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To listen to a recording of The Shaggs' 1969 album Philosophy of the World is to wonder at the very purpose of artistic creation. The droning guitars, erratic percussion, and nasal singing of the Wiggins sisters are undeniably jarring. What would compel someone to preserve this for posterity? Despite their distinctive sound, which has been described variously as "better than the Beatles" and "the worst rock 'n' roll record ever made," The Shaggs continue to hold a strange fascination for many. Still, turning the story of the world's worst rock band into a musical might seem misguided. [End Page 478]
Instead, creators Joy Gregory and Gunnar Madsen and director John Langs have fashioned a remarkable production that upends the already predictable model of "jukebox musicals" that have inundated New York, in part by using the tunes of their eponymous girl group only sparingly. Madsen has composed more than twenty original songs, many of which are clever pastiches of popular styles of the mid-1960s, like The Association's "Cherish" and the Motown hits of Mary Wells or girl groups like The Chiffons.
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Jamey Hood (Dot), Dana Acheson (Helen), and Amy Eschman (Betty) gather to watch their childhood home burn in The Shaggs. Photo: Laura Penney.
The story borrows from the familiar rise-and-fall pattern of VH1's Behind the Music, but manages to transcend the form's banality. Rooted in real events, the plot concerns three daughters pressed to become music stars by their frustrated mill-worker father. It is 1968, but the cultural revolutions of the decade have yet to reach working-class Fremont, New Hampshire. The adolescent Wiggins sisters—Dot, Betty, and Helen—live a shabby, depressed existence where their prospects seem as bleak as their present. Their father, Austin, has other plans. He was told by his clairvoyant mother that his daughters would save him from toil and obscurity, so he decides, in what he rightly calls a "fever dream," that the girls will achieve fame and fortune as a rock band. He abruptly buys instruments and pulls them out of school. That the girls have little aptitude for music does nothing to deter him, and he destroys both the family's meager budget and their personal connections in his attempt to live his American dream. He dies unfulfilled, and although his death frees the girls from band practice, his fatalistic legacy looms large in their lives.
Gregory and Madsen interweave themes of legacy, destiny, and fate throughout the show. Even as choice appears to be offered, it is severely limited by one's birth, particularly as determined by sex and class. This is pointed up early in the production, as students are marched through their school's annual "Parade of Labor," where they must publicly announce their appropriately chosen future: soldiers for boys, secretaries for girls. Blue collars for all. Despite his belief in fate and his oppressive environment, Austin takes a particularly American view that "you make your own magic," and he is determined to do just that, while his daughters chafe against his plan and seek their own sorts of escape.
The Shaggs obviously invites comparisons to Gypsy, but its intertwined themes of fate and filial duty unexpectedly invoke canonical texts like Oedipus Rex and King Lear. While the fathers of those great plays serve as the central figures, the titular girls are at the heart of this musical, and their performances send the production to unexpectedly touching heights. Each daughter has her own coping strategy: brainy Dot (Jamey Hood) is fiercely loyal to her father even though it seems she has the most to lose; truculent Betty (Amy Eschman) takes bitter refuge in impotent threats of rebellion; Helen (Dana Acheson) retreats into silence and secrecy.
In musicals, even the most reprehensible characters are given a basic dignity through the...