Thursday, May 19, 2011

You Can Never Please Anybody -- "The Shaggs" at Playwrights Horizons

I didn't know anything about The Shaggs, a band of three sisters from Fremont, New Hampshire in the late 60s, when I went to see The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World (by Joy Gregory, Gunnar Madsen and John Langs) now playing at Playwrights Horizons. But since seeing it Wednesday night, I haven't been able to get the experience out of my head.

The musical tells the story of Austin Wiggin, a stubborn working class father in the late 60s, who is determined to fulfill his mother's prophecy that his daughters Betty, Dot, and Helen would become a famous band. Risking everything, from his marriage to his life savings, Austin pulls the girls out of school, isolating them from much of the outside world, so that they can practice. Trapped playing music that seemingly no one wants to hear, the group, now named The Shaggs (after the hairstyle and Shaggy dogs), must come to terms with their futures under Austin's thumb and the dreams of fame that may never come true (though in a strange twist of fate, they do... just many years down the road).

I gotta say -- I thought this show was electric beyond imagination. The performances were on fire; they were compelling, sharp, and undeniably heartfelt. The sets were transformative and the choreography really kept the whole show in dream-like motion. There is an aura around this piece that uniquely captures the wonder, innocence, strangeness, and darker undertones of the eclectic music of The Shaggs themselves.

With music biopic shows on Broadway like Jersey Boys or Baby It's You, I expected The Shaggs to follow a similar arc of hard-earned success, but this musical never plays into that tradition. Instead of being a story about dreams coming true, it's a story of dreams deferred, a tale of characters aspiring to voices and abilities beyond their capabilities. Every song is a song unsung. Every triumph is a fantasy just out of reach. Every romantic notion -- from Austin's intense desire to hear his girls on the radio to Betty's attempts to escape the prison of her home -- soars in song, only to be immediately grounded by reality. There's something fascinating about the fact that the girls can't express themselves through their own music, and all the new, original music for the show gives voice to Betty, Dot, and Helen in ways they could never find for themselves. The piece is constantly haunted by things that will never be, and it is never afraid to expose the dark underside of their disciplined smiles and forced showmanship.

(The real Shaggs singing their album's namesake, "Philosophy of the World")

This musical is unlike anything I've really seen before, weaving together several genres: elements of magical realism, biopic, cautionary tale, comedy, satire, drama, tragedy. I can't recommend this enough and hope everyone gets a chance to see it.

In fact, Playwrights Horizon is offering the following discount:

Order by June 1 with code SHAGGLOG and tickets are only:
  • $40* (reg. $75) for the first week of perfs (May 12-19)
  • $60 (reg. $75) for all remaining performances (May 20-July 3)

  • 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).

*A limited number of $40 discounted tickets will be available for purchase. Subject to availability. Valid only in select rows.

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