The Shaggs’ bizarre story becomes an interesting off-Broadway musical

The odd-but-true story of the 1960s band The Shaggs is now an excellent off-Broadway musical at Playwrights Horizons in New York City.

By John Curley

The sad but fascinating story of the 1960s band The Shaggs has been turned into a musical that is now playing off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in New York City. The show, which carries the same title at The Shaggs’ 1969 album The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World, is a co-production from Playwrights Horizons and the New York Theatre Workshop. Previews began on May 12th. The show opens on June 7th and closes on July 3rd.

The book is by Joy Gregory. Gunnar Madsen composed the music. Directed by John Langs, The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World is a loose telling of the tale of the Wiggin family of Fremont, New Hampshire. The family patriarch, Austin (Peter Friedman), had had his palm read by his mother when he was a child. Among other things, his mother told him that he would have three daughters who would form a band. When his daughters Dot (Jamey Hood), Betty (Sarah Sokolovic), and Helen (Emily Walton) were in high school, Austin pulled them out of school, purchased instruments for them, and had them practice for hours each day. As none of the Wiggin daughters wanted to be in a band, all of that practice did not seem to amount to much. (The album by the actual Wiggin sisters—a joyless, out-of-tune mess—is so terrible that it has to be heard to be believed.) Despite being talent-free, The Shaggs scored a regular Saturday night gig at the Fremont town hall.

Peter Friedman gives a fantastic performance as the incredibly overbearing Austin Wiggin. Friedman’s Austin is nuanced but not really over the top, and he makes the audience understand why the Wiggin daughters were in an impossible situation. And the three actresses portraying the Wiggin daughters—Jamey Hood, Sarah Sokolovic, and Emily Walton—are equally excellent in showing how their characters tried to make the best of it. Annie Golden plays Annie Wiggin, Austin’s wife and the girls’ mother, and she brings out Annie Wiggin’s frustrations with her husband and her daughters’ situation quite well.

The set design really evokes the time period, with a scene taking place in a supermarket complete vintage cereal boxes and detergent packages being particularly eye catching.

The show’s creators have taken a sad story and turned it into a vivid and quite interesting musical. Book writer Joy Gregory told the Playwrights Horizons subscribers’ newsletter, “I didn’t want to do a lot of interviews with the surviving Wiggin sisters. It felt exploitative in a way—talking to them and sucking up little details to put on stage. I wanted to fill in the blanks myself and let them keep their details. Plus, I wanted to have room to connect the dots myself in more heightened, non-realistic ways.”

The Shaggs’ story was first presented as a musical in 2003. With the fully realized musical version now playing off-Broadway and talk of a film being made, The Shaggs’ saga is probably better-known now than it has ever been. Despite its undercurrent of sadness and unfulfilled ambition, The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World is a very entertaining musical and is well worth seeing. If you’re going to be in New York City between now and July 3rd, definitely check it out.

For additional information about The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World, see http://www.playwrightshorizons.org/mainstage.asp. Playwrights Horizons is at 416 West 42nd Street (between 9th and 10th Avenues). Performance times are Tuesdays at 7:00 p.m., Wednesdays to Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. The show runs two hours and 10 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

To watch a video preview of The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World, click below:

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