Next stop the West End: 'Jerry Springer - the Opera' conquers all

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The Independent Culture

Richard Thomas was a man with a problem that only alcohol could solve. An audience of seven expected an hour-long show but his new artistic work ran to about 20 minutes. So he went and bought a couple of crates of lager.

The "beer for an idea" worked. The audience played their part, got a few bottles of beer, and Mr Thomas got a standing ovation. Jerry Springer - the Opera was born.

Less than three years and 100,000 theatre-goers on from the belt-and-braces opening session, the show, inspired by the tawdry television spectacle that has brought such cultural topics as "pregnant by a transsexual" to wider public attention, is on the cusp of West End success.

With a successful run at the National Theatre drawing to a close tomorrow after box office takings of £1.8m, it will switch to the larger Cambridge Theatre. For the first time, it will play to audiences of more than a thousand, and early indications suggest the success will continue.

The first month of the £3m production is almost sold out, the Germans and the Scandinavians want it, Broadway is clamouring for a run stateside and even the eponymous hero of the real life TV show likes it.

Jerry Springer said: "I thought it was great, a fantastic idea. These people are seriously talented; people like me aren't."

But behind the headlines and the hype lies a story of hard graft. The project to create what one critic described as "opera on a wild joyride" started at Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) in south London, where Mr Thomas, 38, comedian and writer, first performed the early elements at the piano during a series of "scratch" workshops in February 2001. By the fourth night, it was sold out.

Financial backing followed and, from one man and a crate of beer, it had a cast of 16 within the year. "Once it had a little bit of money and some brilliant singers able to dedicate some rehearsal time, it completely took off," said Tom Morris, artistic director at BAC. "There are moments in your life when you think 'this is great'. I was bowled over myself," said Mr Thomas.

During the development, Mr Thomas, who is now collaborating with the writer Stewart Lee, turned down lucrative offers to take it to a bigger stage. Instead, it was taken to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2002 where it was a hit. Springer himself joined the standing ovation, despite his character being consigned to the fires of hell.

Springer said: "The whole [talk] show is an absurdity and they really pick up the rhythm of that. It's a serious opera, it isn't just a musical.

"I've always maintained that our show, for all its silliness, does involve the traditional elements of theatre and comedy. I wouldn't say real tragedy but at least dating tragedy, mistaken gender identity. There's an authenticity to it that gives it passion."

From Edinburgh, the show was snapped up by the National which helped to transform it into a fully staged operatic work with Springer played by Michael Brandon. Nicholas Hytner, the National's director, chose it as the first production at the Lyttelton Theatre in his opening season in charge. It brought in a new audience. Sixty-five per cent were aged under 35, significantly younger than many audiences at the National and included many who had never been to the theatre before. "Jerry could have tanked," said Mr Hytner last week. "Sometimes you miss the target, There will be duds. If that had been the case with Jerry I would probably have been hung out to dry."

With its switch to the West End, the fruits of the venture will be reaped by its producer Avalon which spent £300,000 taking it to Edinburgh.

However, the industry rule of thumb suggests that seven out of nine West End productions lose money. As a £3m production with high running costs, it needs a decent run. The writers will also benefit, with the National and BAC also receiving a small level of royalties. Springer will not make any money from the production.

"It has to be a commercial hit," said Mr Thomas. "At worst I will make enough to have seven or eight months to relax and think about things.

"Everything from now is a bonus. I thought it might get six weeks in a Soho theatre, a couple of weeks off-Broadway and a couple at the Melbourne comedy festival. I would have been quite happy with that."

What the opera has also done is to change the way that many works are written. By following the stand-up comedian's route of testing material through public workshops, Jerry Springer - The Opera went through a unique development stage of public editing. By the time it reaches the West End, it will be on its sixth or seventh version. Other productions have now followed the same process. "It's part of the reason that it's so good," said Jon Thoday, of Avalon. "They did their editing in front of an audience."


Newsnight: The Opera

Like Jerry Springer, Newsnight was tested at the Battersea Arts Centre and includes Jeremy Paxman grilling Michael Howard on the BBC2 programme when he asked him the same question 14 times in 1997. Paxman sings "Did you threaten to overrule him?".

Nixon in China

Henry Kissinger sings bass to Richard Nixon's baritone. Chairman Mao is a tenor. John Adams wrote the music for the project despite his personal animosity towards Nixon ("He tried to send me to Vietnam").

The opera is centred on the 1972 presidential trip to China and six powerful personalities; the Maos, the Nixons, Kissinger and Chou En Lai, the Foreign Minister. The opera took two years to compose and previews were subject to close media attention.

The Death of Klinghoffer

Another offering from John Adams, based on the killing of Leon Klinghoffer, the wheelchair-bound American murdered during the hijacking of the cruise ship the Achille Lauro 18 years ago. Palestinian militants took over the ship but only Klinghoffer was killed, possibly because he was Jewish. Performances of the opera were picketed by Jewish groups in the US. They claimed that the work romanticised terrorism.

Powder Her Face

The opera by the young British composer Thomas Ades re-enacts the scandal of the late Margaret, Duchess of Argyll.

Scenes include one in which the Duchess has oral sex with an unidentified man, an episode drawn from her divorce case in the 1950s. The libretto for the opera, first produced in 1995, is by Philip Hensher.