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Review - The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World

Although there have been previous productions of The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World since the musical premiered in Los Angeles eight years ago, thanks to a 13-year-old girl's fondness for Friday, the show has never been more relevant.

Just three months ago Rebecca Black was thrown into the public spotlight when the roughly 19,000 subscribers to comedian Michael J. Nelson's Twitter account received a link to her music video, "Friday" (essentially an inexpensively-made demo meant to introduce the young singer to industry people) with a note calling it the worst video ever made. That same day, the popular Comedy Central series Tosh.0 ridiculed the video with headline, "Songwriting Isn't for Everyone."

As of this writing, "Friday" has amassed over 163 million hits on YouTube, and while Black and the video are still the butts of many jokes, she's also won over hearts by accepting her awkward situation with a smile, donating her newfound income to Japan relief and school arts programs and working to improve her skills as she prepares a second video.

But this isn't the first time the music industry has propelled someone from nowhere to national attention on the basis of their perceived ineptitude. In 1980, Terry Adams and Tom Ardolino of the rock band NRBQ convinced their label to reissue a favorite album of theirs; a little-known 1969 pressing titled The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World. This was the one album released by sisters Helen, Betty and Dot Wiggins, whose only live appearances were at the weekly dances at the Fremont, New Hampshire Town Hall. (For a sample of their sound, listen to the album's title track and to "My Pal Foot Foot.") That alone probably wouldn't have pulled the band out of obscurity, but Rolling Stone got a hold of the album and with tongues firmly in cheeks honored them as "Comeback of the Year." With that kind of high-profile attention, their music, for the first time, started getting radio play, though usually as the object of ridicule, but they were also praised by admirers of outsider art for their raw naïveté. Frank Zappa called them, "better than the Beatles."

You might think a musical based on this odd little story would aim to be a comic celebration of delusional underdogs who dream of rock stardom, but what makes The Shaggs so daring, original and outright fascinating is that bookwriter/lyricist Joy Gregory and composer/lyricist Gunnar Madsen have taken what is essentially a joyless story of a bullying father who takes his children out of school and forces them to spend hours a day writing and rehearsing pop songs with the belief that they can't be any worse than the bands on The Ed Sullivan Show, and whips it into a touching and even loveable evening of smart musical theatre. (Though the facts are altered a bit for the stage, the script comes with the approval of the two surviving sisters.)

Peter Freidman has his work cut out for him as blue collar patriarch Austin Wiggin, playing a tyrannical figure that could easily come off as a villainous stereotype in lesser hands. His forceful and intimidating vocals, a rage against a world that offers him no success despite a lifetime of sweat, could make you genuinely fear that he might physically lash out at his family. But the excellent Friedman infuses the character with awkward moments of affection, showing the emotionally strained man is loving them as best he can.

As the dutiful Dot, the sassy Betty and the terribly shy Helen, Jamey Hood, Sarah Sokolovic and Emily Walton sound terrific/terrible together. None of the sisters have any desire to write and play music, and they seem fully aware of their inability, but Hood and Sokolovic endearingly convey the sense of humor their characters maintain to make the best of the situation. Their New Hampshire accents may seem a bit broad, but listening to recordings of the actual Shaggs proves their accuracy. Helen, who doesn't talk, plays drums and Walton bangs them with such fury that you know her character is trying to release emotions she cannot, or will not, express.

Annie Golden has more of a secondary role as the gentle housewife just trying to keep her family happy, but the authors give her a moment to step out of reality and display her dynamic rock vocals.

Aside from the snippets of vintage Shaggs songs that are used, much of the score has the characters singing in such steps out of reality, but the music and lyrics are cleverly written to sound not much better than the music that was produced in their real lives. It would be unreasonable to expect the audience to listen to a full score that sounded like the selections from Philosophy of the World, but the authors achieve dramatic strength and reinforce the fact that these are not musical people by having the songs within them sound no better than adequate.

A sterling example is Dot's "Don't Say Nothing Bad About My Dad," an angry anthem that is remarkably heart-wrenching in context because the artless simplicity of the lyric, the unattractiveness of the melody and the bottled rage of Hood's performance are so starkly real. Another moment that nails the same audio image comes when Helen first hears The Association's hit recording of "Cherish" and is inspired to lead the company in an imaginary version of their vocal harmonies, which is achieved with enthused, but not especially inspired, results.

Along with the authors, director John Langs deserves credit not only for the excellent performances, but for keeping a sympathetic tone that never tries to draw laughs from the inabilities of the Wiggin sisters, and manages to keep the story interesting despite an overwhelming lack of optimism for their artistic growth. While Austin has dreams of wealth and fame for his daughters, he never seems to believe they're any good; just no worse than those rock bands on television and the radio. The small-label record producer who signs them (Kevin Cahoon) knows they'll never get radio play, but thinks it's possible they can gather an underground following of other kids who, despite their dreams, came to realize they're not good enough to be the next Beatles. In the second act, the creators tease the audience with a taste of what we might hope The Shaggs would grow to be, only to have our ears forced back into a reality.

Though Cory Michael Smith is very empathetic as Helen's secret boyfriend, their subplot seems superfluous, though it does help show how the Wiggin girls were not allowed to lead normal teenage lives. More time could be used to show how the sisters went from knowing nothing about music to being able to compose and play songs and figure out whatever arrangements they could by themselves. In at least one interview the surviving Shaggs said they were teaching themselves music without any guidance. Who knows... with some decent teachers maybe they really would have wound up better than The Beatles. Or maybe even better than Zappa.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Sarah Sokolovic, Emily Walton and Jamey Hood; Bottom: Annie Golden and Peter Friedman.

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