Joy Gregory’s new musical, The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World, is about the New Hampshire sister-act rock band whose 1969 album, Philosophy of the World, sank without a trace, only to be discovered years later by the outsider-music underground. Thanks to fan Web sites, the reissued Philosophy’s liner notes and a 1999 New Yorker article by Susan Orlean, the highlights of the band’s strange career have passed into legend: how their mill-hand father suddenly pulled his daughters out of school upon deciding their destiny lay in rock & roll; how the girls, barely able to hold their instruments properly, let alone play them, reluctantly cut a dozen clangorous songs one afternoon for the album (most of whose copies would be stolen by a fly-by-night promoter) and how their tortuous apprenticeship mercifully ended only when their father died of a coronary in 1975.
Gregory’s heartfelt band biography, premiering at the John Anson Ford’s small indoor theater, shows all of this and more, presenting an endearing portrait that avoids the saccharine and, indeed, occasionally pricks the audience with some wry imagery. The story begins as a choir, wheeling about to Ken Roht’s choreography, recites various published opinions of the Shaggs while singing an ecclesiastical-toned version of the album’s title track. Then a puppet-theater curtain parts to reveal the girls, composed of kitchen utensils, playing a gig. We meet the Shaggs themselves when Brian Sidney Bembridge’s wonderfully versatile set metamorphoses into the Wiggin family’s old house, now abandoned and being viewed by the sisters before a fire crew burns it down for a training exercise. Dot (Jamey Hood), Helen (Hedy Burress) and Betty (Sarah Hays) bicker over whether to preserve the house, and this small argument nicely foreshadows a sibling debate that will burn for the rest of their lives: Was their band an idyllic memory or a terrible nightmare?
With the appearance of their father early in the play, that debate would seem to have been settled right off the bat. Austin Wiggin (Steven Patterson) abruptly emerges from darkness in the girls’ loft bedroom, a frightening apparition mournfully singing “Silent Night.” In this primal moment Patterson is unmistakably a gargoyle of gothic imagination; you’d have to rummage through film noir and opera villainy to find comparisons — the preacher, say, in Night of the Hunter or Samiel in Der Freischütz.
In Gregory’s treatment, however, Austin quickly mellows into a kind of Yankee Murray Wilson — the Beach Boys’ warped stage dad/manager. Turns out Austin’s just another bitter blue-collar for whom the American Dream is a cruel gag. That, and a man bent on fulfilling the prophecies of his dead mother, who had predicted the three girls would play in a band. Before long, the sisters are being home-schooled; Austin and their mother, Annie (Laura Lamson), spend their savings to pay for music and vocal lessons.
The girls go along with it in a stoic, bovine sort of way. Dot’s even game enough to write all the songs, which are easily distinguished from the rock canon by their atonality and lack of teen rebellion. While others of their generation were proclaiming about war, drugs and free love, the Shaggs sang paeans to their missing cat, parents, Halloween and Jesus. The sisters, like many misunderstood prophets before them, are rewarded with scorn and obscurity, even though they play regular gigs at town hall dances and at a rest home.
Gregory walks a middle line (or high wire) between the temptation to coo over the band and to dismiss it. Her musical does not pander to the faux-stupids who idolize the Shaggs; neither does she seek a darker truth in the Wiggin sisters’ story. And there is a case to be made for seeking that truth in what would require a much more stylized show. More reasonably, though, this biography could probably settle for a pinch more darkness by drawing out material that is currently muted. According to Orlean’s New Yorker article, Helen claims to have been intimate with her father, and there is a slight hint of that in Act 1, when she and Austin are sitting alone on a couch one night, drawing a little close; when Annie enters, the pair recoil an inch back, but the distance of guilt seems like miles.
Nevertheless, this is a solid and funny telling of pop history, and nowhere does Gregory better demarcate the schizophrenic divide between mainstream entertainment and neurotic expression than in Act 1’s recording-studio scene. When a spotlight illuminates the girls playing with carefree abandon, the music sounds, well, listenable; but when Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz’s lighting emphasizes the studio’s stunned engineers, we hear what they hear — the real-life Shaggs from their album. It’s a heartbreaking yet hilarious moment.
As The Shaggs makes abundantly clear, people either love or loathe the band’s music. “It is the ugly and misshapen third-grade ashtray of rock music history,” one fan, quoted in the show, wrote frankly of the reissued Philosophy. Or, as Gregory has Betty say, “We’re the only band that gets worse the more it practices.” Yet the group would eventually be hailed as one of modern rock’s most important influences, and Rolling Stone, improbably, ranked Philosophy Number 3 among “The Greatest Garage Recordings of the 20th Century.” Although the girls listened to the radio and liked such bands of the day as Herman’s Hermits and the Monkees, their album seems totally without influences. Completely unmarred by melody lines, all of its songs are presented in a kind of tone-deaf nursery rhyme chant as the sisters become acquainted with their instruments.
The show’s music is a mix of some of the album’s recordings and Gunnar Madsen’s original compositions, which carry the story neatly enough but sound a little generic in the blues-rock way many American musicals do. I suppose an obvious alternative would have been to write Shaggs-like songs, which would be no alternative at all.
The Shaggs’ commercial legacy represents the best and worst aspects of contemporary music. On the one hand, the Wiggin sisters’ plodding persistence reflected the optimism of folk art, and indeed, their rough-hewn music is celebrated precisely because it is so unvarnished. On the other hand, by all accounts the girls didn’t want to be performing — it was certainly never their idea to start a band, and they continued to play only at their domineering father’s insistence. Their rawness is not the unschooled genius of Mississippi bluesmen but the yowlings of untalented white girls. So the Shaggs weren’t really a band in any artistic sense, but more of a science experiment conducted by a mad doctor; and, reminiscent of the abused subjects of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, their reward for obedience was a wasted youth and stunted adulthood.
This doesn’t matter to a large segment of hip music consumers, who listen to the Shaggs the way they collect Keane paintings or hail the oeuvre of filmmaker Ed Wood. To these people, the important thing about the Wiggin sisters is that they were sweet, unsophisticated and free of irony and double-entendre — all the things they can only dream of being. The Shaggs’ misery is their easy listening.
Director John Langs shows a keen understanding of the show’s shifting moods and gets outstanding performances from his principal actors: Hays is perfect as the rebel sister, Betty; while Hood, at times looking like a young Shelly Duvall, emerges as the writer-uniter of the group, Dot; Burress pulls off the difficult task of portraying the quiet Helen, whose eventual breakdown would result in a crippling depression. Perhaps her most compelling moment comes when she first encounters her new drum kit, her face a picture of bafflement and wonder. Patterson’s Austin, too, effortlessly straddles the fine line between psycho dad and beaten-down lug, his performance never losing its gleam of menace.
Listening to the Shaggs, you can hear prenatal stirrings of the Dils, Breeders and Angel Corpus Christie. The difference is that these later bands would be driven by some kind of vision, whereas the Shaggs were the proverbial roomful of monkeys pounding on typewriters — or rather, guitars. To Gore Vidal’s judgment of the Cockettes that “No talent is not enough,” Cockette partisans could reply that the gay performance troupe at least had enthusiasm. Watching Gregory’s musical, we conclude that the Shaggs did not even have that — although for good reason. Outsider music may sound as though it comes from out of nowhere, but as the Shaggs proved, it doesn’t come from nothing.
THE SHAGGS: PHILOSOPHY OF THE WORLD | Book and lyrics by JOY GREGORY | Original music by GUNNAR MADSEN | At the Powerhouse Theater Company at [Inside] the Ford, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood; (323) 461-3673 | Through December 14