Two homegrown musicals symbolize opposite ends of theater here. Andrew Lloyd Webber - the world's most bankable composer - has opened "The Woman in White," drawn from a novel of Victorian morality. By contrast, the most talked-about production, "Jerry Springer - The Opera," offers up a gleefully amoral celebration of tell-all television.
London has played host to Webber extravanganzas for more than 30 years, with "The Phantom of the Opera" running since 1986. Sir Andrew has not produced a mega success for more than a decade, and many fans were eagerly awaiting "Woman," which revisits the formula that made most of his previous musicals such commercial hits.
"Jerry Springer - The Opera" abandons any formula, reveling instead in the fictitious "guests" on Springer's show who can't wait to air their salacious tales of infidelity, scatological habits, and blasphemous jokes. The musical - with its lyrics laced with four-letter words - has also drawn younger audiences who would never buy tickets to "Phantom."
The "Jerry Springer" production grew from a series of workshops in 2001 into a solid West End hit, winning loads of awards. It is being considered for a US production next year.
"The Woman in White" sprang more conventionally from Webber's pen. The plot is drawn from a 19th-century Wilkie Collins novel. Its suspense-filled story follows the plight of an innocent but wealthy orphan, pursued by a villain who is after her money. There's no ambiguity about the rewards of being good and the dangerous portents of evil. The villain comes to a well-deserved unhappy end while the heroine gets the hero who has rescued her - fortune intact.
"Jerry Springer - The Opera," by Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee, spins off in taboo directions, accompanied by a score that cleverly pirates sources as diverse as Bach cantatas, rock 'n' roll, country ballads, and gospel songs. The first act is a recreation of an actual "Jerry Springer" TV show, complete with an unctuous, power-mad title character, his staff of yes-men and crowd controllers, and an on-stage chorus representing a studio audience reminiscent of the ancient Romans at a gladiatorial contest. (The real Springer reportedly was pleased with the operatic elements, if not entirely with his stage incarnation.)
Act II takes place in Purgatory, after Springer is shot by a disgruntled minion. The third act is set in Hell, populated by a charismatic Satan, who is visited by characters from the Bible - including God, who descends from on high, singing "It ain't easy being Me."
The production numbers include a tap-dancing chorus of hooded Ku Klux Klan members, and echoes of classic musicals such as "42nd Street" and the "Ziegfeld Follies." The show's theme, voiced in the lyrics, "Society has an ugly face/ Jerry didn't make it so/ he merely holds a mirror to it," while distressing, may hold a ring of truth. Moral conventions are not so much challenged as ignored, leaving few people unoffended.
With "The Woman in White," adapted for the stage by Charlotte Jones, Webber returns to the past. Part of the appeal lies in the presentation of spectacle, with innovative scenery and elaborate costumes. "Woman" takes its gorgeous display of stagecraft from the world of technology. The scenic design by William Dudley is a totally projected series of verdant country landscapes, alternating with views of a proper English manor in all its mahogany-panelled splendor. The stage is empty of anything three-dimensional, leaving a rear cyclorama filled with moving pictures and a circular stage floor that revolves the characters into each new scene.
Webber's score, with lyrics by David Zippel, has produced one major song, "I Believe My Heart," that hit the No. 2 spot on the British singles chart. Like "Jerry," it is slated for transfer to the US.
Ticket sales are brisk for "The Woman In White," no doubt on the strength of Webber's reputation, even though the critics' reviews were mixed. "Jerry Springer" has announced booking of tickets to October 2005. Its producers made the news when they filed a lawsuit against the Daily Mail for publishing an incorrect story that the musical was losing money. Such a negative story, they argued, might have had a dampening effect on ticket sales. (The Daily Mail has since apologized.)
"Jerry Springer - The Opera" is not for the faint of stomach. Its foray into the profane makes the Broadway musical "Urinetown" look like "The Teddy Bears' Picnic." That said, however, it's worth remarking on the amount of imagination that fuels the enterprise. And producers can't help noticing that "Jerry Springer" attracts those coveted younger audiences.
"Jerry" also walked off with four major British awards for best musical - the 2003 Critics' Circle and Evening Standard Awards, and the 2004 Olivier and What's On Stage Awards.
Next up: the megamusical "Mary Poppins," set to open in December. Based on the Disney film, "Poppins" is coproduced by Disney and Cameron Mackintosh, the original producer of "Phantom." It's hard to imagine "Springer" fans lining up to hear a singing nanny. Maybe if she were prepared to air the Bankses' dirty laundry....