Of all the complaints that can be leveled against The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World, that it doesn't have an original score cannot be one of them. The New York Musical Theatre Festival offering, which completes its run today, hearkens back to the days when songwriter bioplays didn't mean raiding a catalog for songs and cramming them into a book with no regard for common sense. In this case, though, is that a good thing?
After all, it's often easier to mimic someone truly good than truly awful. The Shaggs certainly fall into the latter category - a group of young New Hampshire sisters, their late-60s release, Philosophy of the World, is widely regarded as either a major turning point in alternative rock or the worst rock album of all time. The truth is probably actually somewhere in between, but any way you look at it, The Shaggs had a sound all their own.
Because of this, Authors Joy Gregory (book and lyrics) and Gunnar Madsen (music and lyrics) have wisely chosen not to try to duplicate that sound outright (probably for the not unreasonable fear of driving some audience members insane). Instead, they use only short snippets from The Shaggs' singular catalog, and for the rest of the score adapt the group's tuneless, toneless style to approximate the interior lives of the three girls, Dot, Betty, and Helen (Jamey Hood, Amy Eschman, and Dana Acheson) as they grow up, grow wiser, and grow increasingly unlistenable.
For much of the show, this works dramatically: The Madsen/Gregory compositions are saturated with teen angst and confliction, and cover topics as traditional as romantic longing within minutes of examining an imaginary Career Day at school. And there's a fine sense of contrast between the girls beautiful inner voices, their considerably less attractive outer voices, and the grounded, authoritative voices of their parents, the dreaming Austin (Peter Friedman), who bets his life savings on the girls' abilities to form a band, and their supportive mother Annie (Tracy Sallows).
If Gregory's book captures a specific sense of dreams dreamed, deterred, and denied, it also takes a few too many detours along the way, seldom doing in two lines what can be accomplished in 10. (The show's running time of two and a half hours could probably be trimmed by 10-15 minutes with little or no loss of relevant content.) John Langs's direction doesn't help; the pacing is glacial whenever there's no music playing, and the drab atmosphere (augmented by Gary Smoot's depressive sets, Wade Laboissonniere's grungy costumes, and Aaron J. Mason's hardscrabble lighting) too pushily emphasizes the world the girls and their father are trying to escape.
The performers, who also include Jimmy Bennett as a sleazy record executive and Bill English as a young man who falls for one of the girls, are all solid. So is the band (under the baton of Aaron Gandy), which does a terrific job of making the girls' music sound terrible and Gregory and Madsen's sound great.
Ultimately, though, your reaction to this show will most depend on your ability to stomach the original songs, and their derivative counterparts, for over two hours. True, the new compositions - like the originals - won't be for everyone. But as one's trash can be another's treasure, so can one's most hated sound be music to another's ears, and so can we train ourselves to hear and respect those differences. This message in The Shaggs comes through loud, clear, and melodically, even if not everything else here manages to do the same.
New York Musical Theatre Festival