The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World

Three of my favorite movies, The Muppet Movie, Almost Famous and That Thing You Do!, either center around or feature a band (Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem; Stillwater; and The Wonders, for those keeping score). So you would think that a new musical about a band would thrill and delight me. I can’t add The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World to my list of favorites, but there’s potential.

“Based on the true story of The Shaggs,” this new musical, currently being given its New York premiere (other iterations have appeared in Chicago and Los Angeles, and a workshop was previously presented in Rochester), tells the story of the Wiggin family. It’s 1968* in Fremont, New Hampshire, and patriarch Austin (Peter Friedman) is searching for something, for purpose, really, and decides that his future can be found in the form of his daughters, Dot, Betty and Helen (Jamey Hood, Sarah Sokolovic and Emily Walton), forming a band, The Shaggs. Mom Annie (Annie Golden) hesitantly goes along with the plan, even when it means ponying up their life savings in order to record and promote The Shaggs’s debut (and only) record, Philosophy of the World. Complicating matters are Helen’s love interest Kyle (Cory Michael Smith), and a variety of authority figures and record business types, played with zest by Kevin Cahoon and Steve Routman.

Written by Joy Gregory and Gunnar Madsen (with story by Gregory, Madsen and director John Langs), The Shaggs tells an interesting story, though there are pieces of the story that could use further exploration and some of the production elements left me feeling uneasy.

The musical begins with Papa Wiggin standing at his deceased mother’s headstone, wondering aloud, what’s it all about, Austin? It seems his mother had a sixth sense of some sort, and Austin is looking for the signs that will help deliver him and his family from the typical suburban life. Austin’s relationship with his mother is reiterated a few times throughout the musical but Austin’s internal struggle - which ultimately leads him to push his daughters into the life he never led - isn’t explored deep enough for my taste. And his wife, Annie, is given terribly short shrift. She has a couple of moments that display her strength of character (and one great song, “Flyin’”) but those moments are too few.

A lot of the focus in on the girls, Dot, Betty and Helen, and their relationships with each other and their father. Dot is, self admittedly, not the favorite but she’ll do anything to please her father. All she wants is for her father to like her and be proud of her. Betty is the most vocally defiant one and sort of “over” the family dynamic and humdrum-ness of her life. Helen is inquisitive and loves her father, but she’s also the youngest and has the most exploring to do. We watch her blossom throughout the show, particularly as her relationship with Kyle grows. All three girls make for compelling characters, but there was something about their presentation that struck me as strange.

Have you read or seen The Virgin Suicides? (Sofia Coppola’s adaptation of the Jeffery Eugenides novel is meticulously faithful.) Can you picture the five Lisbon girls dancing around the front yard, blond hair flowing and white cotton dresses blowing in the breeze? When we first meet the Wiggin girls, that’s what I thought of. All three of them have identical haircuts - long, wavy brown hair with bangs - and they’re wearing white cotton sleep dresses as they dance around their father in the living room. Something about the way Austin tries to program the girls’ lives reminded me of the strict rules in the Lisbon house, and so throughout the entire musical, I was worried that some tragedy would befall the Wiggin girls.

The story of the Shaggs isn’t nearly as fatal, though it is arguably nearly as tragic. These girls are all but robbed of an adolescence and are forced to kowtow to their father’s demands - regardless of their feelings. In fact, they are barely able to give voice to their feelings, except to each other. Mom can’t stand up for them because that’s not how the husband-wife dynamic worked then. Despite the Shaggs not being very good, Austin thinks they could be as big as the Beatles, and he pushes them through humiliation after humiliation. Finally, desperate measures disabuse Austin of the notion that he can control his daughters but yet, tragically, there is no happiness in freedom for the Wiggin girls.

The writing is decent - the book and score are mostly solid - but something is missing. This is missing a clear focus and point of view. It’s missing fully fleshed out characters. It’s missing its soul and it’s missing a knock out ending. (Even with all those things missing, The Shaggs felt too long.)

Again, I think there’s potential here. While it wasn’t captivating, it did hold my interest. The performances were good (I was particularly impressed with original Hair alumna Annie Golden and theatre newcomer Cory Michael Smith), and the set and costumes (Mimi Lien and Emily Rebholz, respectively) seemed to hit the right notes of a modest, sheltered family in the late 60s. Still, I don’t want to put on a Shaggs record... but I might be interested in a remastered version.

*The program says the action takes place in 1969 but a banner displayed in one scene places the year at 1968. Suffice it to say that the action (save for an epilogue set in 1980) takes place in the late 60s.