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Annie Golden and
The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World

Annie Golden and Peter Friedman in The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World
The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World, a new musical co-produced by New York Theater Workshop and Playwrights Horizons, is based on one of the stranger stories from the annals of rock 'n roll. In the late 1960s in the rural town of Fremont New Hampshire, Austin Wiggin, an unemployed mill worker, forced his daughters Dot, Betty and Helen to form a rock band, because before they were born his mother had predicted his daughters' musical success. Austin pulled them out of school, bought them secondhand instruments, and scrounged to pay for their singing and music lessons. He got them a Saturday night gig at the town hall; and, in 1969, when he decided they were ready, he spent most of his savings on a studio session, during which the band recorded its only album, "The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World." The producer he'd hired took the money and 900 of the 1000 records they'd pressed. Austin handed out several of the remaining 100 to radio stations, which did not play his daughters' music. Shortly after Austin died of a heart attack in 1975, the group disbanded.

That would have been the end of it, except that in 1980 the band was "discovered." The respected group NRBQ convinced its label, Rounder Records, to re-release "Philosophy of the World," rock critic Lester Bangs and musician Frank Zappa called them "better than the Beatles," and Rolling Stone magazine named the Shaggs "The Comeback of the Year." No one debated the group's musical talent—as Bangs put it, "They can't play a lick!"—but the Shaggs' fans claimed that rock had become too overproduced and finessed and heralded the group's outsider sound, interesting syncopation (or lack thereof), and the youthful innocence of the lyrics. The group's detractors were equally impassioned, comparing them to "lobotomized Trapp Family Singers" and calling them "mind-bendingly horrible." Susan Orlean aptly stated in her 1999 New Yorker profile following yet another re-release of the Shaggs' album, "Depending on whom you ask, the Shaggs were either the best band of all time or the worst."

Not long after the 1999 re-release, the Shaggs came to the attention of playwright/lyricist Joy Gregory, composer/lyricist Gunmar Madsen, and director John Langs. The three were fascinated by the band's story and its dramatic possibilities, and, though juggling numerous other projects throughout (Gregory has written extensively for television and is a co-founder and active member of Chicago's Lookingglass Theater; Madsen is a Grammy nominee with a wide variety of credits on television, in film and on the stage; and Langs has worked with Lookingglass and many other prestigious regional theaters), they've collaborated on their original musical The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World ever since. There have been several readings along the way, as well as productions of earlier incarnations at Lookingglass and the 2005 New York Musical Theater Festival (NYMF).

This summer, the show is enjoying its first full-fledged Off Broadway run in New York, on the main stage at Playwrights Horizons. The show does not debate the quality of the music, but instead focuses on the Wiggins' complex family dynamic and the frustrations that occur when people live in circumstances which don't match up to their dreams. A comic thread and lively musical numbers balance the more poignant elements of the story. "The first half is 'Rhythm Nation' and 'Thriller,' the second half is Long Day's Journey into Night and Death of a Salesman," says Annie Golden, who plays Annie Wiggin, the mother of The Shaggs—and whom I was lucky enough to interview recently. "Attention must be paid."

John Friedman, Annie Golden, Sarah Sokolovic, Emily Walton and Jamey Hood
in The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World

Several of the actors, including Jamey Hood (Dot) and Peter Friedman (Austin) have appeared in earlier versions of the musical. As Golden puts it, "People have really stuck with this piece." Though she's new to the show, there's a lot in the story of the Shaggs to which Golden can relate. She also began her professional career in rock 'n roll, though with considerably more success than The Shaggs ever enjoyed. In the 1970s she was lead singer for The Shirts, one of the top draws at CBGB's in its heyday, along with Blondie, Television, Patti Smith and the Talking Heads. As a solo artist in the '80s, she was responsible for the hit song, "Hang Up the Phone," among others. Her solo show Annie Golden: Velvet Prison has been performed at Joe's Pub, in the New York Musical Theater Festival, and elsewhere. She is a regular member of the choir featured in David Letterman's Christmas show. And in 2008, in El Paso, Texas, branching out to yet another musical genre, the eclectic performer gave the live performance premiere of "The World is Stone," an original song by Sir Tim Rice (who, she's proud to point out, introduced the number).

Despite her acclaim, she remembers some rough times at the beginning, like being showered with spitballs at a concert in London. "Yes, I know what the girls are going through, yes I have similar stories," she said in an interview about The Shaggs with Playwrights Horizons. Also, like the Wiggin girls, Annie lost a parent at a young age. "My mother died at 42, so Austin's early death really resonated with me. I didn't have to reach far to play the scene where Annie tells the girls [about Austin's death]."

