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The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World

This ambitious, unusual new musical about the real-life all girl band from the 1960s inspires constant admiration.

Sara Sokolovic, Emily Walton, Jamey Hood,
and Peter Friedman in The Shaggs
(© Joan Marcus)
A sad story of a man's pursuit of a promise of fame and happiness comes discordantly to life in The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World, now playing at Playwrights Horizons in a co-production with New York Theatre Workshop. It's an ambitious new musical that inspires almost consistent admiration, while also proving to be curiously distancing.

The show relates the true story of how Austin Wiggin (Peter Friedman), a blue collar worker in Fremont, New Hampshire in the 1960s, compels his teen daughters Betty, Dot and Helen Wiggin (played by Sarah Sokolovic, Jamey Hood, and Emily Walton, respectively) to form a band called The Shaggs because of his deep belief in a prediction that his late mother made about the girls being the key to his success, not because of any innate interest the girls have in playing music or any innate talent that they've displayed.

Composer Gunnar Madsen ably matches the group's curious musicianship in his score, simultaneously echoing the sounds of the period, while also pursuing an atonality similar to the The Shaggs' disharmonies. (The actual LP they made, which gives the show its title, is briefly heard -- and amply showcases their inherent lack of musicality).

Similarly, the lyrics -- penned by Madsen with bookwriter Joy Gregory -- have a bluntness that also echoes the work heard on the recording. Their collaboration defies traditional musical theater writing not only in its sound, but also in form, musicalizing fantasy sequences and internal monologues. Although excellent, their work, which often just narrates characters' feelings, keeps audiences' emotions at arms' length.

A similar sketchy, descriptive quality applies to Gregory's book, particularly with regard to Betty, shown merely as a wiseacre bad girl, and Dot, who's the conciliatory good one. Helen, who refuses to speak after being teased in school, is marginally more interesting as she falls in love with classmate Kyle (charmingly played by Cory Michael Smith), and later marries him in secret. And while all three actresses sing the difficult score with gusto, they rarely further illuminate the characters.

This is not the case with Friedman's feral turn as Austin. Not only does he deliver a fierce, yet pitiably world-worn, turn as the man who attempts to live through his daughters, he also delivers a vocally fearless performance, nailing each intentionally flat note in the score with precision, allowing audiences to hear that dad's belief in his girls might come from the fact that he himself is tone-deaf.

On some levels, the story functions as a metaphor for a man's pursuit of an elusive American Dream. Early on, the family, which also includes mother Annie (movingly played and gorgeously sung by Annie Golden), visits a grocery store where The Association's sweetly harmonic "Cherish" plays and the products are lined on shelves to gleaming perfection. (Mimi Lien's two-tiered scenic design is a wonder, functionality enhanced with beautifully considered details.) Looking at the clan in their ragtag clothes (from costume designer Emily Rebholz), one instantly sees the disconnect between the family's reality and the mass-market ideals by which they find themselves surrounded.

The same can be said for this show, which doesn't fit easily into any sort of standard musical theater mold, leaving one to wonder if The Shaggs, like the group itself, will become a footnoted cult classic.