Is America Ready for Anna Nicole?
By Jerry Portwood
From Left: Sarah Coomes, Robert Brubaker, and Sarah Joy Miller | Photo Credit by Stephanie Berger
Some things do get lost in translation, according to Richard Thomas, the librettist of Anna Nicole, even when it comes to her larger-than-life persona. With the opera receiving its New York premiere this week at BAM starring Sarah Joy Miller in the title role, we wondered what, if anything would change for an American audience. "We rewrote a few scenes after the London opening," Thomas explains from Brooklyn, where he's been in rehearsals with the new cast of the opera. "And we needed to change some lines. For example, when you get a massage in England, it's from a masseur, here, no one calls it that, you get it from a masseuse."
But that wasn't the only technical difficulty. "There's a big ol' gag ending that was written as 'Legions of the faithful getting blowjobs in carparks…" he begins. "We changed it to blowjobs at truck stops."
Luckily, Thomas is an expert in lewd vernacular spanning the English language. Before writing Anna Nicole, he shot to infamy for his part in crafting the naughty plot and lyrics for Jerry Springer: The Opera, which turned out to be too daring (or ahead of its time) to ever transfer from the West End, where it was a smash, to Broadway (although it did get a one-night staged reading at Carnegie Hall in 2008). So this Anna Nicole opening is a "big deal," Thomas admits. But is he ready for the reaction to the bawdy Texas blonde and a chorus singing about big boobs, billion-dollar blowjobs, and (gasp!) the c-word? After thanking him for creating a show that sang my own first name in an operatic chorus, I got his take on the current musical theater and opera scene as it stands today.
Do you think after Book of Mormon things have changed and audiences aren't so shocked to hear such crude language on stage or sung as an opera?
Jerry paved the way for Mormon, and now Mormon is returning the compliment and it may have paved the way for Jerry again to have its moment on Broadway. There's no Christiniaity in Anna Nicole, by the way. we got into a bit of trouble with that in England with Jerry Springer: the Opera. We never saw it coming.
But this is a heckuva role. And Sarah Joy Miller has huge stamina; I'm overjoyed with her...
Why does an English guy has a thing for American trash culture?
You can't underestimate what a shock it was seeing The Jerry Springer show in England. I couldn't believe my eyes and ears. And then the Anna Nicole story—it was so fascinating! Here's a woman who has 24/7 coverage of her; she's global superstar. What did she do? You know, nothing, she's Anna Nicole. That's fantastic. In a way, she's like our monarchy. She doesn't do anything, she just turns up. People have asked, 'Why don't you write about kings and queens and people like that?' Anna Nicole deserves an opera written about her far, far more than any member of the Royal Family or the aristocracy.
So you've always just love American pop culture?
Tell you what I did. When I was a kid, I heard Miles Davis's Kind of Blue when I was, like, 12, and it changed my life. I thought, Oh wow, this came from America, what else is there? My dad worked in pre-Vietnam America. It was a bit of a mythical time there for him; he had a Golden Age there before it was corrupted by Vietnam and that sort of stuff. I think that all filtered into me. I love Andy Warhol and all that. And it seems to me, if you want to write a story purely about fame, and it's a big theme in Anna Nicole, then it's about the currency of success and the fight and yearning for it all. I think fame and showbusiness is royalty. We have those desires in England and Europe, but the Anna Nicole story, if you're going to write a story about fame, that's the story to tell.
Everyone I've talked to, gay men at least, have talked about how much they love Anna Nicole and have to see this show. Why do you think that is?
I'm gay too, by the way. And as a gay writer, as a writer of opera and musicals, when I see a story like that, I'm gonna pounce! Her story appeals because it's very messy. I think as gay men, we certainly empathize with the marginalized. I think you understand the messiness that life can become. We don't shy away from that. Anna Nicole the mythology. It's not a like a made for TV movie. In the opera we earn the tears. I don't want it to seem phony. It's not a documentary, even if you did a documentary, you're telling a version. The mother is this Cassandra type figure. The mother has said, it didn't happen that way, that's not what happened. The father says the same thing. Everyone has a story, they're trying to defend themselves.
Has anyone asked you to tone it down? Like, Richard, that's fine and all, but do you really need that many fucks?
I'll tell you two stories: One, I remember this American producer from LA came and watched a run of Jerry at the National Theater. He was like, "I don't get it, there needs to be more jeopardy." Which is quite an LA term. "What's the jeopardy?" That inspired the line, "What's in it for me? If you don't do it, you'll be fucked in the ass for all eternity with barbed wire." And he asks: "And if I do it? What will happen? Well, you won't get fucked in the ass with barbed wire." That was it, the producer was like, yeah, that's jeopardy."
With Anna Nicole: I remember one meeting someone said, 'There can there be no more fucks.' But I said: 'We live in the 21st century, we watch The Wire, there's not an issue with the vernacular." I said, "There's only 24 fucks in the piece." She replied: "I think you'll find there are 25." I thought, Damn she got me.
But with this show, I was a bit more conservative. There was a very,very minor constraint. There's only one use of the c-word: Cunt-hungry. That's cunt-hyphen-hungry, which I thought was great. I want a really good use of the c-word, and it's hyphenated, and I think it's poetic. It's the mother who is singing a big anti-men song. It's an angry and triumphant ballad.
So it's different when it's sung beautifully?
That's what I like about musical theater and opera. The music can say one thing but the text can say diametrically something quite opposite. These two languages are happening at the same time. It's endlessly fascinating what they can do at the same time. I remember telling the composer [Mark-Anthony Turnage] that the first version of the song—the line is "men are cunt-hungry beasts looking for new ways to offload their sacks of love juice…"—was really bitter. I said, "No, no, try it again and make it seem like she's receiving an Oscar." You know? And it works! I worked on an opera years ago called Tourrette's Diva and my mission was to run the most uncommercial thing around. I look around, and I realize it might be commercial now.
A vile invective spewing out of the mouth of an opera singer: It gets huge laughs. The medium somehow diminishes the violence of language. I get it now, opera can be extreme as well. It can be almost cartoon-like; it does deal with crazy-extreme subjects very well. You can get away with child murder.
What do you think about the controversy that someone low-class like Anna Nicole doesn't belong in an opera?
You know what, the idea for this opera is a totally conservative idea. Think about it: If you put it in the time of Versailles or in the Habsburg-era Austria, if she was Comtesse Anna Nicole, and she marries an old man for money, and it's an arranged marriage, and he dies and then the family sues her—they wouldn't think twice, it's an interesting story. But since it's not aristocracy... Oh no! It's a very old story. I didn't realize how thematically rich that story was as a subject matter until I was almost halfway through it. Single mom, trying to make it; it resonates with a lot of people. She's made some good choices, some bad choices, then she's run out of choices.
Anna Nicole runs at Brooklyn Academy of Music, Sept. 17-28. For tickets visit the website.