jerry Springer’He wishes he had a hat,
A hat, a hat, a hat,
If only he had a hat,
Then he would have a hat.'”
Richard Thomas chimes in:
“‘I don’t like your hat!
That one’s beige
I never wear beige,
It clashes with chiffon.'”

Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee are in the National Theatre mezzanine bar, the day before Springer goes through its gruelling twelve-hour technical run, but their teasing, cross-cutting conversation reflects their energy at being so close to the fruition of their work. The show’s had a long journey to get to the National, starting off at the BAC with Richard Thomas sitting at a piano, performing for an audience of seven, with the show gradually being built up over a two year period of public workshops and concert performances. The embryonic shows sold out and got great reviews, but it was still a shock when the National’s new artistic director, Nicholas Hytner, chose the show to begin his reign on the South Bank.

“I was in a lift [at the National] one day,” says Lee. “No one knows who I am here, because I’m not Peter Hall. They assume I’m some tramp who’s come in by accident. I was in a lift and I saw two blokes in suits, I don’t know who they were, and they were going ‘yes, of course, Jerry Springer The Opera’s all based around the politics of shock, isn’t it?’ And I thought, well that’s news to me!”

Yet despite its possibilities for a hundred and one beard-stroking media studies seminars, Jerry Springer’s intellectual and cultural kudos is at rock bottom. The brawling trailer trash of daytime television aren’t the most likely match for the National’s audience. But Richard Thomas has an answer.

“Well, we watched Pericles the other night. [Presented at the Olivier Theatre by the Ninagawa company.] Think about what happens there.” “Incest,” agrees Lee. “The King leaves his child with a woman who tries to kill the child. Then there are these amazing scenes set in a brothel. And this is Shakespeare!”

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