Is beauty truly in the eye of the beholder? Or can time reveal an unknown or unheard treasure? The new musical, The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World, based on the 60’s underground girl band known as The Shaggs, dares you to dream big, rethink what you know about traditional musical theatre, and open your hearts and ears to one of the strangest times in American music history.
Most people arriving at Playwrights Horizons to view a performance of this new musical, that opened on Tuesday night, will probably not know much about this infamous group. The Shaggs were a sister rock group formed in Fremont, New Hampshire in the late 60’s.
As the musical would have it, the patriarch of this family, Austin Wiggins, employs his talentless daughters to form a band in hopes that this would rescue his family from their poverty-stricken, mill town lifestyle and fulfill his destiny. Armed with two guitars, a drum set, and microphones, Dot, Betty and Helen are ready to rock. There’s only one problem. The girls cannot play instruments, read music, write songs, or even sing. Okay, I guess that’s four big problems when you’re being groomed to be the next big thing since the Beatles!
Depending on what decade you consider, The Shaggs have been appraised as inventive and revolutionary but also as unintelligible and just plain terrible. The trick here then is how do you present a musical about one of the worst bands in history?
Well, unlike a lot of big budget Broadway jukebox musicals such as Mamma Mia, Jersey Boys and the short lived Good Vibrations (one of the worst musicals of all time), the book, music, lyric and story writers of The Shaggs, Joy Gregory and Gunnar Madsen, do not use the preexisting songs of the group and attempt to interlace a cohesive story around those songs. However they do employee the raw, non-traditional, unconventional, fearless temperament of the band to tell their true-life story.
The result is a completely compelling and engaging piece of musical theatre. The story is as funny as it is haunting and disturbing. At times we hear the band musically at its worst and yet at other times we hear a beautiful blend of harmony, compassion and melody. This is no doubt the daydream that Austin must hear and what compels him to put his family’s life savings, reputation and home on the line to hear his girls on the radio.
Dot, Betty, and Helen are fully realized characters portrayed by the immensely talented Jarmey Hood, Sarah Sokolovic and Emily Walton respectively. The three girls begin the show as disillusioned siblings. However, as the intense passion of their father (wonderfully portrayed by Peter Friedman) slowly turns to obsession and into his own disillusionment, each sister goes on her own emotional journey into womanhood as they all find their voice so to speak.
One of the best performances of the evening comes from the matriarch of the family, brilliantly embodied by Annie Golden. Early in the second act Ms. Golden belts out a tune called “Flyin’” that shows off her powerful fluid vocals but more importantly draws us into the raw emotional center of a women whose husband is losing his grip on reality and driving her family into the ground.
Yet at the center of all of these women is the excellent Peter Friedman as Austin Wiggins. Without an emotionally charged, honest, compassionate performance by Friedman this show would not work. There must be a reason this family believes in him and continues to put everything on the line for his vision of success. Friedman’s portrayal of Austin Wiggins provides the emotional heartbeat of the show and the Shaggs.
This show could easily be as much of a mess as its subject matter. However, there is a strong sense of cohesion here starting with the creative team and branching out to the actors and production team. At the helm of all of this is director John Lang. With his expert guidance and vision this show about a father’s desperate ambition to push his family out of obscurity as his three girls frantically fight for a sense of normalcy is as unsettling as it is emotionally moving and satisfying.
You may not leave the theatre humming any of these tunes but that is not necessarily a bad thing in this case. The group, the Shaggs, were not remembered for their music either. What you will remember, though, is that you saw a courageous new musical that dared you to think and feel in an unconventional way. You will remember that you saw a piece of musical theatre where the songs, the book, the acting, the design and the direction all seamlessly flowed together to tell a remarkable story and create beautiful music (seemingly out of unintelligible noise)!