Sing to the Hand 

Jerry Springer: The Opera offends, entertains, and enlightens.

Bob Hetherington, the good-humored chair of the University of Memphis' theater department, arrives late for his interview.

"I'm so sorry that I'm running behind," he says breathlessly. "I was at Sears trying to see if they'd give me a dead battery I could use to shock Jerry Springer's balls." (It should go without saying that his apology was accepted without question.)

Hetherington minces no words in his description of Jerry Springer: The Opera. "If it doesn't offend you on some level, then there is probably something wrong with you," he says. Hetherington, the man behind Playhouse on the Square's multi-award-winning production of Urinetown: The Musical, is currently putting the finishing touches on Jerry Springer, which opens at Playhouse this weekend. He also describes the show as "a real coup for Memphis" and "a real feather in Playhouse's cap."

Offensive to everyone and a coup? As Shakespeare once wrote, that is "hot ice and wondrous strange snow." It's also quite true.

"Just think about this," Hetherington says, marveling at the risk Playhouse is taking by bringing Jerry Springer to Memphis. "Jackie Nichols is raising money to build a new theater and making a final push to raise the last couple of million dollars. At the same time, he's embarking on this incredible piece of new theater that could potentially upset a lot of people."

Jerry Springer: The Opera, by British comedian Stewart Lee and composer Richard Thomas, was originally staged as a part of Edinburgh, Scotland's famous Fringe Festival. It officially opened at London's National Theatre in 2003 to critical acclaim and public derision. After it was broadcast on BBC television, 55,000 people called in to voice their displeasure. It won an Olivier Award but failed to land a Broadway contract.

"Jackie saw this in London and got excited," Hetherington says. "He got me a copy of the CD and said you've got to listen to this outrageous stuff. And when I heard it, I loved it right away, but I said this will never play in New York, and there's no way it's going to play in Memphis."

A year and a half after Nichols introduced Hetherington to Jerry Springer, there was still no American production in the works. Productions in New York and San Francisco had been announced but had apparently fallen through. Nichols was still interested, but he couldn't even figure out whom to call to secure the rights.

"I told Jackie, 'I'll find out who has the rights, but if I do it, you've got to let me direct it,'" Hetherington says. Within a week of that conversation, Playhouse on the Square became the first theater in the United States to license Jerry Springer: The Opera.

"When we discovered that the license holder really represented mostly standup comics, Jackie put together this Letterman-style top-10 list explaining why Memphis was the perfect place for Jerry Springer. Within a day we were told, 'You'll have the rights to this.'"

Nichols' list, which noted Memphis' proximity to both Graceland and actual trailer communities, was only a contributing factor to Playhouse being granted the first license.

"There was a lot of frustration that there was no U.S. production," Hetherington explains. "Maybe it couldn't be produced because of the religious right and the censorious climate of the time. Or, since money is always a consideration, maybe it's because the show requires 24 to 30 actors and isn't a cheap piece to produce."

Jerry Springer: The Opera is very much like an uncensored episode of Jerry Springer's television show, where humanity's dregs air their putrid laundry in a public forum. It's profane, scatological, and violent, with numerous references to infidelity, incest, and kink of all kinds. Each string of profanity is set to music that grooves to a modern beat with loving nods to Handel, Mozart, and Verdi.

"When we held auditions in New York, we had this book that said, 'If you can't sing these words, don't audition,'" Hetherington says. "There was one word on every page, and it was kind of like Dante's levels of hell. You begin with some common Anglo-Saxon four-letter words, and by the time you get to the end, there's some real kinky stuff. We'd get letters from agents saying, 'We're sorry. Our client isn't interested in the material.'"

According to Hetherington, it's not the bad language that makes people nervous about Jerry Springer. Nor is it the violence and perversion. It's the show's blasphemous blend of Christian and pagan iconography that just doesn't sit well with some people, he says.

"If you can make it through to the end, it's really an incredibly satisfying and moving piece," Hetherington insists. He also worries that some may hear a man in a diaper singing "poop your effing pants" and leave before the message gets across.

"It's outrageous," he says. "The best I can hope is that we get a good blend of regular theater people and people who are fans of Springer's show."

Hetherington wasn't allowd to buy a dead car battery with which to "shock Jerry Springer's balls." The salesperson explained that even a dead battery might have enough juice to change the actor playing Jerry from a rooster to a hen. Instead, he was supplied with a gutless dummy battery that the store used as a floor model.

"It says 'Die Hard' on it," Hetherington explains, beaming. "I love that."

At Playhouse on the Square through September 9th

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