Months before coming to the United States, “Jerry Springer the Opera” is stirring up controversy in Britain.
The show, which contains up to 8,000 profanities and features tap-dancers dressed as Ku Klux Klan members and a showdown between Satan and a diaper-wearing Jesus, will be broadcast live on televisions across the country by the British Broadcasting Corp. on Saturday evening.
More than 20,000 people have complained to the public broadcaster and are planning protests outside BBC offices before the show is aired. MediaWatch-U.K. has also written to the chairman of the BBC Governors, asking him to reconsider the airing.
But, to the horror of many parents and Christians, the BBC is standing firm, saying “it is the BBC's role to broadcast a range of programs that will appeal to all audiences — with very differing tastes and interests — present in the U.K. today."
The shocking production evidently has a following; about half a million people have seen the West End production, and it was named best musical at the Olivier Awards, the Critics’ Circle Awards, the Evening Standard Awards and the What’s On Stage Awards.
‘It's perfect for opera’
Based on the lurid Chicago talk show, the opera is an unlikely fusion of high art and trailer-trash culture.
Composer Richard Thomas explained how Springer’s program provided an ideal theme for an opera.
"It's got tragedy. It's got violence. There are people screaming at each other, and you can't understand what they're saying," he said.
"It's perfect for opera."
As Springer’s guests belt out their sexual exploits and sordid fetishes — in songs like “Chick with a D...” and “Eat Excrete” — the stage show explores society’s obsession with fame and its voyeuristic desire to revel in other people’s anguish.
The second half of the show features a Wagnerian descent into hell, where Springer presides over a battle of biblical proportions.
While the stage show created controversy, the BBC’s plan to screen it live has created hysteria, with the BBC swamped with more complaints than it has ever received.
The Daily Mail reported 8,000 cases of swearing, while the Sun newspaper counted 3,168 uses of the “f” word and 297 “c” words. The BBC responded, saying that the count of 8,000 obscenities was reached by adding every swear word sung by each member of the 27-strong chorus. And The Times said the chorus consisted of 40 people, reducing the number of swear words to 150 per person. However, The Times’ multiplication did not appear to add up.
Regardless of the exact number of obscenities, “people do resent bad language, profanity and blasphemy being blasted into their homes,” said John Beyer, director of the TV lobby group MediaWatch-UK.
Jesus ‘a little bit gay’
The depiction of the Messiah as a fat, diapered man who sings he’s “a little bit gay” has driven Christians to inundate Web sites with messages urging believers to protest the screening.
“Calling all Christians who want to stand up for what they believe,” began a community board message on www.rejesus.co.uk by someone named “Big Al."
He ended his message with: “Let’s prove that the ‘silent’ majority are no longer prepared to remain silent. Enough is enough!”
David Soul, the current star of the hit show, defended the BBC’s screening, saying, "It wouldn't have got where it is if it was about blasphemy and language.”
The former “Starsky and Hutch” actor told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program that the show’s critics had a right to protest, but added: “We have a right to enjoy quality entertainment.”
Each British household that owns a television set must pay an annual license fee of £121 ($226) that goes toward funding the BBC. So critics of “Jerry Springer the Opera” feel that the corporation has an added responsibility to respect their views.
“They are a public source broadcaster with obligations laid on them by Parliament, particularly because of the way it’s funded,” said Beyer, director of MediaWatch-UK.
“If the public reaction to this show is anything to go by, they aren’t meeting their obligations,” he said.
Controversial show heads to Broadway
If the show were a spoof on Jewish, Muslim or other religions’ prophets, “they simply wouldn’t do it,” Beyer said of the BBC.
“That’s what makes it all the worse, that they think they can do it to the Christian believers in the country,” he said, adding that the show had given focus to a growing dissatisfaction at falling television standards.
The previous record holder for the most complaints to the BBC was for the airing of Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” in which Jesus is tempted by an alluring image of Mary Magdalene.
Amid the renewed controversy, “Jerry Springer the Opera” is scheduled to run for six weeks in San Francisco this spring and open on Broadway next fall.
"Either it will be the most enormous hit, or audiences will walk out in horror," producer Jon Thoday told the BBC when the American opening was announced last year.