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The Shaggs and their insular, unusual world


Yellow Sound Label

One of the music world's oddest real-life stories became one of the musical theatre world's more intriguing biographical pieces, with an Off-Broadway cast album preserving emotionally charged, deft performances I vividly remember being likewise moving and chilling in the theatre in 2011. The tale of the talent-challenged trio The Shaggs is that of an amateur sister band forced into being by their determined (shall we safely say deluded) father. Like romantic love, familial love can be blind ... and also tone-deaf. The underwhelming initial reception to their work, the girls seemingly at sea when it comes to harmony and musical sophistication, might have brought them from obscurity to invisibility. Instead, some rock professionals (who stumbled upon their work after the band broke up) were captivated by the album's innocence, championing it and shepherding it to reissue, exposure, and cult status. But the musical, itself a large part of their "rediscovery," is about their beginnings. We are voyeurs of the insulated family's interactions, insecurities, frustrations and failings, while the reluctantly active band was at it back in the 1960s in small town New Hampshire.

Philosophy of the World was also the title song of their infamous album, and the cast sings it and other snippets of the originals by sister Dot. We hear their recording studio session in all its rough, clumsy, banging non-glory and, in an impactful stroke of theatrical genius, are stung by the aural warts-and-all cold reality morphing into—and out of—the music as their taskmaster dad seems to believe it sounds. Otherwise, we get plot songs and aching character pieces written for the show, with music by Gunnar Madsen and lyrics written by him and bookwriter Joy Gregory.

Like the real-deal Shaggs, the show and CD are filled with a unique and naïve sweetness that is compelling in its unguarded fragile humanity. There's no sense that the cast, writers, or director are condescending or going for a cartoon-ification of these misfits who could be ready targets for camp and winking. We're yanked swiftly into the very small and claustrophobic self-contained world of Mr. and Mrs. Wiggin and their daughters with low self-esteem and lower expectations. The recording produced by the valuable Yellow Sound Label's chief Michael Croiter also captures the cagey manipulations of both the power-hungry papa and a fast-talking record exec (sung with appropriate assertiveness by Kevin Cahoon). Also palpable are the caged feelings that come with small town life with few frills or thrills and the loneliness of homeschooled sisters rehearsing for hours on end in their basement, like rats in a punishing science experiment. While the harsh, humorless dad seems unsympathetic in Peter Friedman's performance as an almost relentlessly maniacal slave-driving and driven man, we see he's been in his own trap, stuck in a dead-end mill job.

The socially awkward, intimidated daughters have our sympathy full time, however, as the singing actresses present the teenagers clinging to dreams and dignity with warmth and endearing perseverance. The presentations, directed by John Langs, are gripping and disarming enough that we accept the plot songs as thoughts or protestations set to music, rather than finding it jarring that the three women playing cluelessly clunky teen vocalists/instrumentalists actually sing well in the character songs. Jamey Hood as Dot effectively plays the loyalty card and pathos in the protesting "Don't Say Nothing Bad About My Dad." We feel her pain. While Sarah Sokolovic as Betty and Emily Walton as banging drummer and rebel Helen have excellent solo moments, it's the teamwork when these three as the sisters combine forces that things become even more moving. Their thoughts of anticipation and anxiety "The Night Before" the long-awaited/much-dreaded expensive recording studio day beautifully crystallizes the acknowledgement of hoping against hope ("Everything's better before it starts"). The combined weight of their characters' worries and wondering is almost too much for their hearts, or ours, to bear. While not all songs are especially memorable or artful, they serve their purposes and reinforce protagonists' personalities. The cast sometimes slips in what's an uphill battle to fight some written-in redundancy. Or is it just that they so quickly envelop the moods and motivations that some later lines soon feel like restatement? The less nuanced men and their more one-track mind agendas also leads to a sense of a lack of vocal variety and changes in dynamics within a number.

Cory Michael Smith nicely adds a refreshing note as a local guy who has his own self-conscious nerd quotient, but is a link with the "outside world" and a romantic possibility. But much of the magic and heart and an anchoring presence is veteran Annie Golden (Hair on film and stage, the original Assassins, this season's Violet). This pro with the distinctively loveable voice plays the mother, a sweet-natured woman dominated by her steamroller spouse, and her solo is the highlight of the CD. Titled "I'm Flyin'," it was written for her after she joined the cast. She gloriously inhabits the lyric about escaping "inside where I go" all the while worrying that the man she stands dutifully by may be wrong about the girls' potential in which he's invested their savings ("But those stars that he sees/ Could be dust in the breeze"). There's a wistfulness to Annie Golden's graceful, close-to-the-bone singing, even investing a sweet little-lost-lamb quality when crooning a science lesson set to music. Indeed, her character's own plight being immobilized by intimidation and sorrow can let us read into the physics dictum that "A body at rest tends to stay at rest." No need to write that off to coincidence or reading too much into the line when other examples discuss a woman trapped in volcanic ash and a poisoned butterfly. Metaphors, anyone?

Playing four small roles, Steve Routman fills out the cast of eight. The band is half as large, with keyboardist Aaron Gandy also adding some vocals as well as being the album's co-producer and serving as conductor to his musical mates LeRoy Bach (also on keys as well as guitar), bassist Steve Gilewski and drummer David Jerome Hilliard. Arguably, a larger band or gloss might work against the intimacy and exposed nerves. Composer Madsen provided the orchestrations and vocal arrangements which add even more layers and sympathetic settings and underpinnings. These dressings add to his impressive melodic choices of leaps, hesitations, and hammered passions of the heavy hearts and longings of the play's people. However, there's an edgy restlessness often lurking which prevents sentimentality from letting things get sticky.

While lines of dialogue are heard on the disc, before some songs or between sections, they are not all included in the booklet with the lyrics, or don't match verbatim. But we do get a plot synopsis and dozen color photos that give a sense of the world of the show: the family at the dinner table with its shiny cheap tablecloth with sunny yellow and white daisies vainly suggesting cheer, the fathers' glare, a group of teens in all their angst or ebullience, the haunted looks (or grimaces) on the sisters' faces as they glumly strum strings or hack away at the drums while dressed in identical pleated checked skirts, gaudy Nehru jackets and high-heeled white shoes.

And the Shaggs' saga goes on. Although the booklet and play don't address their later lives, those who've recently been exposed to their human interest story through various cities' productions of the musical and now this engaging cast album will likely have their curiosity sparked. While one of the sisters (Helen) passed away several years ago, The Shaggs have been coaxed out of their cloistered cocoons on occasion over the years. They did rare performances, have been interviewed, their recordings have been put out again in the CD era, and Dot, now 65, has been recording and singing with admiring musicians, playing new songs and, yes, those she wrote as a teenager that got the odd ball rolling. What's the fascination and cause for claims of devotion? Some say the emperor has no clothes and some say those naysayers are missing something uniquely magnetic and pure in its guilelessness. While it's interesting to note that the girls sort of reinvented the wheel, being forced to create music and teach themselves to play instruments after growing up not being allowed to listen to music for pleasure, one thing is more certain, as I hear things: the web spun by Madsen and Gregory's musical with this cast make this disc engaging and well worth the spin. Even if it had been total fiction, I think I'd be caught up. The fact that it's true and that there's even more to the lore informs and enriches the experience and increases appreciation.

- Rob Lester

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