Monday, May 23, 2011

The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World

Theater Review Dept.: The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World

Note to WFMU listeners and our crowd: I saw the second night preview of The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World, an off-Broadway musical at Playwrights Horizons Mainstage Theater, on 42nd Street. It’s a total winner. Bringing my 11-year-old daughter, I was confronted by the task of explaining why American Idol is musically and spiritually poisonous, but The Shaggs' badness is beautiful. For instance, on their 1969 LP, the drums are so neatly out of sync that you nearly have to be a musician to appreciate it. (And thus, unlike Idol, The Shaggs cult is among the musically literate.)

photo credit: Joan Marcus

Philosophy has been workshopped for nine years, with earlier productions in Chicago and L.A. These days, musicals and their creators must be workshopped to death before they get a sliver of a chance for a mainstream breakthrough. This New York launch runs through June.

The Shaggs were the Ed Wood of girl groups, a band so innocently, sincerely “bad” that they inadvertently founded the category of outsider music. In the age of over-categorization, look in the “Other” bin. Defined by Irwin Chusid of WFMU, the outsider premise suggests that some cassette recording you might have surreptitiously made of your grandpa singing in the shower could become tomorrow’s Number One hit record.

Philosophy’s plot is driven by the Shaggs’ nutjob of a dad, Austin Wiggin, played by an all-too-convincing Peter Friedman (no relation). He was their unrelenting Ed Wood-like visionary. In the late sixties, he forced his three small-town New Hampshire daughters into a band that he envisioned would become his ticket out of a banal working-class hell. Well, their father was somewhat right. Only it’s slowly happening in the decades after he dropped dead of a heart attack in 1975.

The show makes ethereal use of the ascending “Twist & Shout” modulating harmonies to imply something otherworldly and spectacular was in the air. The anti-Beatles. In this case, the recording of an album that could vie for “worst” of all time. But of course, like Ed Wood films, it is not the worst, but rather something unique, singular and inspiring. Philosophy of the World, the album, was re-released in 1980 after being discovered by the band N.R.B.Q. Some descriptions over the years: “original, fearless art”; “a Dada masterpiece”; “mind-bendingly horrible” and “sufficient to disprove the philosophical structure of the modern world.”

It’s said the sisters were barely allowed to listen to any music growing up. So in fact, it is as if these teenage girls had to re-invent music. Then practice it for years, so that it took on its own untutored, yet highly structured teenage-girl style. You can’t fashion a musical using the actual Shaggs songs themselves, so the writers created a wholly original musical around their subject, quoting fragments of Shaggs material within the score. I counted two beautiful ballads, by Gunner Madsen and Joy Gregory. Ethereal performances by the girls, as Dot, Betty and Helen Wiggin.

Philosphy of the World is a splendid take on The Shaggs' odyssey. I hope the show forges eastward on 42nd Street.

(Playing through June 2011 at Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St. in NY.)

© 2011 Josh Alan Friedman


  1. This is a lost blast from the past. A Chicago DJ (Steve Dahl) championed this band in 1979 on WLUP playing their songs to a bewildered morning drive audience (including the 14 year old author of this post) garnering them probably the biggest audience they had enjoyed. Unfortunately the novelty wore off (or the complaints proved too much to bear) and the band disappeared back into obscurity save for those that had obsessively taped this shock jock's shows for later enjoyment (or in my case because I knew of my imminent move to Dallas far outside my hero's listening range). I played this tape's audibly offensive contents for my new found Texas friends, many of whom were even more bewildered than their Chicago counterparts (atrributable to growing up in the bible belt I surmised) but found a few who appreciated the twisted genius found in this cacophonous brilliance (many of whom musicians who are still friends to this day). This tape was played until eventually lost; and like so many treasured items, missed until the memory faded into the past. I feel I must thank you for resurrecting this memory from deep inside my concious and hope against hope that this gem of a musical finds its way to Dallas.

  2. i was there at the official premier last night, and even got my pic taken with mrs. dot. a stunner eve.

  3. Great write-up, JAF. I've seen the production twice and it's spectacular. It's a backwoods Death of a Salesman. Imagine Bye Bye Birdie directed by David Lynch. Terrific performances, esp. by Peter Friedman as dad Austin, a cotton-mill Phil Spector. Amazing two-tiered set, great score by Gunnar Madsen, and a capable band. Highly, HIGHLY recommended.