Fortunately, he's decided to be flattered (“How many people get to become an opera in their own lifetime?”). If he hadn't, it seems unlikely that daytime TV icon Jerry Springer — or his lawyers — would have let the show named after him get as far as Britain's Royal National Theatre after its initial presentation at the tiny Battersea Arts Centre in south London and subsequent appearance at last year's Edinburgh Festival.
But it's at the National that Jerry Springer: The Opera now resides, part of incoming artistic director Nicholas Hytner's policy of broadening his company's appeal to younger audiences who've traditionally shunned theatre. Lyrics such as “Slut Junky” and “Chick with a Dick” have almost certainly never been heard on the National's stages before.
“I think maybe I'm thought of as the unshockable Rick Fisher,” the show's LD replies when asked how he became involved with the project, “especially after lighting Mother Clapp's Molly House [a play about 18th-century gay male prostitutes] in 2001.” Fisher's first involvement with the show was in Edinburgh last year, “where it was much smaller than it now is — but the venue we were in had nine moving lights and we brought in nine more that we shared with the other shows — a mixture of Martin MAC 500s and MAC 600s.”
The show's physical production has grown radically at the National's proscenium arch theatre, the Lyttelton, but its structure and premise remain fundamentally the same. The first act is set in the “real world” of Jerry Springer's daytime TV show. About halfway through the act, the show moves into more surreal territory, leading to what is one of the most over-the-top (and/or sickest, depending on taste) finales in showbiz history: the Ku Klux Klan chorus line, complete with gas-fed burning crucifix. With Jerry shot by a disgruntled employee, the second act relocates to Hell, where the Devil has brought the TV host to help extract an apology from Jesus, getting as far as having him confess that maybe he's “a little bit gay.”
The action is framed by Julian Crouch's set, which at first presents a recreation of Springer's television studio, and, after the intermission, changes only slightly to become a TV studio in Hell. Lighting accomplishes most of the many, many other changes the show requires, and Fisher has been driven by two diverse notes. “Stewart Lee, the co-author and director, once said to me that ‘a show with no mirror ball is a seminar,’” Fisher recalls, “and in Edinburgh one of the other shows had one, so we pointed all the lights at it and everyone loved it.” As this suggests, the temptation to run riot is strong, but Fisher and his programmer Vic Smerdon have tended to follow the opera part of the title rather than the Jerry Springer part. “Nicholas Hytner's note was that the show is at its best when it's taking itself seriously, real people having these issues, rather than laughing at itself,” Fisher adds. Though there are glitzy lighting moments, for much of the time the lighting takes itself seriously too, whether recreating a hard, white TV-studio feel for the early scenes or beautiful character moments at other points in the show.
For the National, Fisher and Smerdon used the theatre's Strand 500-series console, allowing them to start with the roughly 350-cue structure from Edinburgh. The rig has grown for the National, though, to 16 High End Systems Studio Spots® and 28 Martin MAC 600s all supplied by Essential Lighting, plus six Vari*Lite® VL5Bs™ which are part of the Lyttelton's stock. “The VL5Bs with their tungsten beams were great for just lifting people out of the discharge light,” Fisher explains, “and if we do the show again I'd think we'd add a few more of those.” The overhead lights hang in view from trusses that sit inside Crouch's side walls, “so that the lights give something of the feel of a rig in the television studio to the audience, even though we know they might not strictly be the right lights.”
Fisher pronounces himself pleased with his work on the show. “I think we help tell the story for the audience — there's a lot happening in two hours!” And his reputation as unshockable? “Actually, for such a foul-mouthed show, I think it's surprisingly moral in the end.” The critics agreed and praised the show to the rafters. Jerry Springer: The Opera has been bubbling underground for a while. Now it's a smash hit — doubtless soon to launch itself at the rest of the world!