As successful as she has been in music, Golden is best known for her decades of well received television, movie and theater work. Her acting career was launched, famously, by the Academy Award-winning director Milos Forman. He was "either talent scouting or slumming" in the late 1970s, she says, when he visited CBGB's and heard The Shirts perform. Impressed with Golden's vocal skill and her charisma, he promptly invited her to audition for the movie version of Hair, which he was directing.

Golden flew to Los Angeles, where she went through several auditions before ultimately being cast as one of the central characters, Jeannie, in the picture. The audition process was daunting and difficult, she says, her first taste of Hollywood. In addition, once she got the part, Golden, who'd never been trained in voice, acting or dance ("I was schooled by my experiences," she says), was "thrown [right] into the process—choreography, dancing, rehearsals." The movie, along with her appearance as "Mother" in a Broadway revival of Hair in 1977, launched Golden's acting career. "Now it's thirty five years later and I never stopped."

In fact, she's being modest: over the past three-and-a-half decades Golden has amassed an impressive and diverse set of credentials. In film and television, she's had recurring roles on "Miami Vice" and "Cheers," guest spots on several shows in the "Law & Order" franchise, and parts in the recent film I Love You Phillip Morris and the upcoming The Trouble with Cali. On stage, she's been in The Public Theater revival of On the Town, both in Central Park and on Broadway; played Audrey in the long-running off Broadway production of The Little Shop of Horrors; created the part of Georgie Bukatinsky in the Tony-nominated musical The Full Monty; understudied and sang with the band in Xanadu, for which she also went on the national tour as the muse Calliope; appeared with Jason Robards, Colleen Dewhurst, George Hearn and other luminaries in Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness!; and created the role of Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme in Stephen Sondheim's classic, Assassins. While preparing for Assassins, Golden studied voice for the first time. "When [Sondheim] started working with me and writing songs for a character I was going to play," she says, "I wanted to rise to the occasion." Now, Golden, who has a heightened awareness of such confluences, notes she's back at Playwrights Horizons "playing another strawberry blonde," and once again having songs written for her.

With her new role in The Shaggs, she's also, once again, playing another person who actually existed. "It's a big responsibility to play a real person," Golden says. In the case of Annie Wiggin, it's also a challenge. Though a fair amount has been written about Austin and the three members of the Shaggs, little has been published about Annie Wiggin. However, Golden discovered Annie Wiggin through some telling details, she says. "In the entrance hallway [of Playwrights Horizons] there's a photograph of Annie with Austin. He's wearing a white t-shirt and she's wearing a little blouse. She doesn't even have lipstick on."

Annie Wiggin's simple tastes and humble goals also found their way into the song "Flying," which Gregory and Madsen wrote for Golden. "Everyone in the story has such a lush fantasy life," Golden says, and those inner lives are revealed in that character's solo number. "What I love about the mother's fantasy life [in "Flying"] is that it's so no-frills. She dreams of having a nice tablecloth for the table and new chairs."

Details like these have helped the creators "nail the mother" for the first time. "She's become more of a lynchpin for the story," Golden says. She also helps make the character of Austin more explicable, she explains. By the time he's forced his daughters to form the Shaggs, he's become domineering, obsessed, and delusional. "My job is to show that he didn't always act like that, that there is a time before he becomes so obsessed," says Golden. "Otherwise, he is a monster and no one cares what happens to him."

Golden also finds Austin's faith in his daughters' gifts evidence of his strong love for his family and thus a redemptive characteristic. "During his elegy at the end, he sings, 'You'll never see how great you are.' At the talent show [during which people boo throughout their performance and throw things at the stage] he tells them, 'You were shining like a spotlight,' " Golden says. "He sees the beauty and talent in them that no one can see."

The musical has enjoyed a rousing reception from audiences, and, to Golden's delight, has resonated particularly with high school students who've visited the show. "They can relate to the career day part, and the fact that the family goes grocery shopping on Friday night. They can relate to it when the girls sneak out of the window to go out at night. It's a normal part of being a teenager." In the talk backs afterward, they are full of questions. "The show is exhausting to perform and at the end of the day we're all worn out," she says. "However, matinees like that are energizing."

Though Annie plans to remount an updated version of her show Velvet Prison in the not too distant future, for now she's focused on The Shaggs. "I've run with the [opportunities I've had]," she says, and she feels appreciative that she's had such a wealth and variety of offers. She is very excited to be part of the creation of another new show. She also feels grateful that after all her years in the business, "People are still giving me characters to play characters like Annie, who are multi faceted and interesting."

The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World at Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues. For performance and ticket information, visit TicketCentral.

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