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On the Culture Front: When America Doesn't Have Talent: The Story of the Shaggs

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Gunnar Madsen, Joy Gregory, and John Langs' new musical, The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World, takes its name both from the real life New Hampshire girl band formed by the Wiggin sisters in the late '60s at the insistence of their father, Austin, and the title of the only album they ever recorded. Snippets of the original album are heard throughout the show and are jarring not only for their sheer lack of musical ability (they never play or sing in tune and the tempo conveys just how uncomfortable they are) but for the pain and extreme unease that is instantly felt by us, the listeners.

Thankfully, Madsen decided to craft his music mainly around moments inside the girls' thoughts and dreams so we can glimpse at the beauty they were never able to articulate. One of the highlights comes when Helen (Emily Walton), normally mute, expresses her love for Kyle (Cory Michael Smith), singing, "Impossible You." Musicals were always meant to express larger-than-life moments through songs, but by reserving songs particularly for the characters inner thoughts, Madsen, Gregory, and Langs preserve a down-to-earth realism that's often lost when characters begin to sing.

The songs also exude a real people vibe with atonalities and singers belting strained notes slightly off-key -- the way you might hear them at a friend's birthday party -- but there's still a real drive to the music and accompanying lyrics. We're first introduced to the Wiggin's patriarch, Austin, who, as played by Peter Friedman, is one of the most frighteningly tragic paternal characters to grace the stage since Willy Loman. It's easy to see why the girls are terrified of him, but in these opening moments, he endears himself to us by philosophizing how everyone wants what they can't have. This leads into the opening song, "Verses in the Body," which contains the single, simple line that pulses though the show: "The life that you want is already there." It sounds positive and encouraging when we first hear it, and the music supports our feeling, but it quickly becomes a dark omen as the show continues.

We learn that Austin's mom made a prediction before she died that he holds very close to his heart, especially after he doesn't get expected overtime at work. She said he would marry a woman with strawberry blonde hair, buy a little yellow house with a couple of apple trees, and that his daughters would form a band. The first two came true, so he begins to feel with increasing intensity that he will finally be happy if he makes the third happen.

The problem is his daughters, Dot (Jamey Hood), Betty (Sarah Sokolovic), and Helen, don't want to be in a band. They're shocked when Austin gives them all instruments on Helen's birthday and are not sure what to do. They know they can't say "no" to their overbearing father, though, so they try to please him, writing strained songs like "Things I Wonder" and "My Head is an Empty Birdcage." The process is akin to giving a toddler some paint and paper and watching what happens. Now imagine the toddler is being screamed at regarding what she should paint and what colors to use.

Read more about The Shaggs in my Classical TV column this week.