Yesterday a theatre-loving friend of mine tweeted about a new musical coming to Playwrights Horizons next spring that tells the story of a girl group called The Shaggs, a band of 3 sisters from New Hampshire who had their “heyday” in the late 1960’s. A band that only released one album some people regard as a colossal failure, while others – most notably rock icon, Frank Zappa – proclaim as utter brilliance. When discussing his take on it Gunnar Madsen – who will be writing the music & lyrics for the musical is quoted in the New York Times as saying the following:
“I found it profoundly depressing. Other people find a simple joy in it, but for me I just heard how they were forced to do this. I can hear where they’re just struggling to find something out of the chaos which is music.”
The article follows up by discussing how Madsen planned to approach the original music – one of the biggest challenges (I think) in translating the life of any artist to the stage in the form of a musical – to which he answered that he intends to “try to answer the question, ‘What did they hope they would sound like?’”
Well, color me interested.
From there I followed a hyperlink earlier in the piece to another article, this one about the band itself, written by Susan Orlean for the New Yorker Magazine in 1999. It’s epic, but an incredible read. I’ll give you the abbreviated version of their story, because I find it totally fascinating.
The Shaggs are comprised of sisters Dot, Helen and Betty Wiggins and none of them ever wanted to be musicians. The whole idea was technically their grandmother’s – she prophesized to their father, Austin, that his daughters would be in a band and because a few other of her earlier predictions came to fruition – well, he decided to make that one true as well. He started them with voice lessons and practicing instruments as early as possible and forced them to rehearse for hours a day, pulling them out of school and forbidding them to date or socialize. They were not allowed to leave the house outside of Saturday night performances at the local town hall – performances where they were almost always booed and pelted with various objects. This of course did not deter their father who refused to believe anything other than it was his daughters’ destiny to become stars.
In 1969 he decided that they were ready to record and poured all his life savings into making “Philosophy of the World” a reality. Of the 1,000 copies that were made, 900 were stolen by the producer, and the 100 sent to radio stations were soundly rejected. Instead of giving up, Austin drilled them in rehearsals even more. Several years later they went back into the studio and began recording a new tracks – until one day Austin died suddenly of a heart attack, “the same day, according to Helen, they had finally played a version of [the song] “Philosophy of the World” that he praised.” That was 1975. The band dissolved.
All the sisters eventually moved out, got married, and began families of their own. Their mother Annie ended up selling the family home and moving to an apartment. When new owners took up residence, however, they swore it was haunted by Austin’s ghost and burned the place down, building a new residence farther back on the property.
The Shaggs’s music lay dormant until the 1980’s when Terry Adams and Tom Ardolino, of the band NRBQ introduced them to the world outside of New Hampshire. They pushed their label, Red Rooster, to re-release the album, as well as a collection of later recordings from their second studio session and at home called “The Shaggs’ Own Thing.” Later in 1999 Joe Mozian of RCA Victor discovered the band and again re-released the original “Philosophy of the World” on that label. None of the albums performed well commercially, but the music was regarded as an “avant garde cult-classic” from then on. They are featured in Irwin Chusid’s book Songs in the Key of Z; The Curious Universe of Outsider Music. And in 2001 the label Animal World released a Shaggs tribute album called “Better Than The Beatles” – based on a Lester Bangs article about their role in the history of music – featuring artists like Deerhoof, Plastic Mastery, Ida and Mongrell covering their songs.
And now there’s a musical.
With Madsen writing the music & lyrics and Joy Gregory behind the book, “The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World” was first developed and presented in 2001 through the A.S.K Theater Project in Los Angeles. Two years later it premiered as part of the [Inside] the Ford Hot Properties Series. From there it went to The Manhattan Theatre Club in NYC, Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company and various other showcases. All workshops and productions have been directed by John Langs.
To buy The Shaggs “Philosophy of the World” go to Amazon.
To buy “Better Than The Beatles: A Tribute to the Shaggs” go to iTunes.
From “Who Are Parents?” by The Shaggs
Who are parents?
Parents are the ones who really care
Who are parents?
Parents are the ones who are always there
Some kids think their parents are cruel
Just because they want them to obey certain rules
They start to lean from the ones who really care
Turning, turning from the ones who will always be there
The Shaggs “Who Are Parents?”
The Shaggs – Who Are Parents by tadpoles shouldn’t drive
The Shaggs “Philosophy of the World”
The Shaggs – Philosophy Of The World by tadpoles shouldn’t drive