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The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Jamey Hood, Emily Walton, and Sarah Sokolovic.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Detractors of musicals based on pop music, take heart: Some hope, or at any rate some originality, still remains in this increasingly ramshackle form. You'd never know it from the likes of the most recent Broadway entry, Baby It's You!, about The Shirelles, but for better or worse the new production at Playwrights Horizons is a one-of-a-kind interpretation that challenges everything you thought you knew about how far people will go. No, not just the pathetic, ridiculous family that the show is about, but also those audacious enough to write and put on something like The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World.

The trio in question would be Joy Gregory (book, lyrics, and story), Gunnar Madsen (music, lyrics, and story), and John Langs (story and direction). Like their subjects, the Wiggins of Fremont, New Hampshire, it can be difficult to determine whether they were possessed by a vision no one else could see, or legitimately possessed. But the writers' output is more concrete and tangible than the Wiggins', whose 1969 album Philosophy of the World, depending on whom you ask, either ignited the modern independent-rock movement or was the malformed love child of myopic delusion and a sick practical joke.

Stuffed with tone-free singing, the almost total abrogration of recognizable rhythm, and songs ranging from the merely bewildering (the title tune and "Things I wonder") to the downright incomprehensible ("My Pal Foot Foot," the group's, ahem, "best-known" composition), it is indeed an album like no other. But listen longer than 30 seconds or so—assuming your sanity can withstand it—and what becomes unavoidable is the implacable personality that identifies the Wiggins as genuine, if unclassifiable, artists. It's easy to pinpoint everything they don't have—starting with talent—but true individuality is rare, and that they have in spades.

It's that quality that Gregory, Madsen, and Langs have set out to capture in their show, and they've largely succeeded. Utilizing the familiar framework of the rags-to-riches show-biz bio, we meet Dot, Betty, and Helen Wiggin (Jamey Hood, Sarah Sokolovic, and Emily Walton) when they're still in high school and trying to find themselves. They're unremarkable in attitude and appearance, still discovering the notions of romance and trying to figure out what they want to be when they grow up. One local boy, Kyle (Cory Michael Smith), has his eye on Helen (the youngest) in particular, despite Betty having her eye on him. But otherwise, they're passing through life unnoticed, and are actually comfortable with their anonymity.

Annie Golden and Peter Friedman.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

That's not good enough for their father, Austin (Peter Friedman). Fed up with supporting his daughters and wife Annie (Annie Golden) forever just above the poverty line, especially now that he's lost out on a major promotion at work, he decides to force the family into the big time. So on Helen's birthday, he buys the trio a drum kit, a guitar, and a bass, and announces that he's pulling them all out of school immediately to form a band and earn them the kind of money he's sure they should be making. That none of them has to that point had a single singing lesson or even picked up an instrument is not a deterrent; Austin is sure that, through sheer force of will, he can make them a success. Through ongoing gigs at the town hall, and the attention of a shady record producer (Kevin Cahoon), he seems on the path to that dream. You can probably guess what happens after that.

If the show is not written along the same free-thinking, convention-disregarding lines of The Shaggs's songs, the absurdity of its premise—and of the product the girls produced (which, mercifully, you hear extremely little of)—is enough to let the conceit scrape by. Friedman's performance, drenched in angry desperation, optimism, and pride, is a firm center for the action, guiding the story ever forward even it seems it should be able to go no further. The women playing his daughters, particularly Hood as the oldest and de facto leader, summon both the adolescent innocence and the begrudging complicity necessary to explain how anyone would let themselves get trapped in this situation. Cahoon is a bit overripe in his greasy roles (he also appears as a smarmy classmate), but Golden and Steve Routman, playing a series of milquetoast authority figures, effectively round out the company. Mimi Lien's unit set, which suggests a bomb shelter–like refuge for the Wiggins, and Emily Rebholz's evocative lower-class counterculture costumes, help complete the picture.

What's missing—and has been ever since the show premiered at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2005, where I first saw it—is that extra bit of narrative punch that could make these bulbous people exciting, symbols of self in a collective-obsessed world. The new songs (which Madsen has orchestrated and Aaron Gandy conducts forcefully) only skim the surface of everyone's consciousness: Golden singing bored quotes from home-schooling textbooks represents the girls' drift into infamy, Betty and Kyle coolly court to the vaguely Top 40 strains of "Show Me the Magic," and Austin crows his disconnected anger in two separate second-act songs, but none of these numbers ever really sends reality spinning out of control. And running a heavy two and a half hours, the show has trouble keeping its conceit aloft, especially in the listless second act.

The centerpiece of Act II is the perplexing recording session in which the disc is laid down, and which reminds that—whatever else The Shaggs might have been—they were not ordinary. You hear in the original songs the voice of a time and place that would have been lost to history, but through its all but accidental preservation, has gone on to have some impact on the way we hear the world. Like The Shaggs, Gregory, Madsen, and Langs, have not effected sweeping changes on the art form in which they're working. But their willingness to embrace an unusual sound and its surprising creators is refreshing underscoring for a theatrical genre that, like mainstream pop of yesterday and today, rarely dares to give your ears anything they don't expect.

The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World
Through July 3
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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