We gave it a B
The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World is a simply dreadful jukebox musical. It features no hits and a minimal amount of razzle-dazzle choreography. Plus, it’s largely set in the unprepossessing, claustrophobic environs of a blue-collar New Hampshire household. The show doesn’t even feature much material from the real-life musical act it concerns, although this is perhaps a wise move given that the Shaggs’ music is something of an acquired taste, to put matters very politely indeed. It’s actually possible that The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World is the worst jukebox musical of all time. As a work of musical theater, on the other hand, it is something rather special.
Some history: The Shaggs comprised three sisters — Dot, Betty, and Helen Wiggin. In the late ’60s, the girls’ textile-mill-worker father, Austin, yanked the trio from school and attempted to mold them into pop stars. Alas, the sisters were no Jackson 5. Their sole album, 1969’s Philosophy of the World, often sounds like three people playing three entirely different, not very good songs, not very well, and with not very much enthusiasm. The Shaggs never enjoyed any real success and ultimately disbanded after their father’s death in 1975. Over time, the band did develop a clutch of celebrity champions, including Kurt Cobain and the reliably idiosyncratic Frank Zappa, who once claimed they were ”better than the Beatles.” Nevertheless, the Shaggs are a band who lack not only well-known tunes but also the rise-and-fall career trajectory that has been a part of rock history’s DNA since Elvis decided to help himself to that extra fried peanut butter and banana sandwich.
The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World tackles both seeming problems with skill. While snatches of the band’s lyrics are occasionally appropriated, the show’s tunes — coauthored by Gunnar Madsen and book writer Joy Gregory — are essentially new, and much easier on the ear than the real-life Shaggs’ songs. ”Career Day,” for example, is a spiky rock & roll pastiche that wouldn’t sound out of place in Hairspray. Dot’s number ”Don’t Say Nothing Bad About My Dad” is a touching song about familial devotion that provides an excellent showcase for Jamey Hood. Meanwhile, Gregory, Madsen, and director John Langs turn the band’s flatline of a career into an asset, an opportunity to explore desperation and failure. Both non-attributes positively drip from Austin Wiggin, who is muscularly portrayed by Peter Friedman as one part determined stage dad and one part demented cult leader.
Wisely, the show’s downbeat tone is leavened with gags and comedic set pieces. The scene when the girls record their album is outright hilarious, as Austin’s perception of his offspring as singing sensations is repeatedly contrasted with the studio engineers’ aghast, unbelieving reaction. ”It’s like cubism,” says one of the knob twiddlers. ”Seriously disturbing cubism.” Yes, the sequence does ask us to laugh at our heroines. But for the most part, Dot, Betty, and Helen are written so poignantly, and brought to life so heartbreakingly by Hood, Sarah Sokolovic, and Emily Walton, that you only feel a tad guilty for sniggering.
Philosophy of the World is, like the Shaggs’ music, not for everyone. There are times, particularly during the early sequences, when some theatergoers may well feel they have wandered into some sort of cubist phantasmagoria. But this show’s many attributes are far less up for debate than the output of its subjects. B
(Tickets: TicketCentral.com or 212-279-4200)