Co-produced by Playwrights Horizons and New York Theatre Workshop, The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World is a new musical based on a true story. Three sisters from Fremont, New Hampshire with no musical expertise were forced by their father to form a rock band and record their debut album in Massachusetts in 1969, which would later become a cult classic. Although there is much to recommend in this quirk-filled show, the sum unfortunately does not equal the individual parts. It’s a sad story about failed dreams and unfulfilled ambition — kind of a downer, to be honest. The Shaggs’ album, Philosophy of the World, faded into obscurity, only to be rediscovered and then rereleased on vinyl in 1980. The dozen songs are best described as “outsider music,” featuring earnest, unpolished, off-tempo, and atonal compositions with deeply accented vocals and simplistic yet existential lyrics.
Nonetheless, the strange innocence and youthful energy of The Shaggs earned them many fans, including Kurt Cobain. Frank Zappa called them “better than the Beatles.” A review of their CD on Amazon.com dubbed it “a Dada masterpiece.”
A lot of folks, however, would disagree with those assessments. “Many people in Fremont thought the band stank,” according to a 1999 profile in The New Yorker written by Orchid Thief author Susan Orlean. The Shaggs are definitely a love ’em or hate ’em kind of band. The Shaggs, the musical, however, offers decidedly more grey area.
Tony Award nominee Peter Friedman (Tateh in the original Ragtime) plays Austin Wiggin, the overbearing father who is a cross between Mama Rose from Gypsy and Joe Jackson — father of Michael, Janet, and the rest of the Jacksons. And make no mistake, Austin is the center of The Shaggs. It’s his mother’s prophecy that the girls will be in band that propels the misguided working-class dad to pull his offspring out of school to become The Shaggs.
But there is something off-putting about watching two-and-a-half hours of a father bullying his untalented daughters into making music when they display no passion or aptitude for it. His haranguing and berating borders on and sometimes crosses over into violence. It’s a harrowing performance by the magnetic Friedman, but it isn’t enjoyable or comfortable to watch.
Annie Golden (last seen in Xanadu and most famous as Jeannie in the film version of Hair) as the sympathetic mother and supportive wife adds a lighter touch. Her spectacular, helium-soaked voice takes flight in the gorgeous “Flyin’” — a highlight of the second act.
Regarding the three sisters, Jamey Hood gives dramatic heft to the role of Dot, lead guitarist/songwriter and the daughter with the fiercest loyalty to her father. Sarah Sokolovic adds both flirtiness and willfulness to vocalist/guitarist Betty.
Emily Watson (from Playwrights Horizons Saved) as the drumming sister Helen charmingly sings the first act showstopper “Impossible You,” but her character is mute (by choice) most of the play. Speechless characters can be problematic onstage, forced into physicality that can come off as clownish, childish, or both.
One problem of The Shaggs lies in making the father, not the girls, the main focus of the narrative. His drive and ambition are obsessively clear, while the trio of daughters seem interchangeably sullen and bored. None of the girls really shine through, although each is given at least one moment in the spotlight.
But the main flaw with The Shaggs is that the show is not true to life. In reality there were six Wiggins kids, many of whom had a hand in the live shows, including another sister, Rachel, who joined the band later and played bass. None of the other siblings exist in the musical-version world of The Shaggs.
The sisters were also all blonds, not brunettes like the wigged cast members. Even the ages of the girls are mixed up. Helen is portrayed as the youngest, when she was actually the oldest. And while the action onstage takes place while the girls are high-school aged, Helen was 22, Dot 21, and Betty 18 when their album was recorded.
Changes like these can be chalked up to artistic license, but they remain somewhat baffling considering the legendary status of The Shaggs story. Why base the musical on a true story if you’re not going to portray its reality?
Aside from these qualms, the most striking moments of the show occur during the recording of the album as we hear the songs performed onstage by the romanticized version of the trio and then also hear the actual output in comparison. The difference is startling. The times the actual Shaggs songs are reworked and turned into beautiful music — complete with sisterly harmonies — as opposed to the discordant originals are also deeply affecting.
A song in Act One called “Show Me the Magic” aptly describes my ambivalence about The Shaggs. A musical about musicians who couldn’t make music; a talented cast playing talentless people; a true story that is actually far from the truth. In the liner notes to Philosophy of the World, Austin Wiggin wrote “The Shaggs are real, pure, unaffected by outside influences.” Sadly, the same cannot be said of The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World.