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30 Days of NYMF on BroadwayWorld Day 24: The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World

The Journey of The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World

For a long time, playwright Joy Gregory went around telling people she was working on a play about a cult favorite, outsider girl band called The Shaggs. They were these three sisters in New Hampshire in the 60s, and they couldnt really play their instruments at all but their dad forced them to be in a band because of some prediction his grandmother made. "Great idea!" people would say. Joy agreed.

At a playwright-composer workshop in L.A. led by Ben Krywosz, Joy met composer Gunnar Madsen and felt that magic click. Joy mentioned that she was working on a new play about The Shaggs and...hey, what if it was a musical? A musical about people who can't make music? That sounds GOOD! Gunnar sparked to the idea immediately and pretty soon the new team was off to work on the idea at a writers retreat through the now (sadly) defunct A.S.K. Theater Projects in L.A. "I think the eureka moment for us was this idea that the original music in the show would be the beautiful, fully-realized music that all these characters have in their heads only when they try to bring it out into the world, it ends up sounding like The Shaggs." The band's music tends to provoke one of two reactions. Quotes from the reviews of their LP Philosophy of the World on pretty much sum it up:

"The Shaggs are sonic evidence of a greater reality beyond that which is dreamt of in any sort of human philosophy."

"This music is lemon juice on paper cuts."

After hearing the Shaggs music, Gunnar tended to fall into the latter camp. While Joy isn't nearly as worshipful as most of the Shaggs fans, theres a quality in the music that led her deeper into the story. "It's a kind of haunted quality," says Joy. "I remember I had only read about them before I heard them, and one night listening to some college radio program, I heard this music that made my heart stop. It sounded like gothic pop made at the bottom of a well. Before the DJ identified them, I knew it was The Shaggs. I find their story actually pretty devastating and that quality is really present in these bizarre, naive little pop tunes they wrote about Halloween and sports cars and lost cats. Music and sports are full of examples of talented kids pushed by an obsessive parent, usually a scary dad -- the Beach Boys, the Jacksons, Venus and Serena Williams. But when you have a parent who literally feels like fame and fortune were promised to him by the Fates and his daughters have no way to fulfill that need, then you get the elements of real tragedy -- hubris, ancestral prophecy, Cronus devouring his children."

The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World received its premiere production in Los Angeles in association with the Powerhouse Theatre, directed by John Langs. By now the score had found its shape, the three sisters became distinct, and everyones inner lives were expressed in pop ballads, doo wop, plainsong chants, gospel raveups, or thickly dissonant choral pieces. "I love how the score gets darker and more challenging in the show," says Joy. "I think by the end of Act One, youre left with this hopeful, funny story of a band on the brink of improbable triumph, complete with a big West Side Story-like Act One Finale. But then in Act Two, things go really weird and dark which, again, I feel honors the real story of The Shaggs." The production won a host of Los Angeles theater awards, including an Ovation award for World Premiere Musical, a L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award for Musical Score (and nominated for Best Production) and the L.A. Weekly Award for Musical of the Year.

The Shaggs was subsequently produced at the Lookingglass Theatre Company in Chicago, where Joy is an ensemble member. The production was again directed by John and the band pit included some exciting players: LeRoy Bach of Wilco and David Hilliard from David Byrne's touring band. Musical director was Rick Sims of the Didjits and the Gaza Strippers.

After participating in the NAMT Songwriters Showcase last year, The Shaggs team was lucky to pair up with producers Laura Penney and Jane Abramson of PenneySeal Productions and Amy and David Southerland of AWOL Theatre Project, Inc., which have shepherded the show into this years NYMF. The team is thrilled to have Peter Friedman (Ragtime, Outer Critics Circle winner, Tony and Drama Desk nom.) in the part of Austin Wiggin, the father of The Shaggs, and Tracy Sallows (Angels In America) as Austin's wife, Annie. The talented cast also includes Dana Acheson, Jimmy Bennett, Bill English, Amy Eschman, Jamey Hood, and Glenn Peters.

Rounding out the NYMF team, Aaron Gandy serves as musical director, Jessica Hendricks choreographs, Gary Smoot is the scenic designer, Wade Laboissonniere is the costume designer, Aaron J. Mason is lighting designer, Robbin Broad is sound designer, Jennifer Abraham and Gay Taylor are assistant directors, Meredith Palin is the associate costume designer, Julie Pittman is the assistant sound designer, Rafi Levavy is the production stage manager and casting is by Nora Brennan Casting. The band includes Brian Silvoy, Jason De Pope, and Felipe Torres. Associate producers are Jared Cohen and Kevin Cordova.

The in-rep performance schedule for The Shaggs schedule is Sept. 27 at 8 PM, Sept. 28 at 8 PM, Sept. 29 at 8 PM, Sept. 30 at 4:30 PM, Oct. 1 at 8 PM, Oct. 2 at 1 PM and 4:30 PM.

The Beckett Theatre in Theatre Row is at 410 W. 42nd Street. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at or by calling at (212) 352-3101.

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