The Shaggs: Philosophy Of The World (2012 Off-Broadway Cast) Playwrights Horizons
Book, Lyrics, Story by Joy Gregory
Lyrics, Music, Story by Gunnar Madsen
Story by John Langs
Directed by John Langs
They defined cult status – and were gone in the blink of an eye. Fremont, NH, the early 70s. A working class dad has a vision of rock n’ roll destiny for his three talentless daughters, convinced they're his family’s one-way ticket out of hardship and obscurity. But the girls have ideas of their own – and as their father’s ambition turns to obsession, the price of familial obligation becomes all too clear. Based on a true story.
Cory Michael Smith
Scenic Designer Mimi Lien
Costume Designer Emily Rebholz
Lighting Designer Geoff Korf
Sound Designer Darron L West
Music Director Aaron Gandy
Choreographer Ken Roht
Production Stage Manager Lori Lundquist
Music Coordinator John Miller
FOUR STARS – CRITICS’ PICK! A captivating and bravely weird new musical that elicits sweet harmonies from the world’s worst rock band. There are deep, disturbing joys to be had in this oddball-underdog odyssey. "The Shaggs" deserves a serious listen.
—David Cote, Time Out New York
Review of the show by Charles Isherwood from The New York Times:
June 7, 2011
Theater Review | 'The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World'
Three Sisters, a Deluded Dad and Some Wretched Rock
By CHARLES ISHERWOOD
Momma Rose may not be the most lovable character in musical theater, but at least she has a sense of humor and a steamer trunk full of galvanizing songs to perform. That’s a lot more than can be said for Austin Wiggin (Peter Friedman), the tyrannical father determined to exorcise his own demons by making stars of his kids in “The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World,” a glum “Gypsy” for the hippie era that opened on Tuesday night at Playwrights Horizons in a co-production with New York Theater Workshop.
Based on an actual footnote in rock ’n’ roll history — maybe that should be an asterisk to a footnote — “The Shaggs” recounts the obscure story of a short-lived, long-haired all-female trio from small-town New Hampshire. In 1969 the Shaggs released one album, “Philosophy of the World,” on a small label before disappearing instantly into musical oblivion.
A dozen years later their recording was rediscovered by enterprising rock critics scavenging through the vinyl dustbins. The Shaggs were called the “comeback” story of 1981 by Rolling Stone magazine. The accomplished musical crackpot Frank Zappa lauded them to the skies, and the idiosyncratic writer Lester Bangs waxed manic in The Village Voice. While cheerfully admitting, “they can’t play a lick,” he nevertheless called the album “one of the landmarks of rock ’n’ roll history.” Which is defensible, I suppose, if you grant that the sinking of the Titanic was unquestionably among the landmarks of nautical history.
That minor vindication came way too late for the Wiggin family, and it doesn’t do much for this quirky but dreary new musical, either. Most of “The Shaggs,” directed by John Langs and featuring a book by Joy Gregory and music by Gunnar Madsen, is the rather sad story of a father’s deluded attempts to browbeat his misfit daughters into becoming a facsimile of the chart-topping guitar strummers remaking the pop landscape in the late 1960s.
Mr. Friedman gives a doggedly intense performance as the hard-luck antihero of the tale, seething with the bottled-up rage of a man who cannot accept the indifferent hand life has dealt him. Austin is barely making ends meet at his dead-end mill job — the set design by Mimi Lien rather oddly seems to suggest that the whole family lives in a basement — but he retains a mystic belief in the family’s destined greatness.
“The girls are the thing that’s gonna save you,” he sings early on. “The girls are gonna bring you to the light.” Austin’s goodbye-to-blueberry-pie moment arrives when he takes note of his three teenage daughters’ raptures when the Beatles shake their shaggy heads on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” He acquires a drum set and a pair of electric guitars, pulls the girls out of high school and sets them to grinding out chords.
Their spectacular lack of musical talent registers no more clearly with Austin than poor Louise’s allergy to the spotlight did with her mother. Dot (Jamey Hood), the most loyal and worshipful of Austin’s daughters, does her best to play into her father’s fantasies. “Don’t Say Nothing Bad About My Dad,” she bleats in a plaintive solo.
The more canny Betty (an amusingly wry Sarah Sokolovic) makes feeble attempts at rebellion and can hardly disguise her relief when her father’s plans begin to sour. (The operator who arranged the recording session absconds with most of the Wiggins’ money.) The youngest Wiggin sister, the drummer Helen (Emily Walton), stages her own sort of protest by remaining almost entirely mute, for reasons that are never quite clarified.
Mr. Madsen’s music, played by a four-piece ensemble on a riser behind the scenery, draws on the moody sounds of the Doors and various blues-inflected rock bands, with the girls’ harmonizing (or lack of it) on some numbers redolent of the more folky sounds of the Mamas and the Papas.
Annie Golden, who plays Austin’s submissive wife with a wounded warmth, has one of the show’s stronger, more traditional musical-theater songs, in which she expresses both her doubts about her husband’s flights of fancy and the sorrowful knowledge that she and the girls will have to pay the price for his folly.
Ultimately “The Shaggs” seems hamstrung by tonal uncertainty: the girls are extravagantly untalented, as we are repeatedly reminded through excerpts from their album’s title song, both played live and heard on the original recording. And yet Ms. Gregory and Mr. Madsen obviously sympathize with Austin and his daughters and clearly don’t want to turn their lives into a loopy joke.
The animating impulse behind “The Shaggs” is to unleash the spiritual music that soars in the souls of even the tone-deaf among us — as “Gypsy” certainly did — but the uneven pop-rock score isn’t engaging or exciting enough to bring the point home. When Austin sings his defiant anthem about having done what he did for “every guy who ever wanted” and “every kid who ever dared,” you don’t feel much of anything, except maybe relief that he’s descending into the grave as he’s doing so.
Ms. Gregory does give Dot an incisively wry line when the women are dumbfounded by the Rolling Stone article lauding their comeback. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” she grouses. “What are we coming back from? We never even showed up.”
Philosophy of the World
Book by Joy Gregory; music by Gunnar Madsen; lyrics by Ms. Gregory and Mr. Madsen; story by Ms. Gregory, Mr. Madsen and John Langs, based on the true story of the Shaggs; directed by Mr. Langs; choreography by Ken Roht; sets by Mimi Lien; costumes by Emily Rebholz; lighting by Geoff Korf; sound by Darron L West; music direction by Aaron Gandy; orchestrations/vocal arrangements by Mr. Madsen; music coordinator, John Miller; dialect coach, Stephen Gabis; production manager, Christopher Boll; production stage manager, Lori Lundquist. Presented by Playwrights Horizons, Tim Sanford, artistic director; Leslie Marcus, managing director; Carol Fishman, general manager; and the New York Theater Workshop, James C. Nicola, artistic director; William Russo, managing director. At the Playwrights Horizons Mainstage Theater, 416 West 42nd Street, Clinton; (212) 279-4200, playwrightshorizons.org. Through July 3. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.
WITH: Kevin Cahoon (Charley/Bobby), Peter Friedman (Austin Wiggin), Annie Golden (Annie Wiggin), Jamey Hood (Dot Wiggin), Steve Routman (Mr. Wilson/Exeter Talent Show Host/Russ/Hank), Cory Michael Smith (Kyle), Sarah Sokolovic (Betty Wiggin) and Emily Walton (Helen Wiggin).