Sunday, May 22, 2011

An Obscure Rock Band with Mythic Roots Becomes the Stuff of Compelling Musical Theater

As the decade of the 1960s was coming to a close, an oddball rock group known as The Shaggs briefly appeared on the scene. By most accounts, the band—consisting of three sisters from the small town of Fremont, New Hampshire—displayed little talent for songwriting, musicianship, or singing. The group's one album, The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World, came and went in a flash and the band sank into obscurity.

Except…inexplicably…long after the sisters, Helen, Betty, and Dot Wiggin, had happily pushed the entire experience behind them, The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World continued to cling to life by being passed around among outsider music aficionados, drawn to the band’s uniquely unpolished and unaffected style.

And now, forty years on, the outrĂ© yet compelling Wiggin sisters find themselves the subjects of a outrĂ© yet compelling theatrical work, a musical titled—what else?—The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World, currently on view at Playwrights Horizons.

The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World, the musical, is the story behind the recording—a story that, if the Shaggs were coming on the scene now, would surely be on display as a reality TV show.

So, who are the Wiggins, and why are they deserving of a musical about them? And why, like The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World (the album), has The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World (the show) kept popping up in productions since its inception eight years ago: Los Angeles (2003), Chicago (2004), and New York (2005 and now)?

I’ll leave it to you to decide what to make of The Shaggs’ music. You can hear samples on YouTube, or you can buy a copy of a limited edition of the band's album through the run of the show, now scheduled to end July 3. You can also hear snippets of the band’s actual music in the show, although the bulk of the tunes are original numbers penned by Gunnar Madsen (with co-lyricist, Joy Gregory), a composer whose eclectic career has encompassed writing music for television, movies, the Minnesota Opera, and the National Beef Council.

As for the tale itself, its complicated, disturbed, and self-deluding heart lies not within the would-be rock star Wiggin sisters, but within their father, Austin, a textile worker with a dream born of some inner need to raise his family’s name out of the mundane world it inhabited into the rarer air of fame and fortune.

Austin, a strict paterfamilias who was no fan of rock-era music and kept his children (there were six in all) under tight rein,  got it into his head one day that he was destined to turn Helen, Betty, and Dot into rock stars.

Austin’s near mythic conviction—which he connected with a prediction made by his late and sorely-missed mother—was so strong that he dragged everyone along, including his loyal if confused wife Annie, plunging the family into debt and pulling the girls out of school so they could rehearse under his always watchful eye. It was Austin who named the group The Shaggs, coerced the local community hall to hire them to perform on a regular basis, and paid to record and press their album—of which perhaps 100 copies ever saw the light of day. Despite a total failure through every phase of this enterprise, Austin kept his daughters performing until 1975, when he died and the spell was finally lifted. The story lived on through the cultish devotion of a handful of followers, an occasional re-release of the album, and an article about the band written by Susan Orlean that appeared in The New Yorker magazine in 1999.

And, eventually, that is the story that became the musical, The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World.

Madsen and Gregory have written songs that serve the story well, and that nicely blend touches of humor, irony, and earnestness. The performances throughout are strong. Peter Friedman, a better actor than singer, brings a real sense of fervor to the role of Austin, and Annie Golden, a better singer (actually, a terrific singer) than actor, shows us both devotion and doubt as his wife. Sarah Sokolovic (Betty), Emily Walton (Helen), and Jamey Hood (Dot) do well as the sisters, overwhelmed by their father's demands and expectations of them, but also showing healthy signs of rebellion. Kevin Cahoon, Corey Michael Smith, and Steve Routman round out the cast, and John Langs does a sold job of directing.

I’ve got to say, the true story behind the show is so compelling that it is difficult to even guess whether the musical would be nearly as interesting if it has been completely invented. Since seeing it last weekend, I have spent a lot of time reading about the Wiggin family and the Shaggs, and listening to their music. I cannot separate the experience of seeing the musical from the rest of these activities.

If you brush off The Shaggs as simply another wannabe rock band, this is not the show for you. If, on the other hand, you are intrigued by the real life story of the Wiggins, then I encourage you to get to Playwrights Horizons for a performance of The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World before it, too, becomes a piece of The Shaggs' underground cult.

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