Interview: Jerry Springer, Sort of ...

By Peter Mavrik in Miscellaneous on May 1, 2007 3:10PM

Rednecks, God, cheaters, Jesus, Steve, a pre-op transsexual, Satan, the Angel Gabriel, Adam & Eve, and Jerry Springer. Where on earth can you find a cast list like that? Why, at the Bailiwick starting May 3, of course!

2007_05_springerA.jpgJerry Springer — The Opera makes its American debut on the Main Stage at the Bailiwick, and you'll be sorry if you miss this amazing show. Now, we know what you're thinking. Missing teeth, baby-daddy's, and chicks with, well, you know. And you're partially right. But Jerry Springer — The Opera is more than just an episode of "The Jerry Springer Show" played out on stage.

In spite of the controversy led by numerous protest groups in the U.K. (and the swear-word-laden libretto), the original version of the opera went on to win many of the most prestigious acting awards granted in England.

But now it's Chicago's turn at bat. Right here in the home of "The Jerry Springer Show" itself, we sat down with Brian D. Simmons, who plays the man, the legend himself, Jerry Springer, in Jerry Springer — The Opera.

Chicagoist: So you saw there were auditions being held for Jerry Springer — The Opera? What drew you to this show?

Brian D. Simmons: I was doing My Favorite Year with [director] David Zak at the time. When the original auditions came through I thought to myself, well, I don't want to do that. It's not my cup of tea. I'm an old-fashioned type of guy, I don't think so. And then they put up a second audition notice and I auditioned, and got into the ensemble. Then David came up to me one day and said "Do you want to read for Jerry Springer?" I said "Um, well, yeah!" He gave me a copy of the London cast recording from the BBC. I watched it and immediately fell in love with the show. I thought it was a show with incredible heart and incredibly innovative. From that point on, I had my sights set on it. I wasn't going to let anyone else play Jerry but me!

C: It was a fairly serious audition process. Tell us about it. What did you have to bring?

BDS: This was a very serious audition process. I know they looked at a lot of people for Jerry in particular. When I came in, my original audition was just a song and a small monologue. They gave me sides after that from the show that I read. Jerry has a couple of short speeches that they had me read. But the music was what you had to come in with; a classical music audition. It's a singers show.

C: It really is an opera? Does Jerry sing?

BDS: It is an opera in every sense of the word. Thank goodness I'm Jerry because I couldn't sing any of the other parts. I don't crack a note the entire show.

C: David asked you to read for Springer. Were you standing in a room with a bunch of other Springer wannabes?

BDS: My audition process was really weird for this because it was just me in the room with David Zak and Gary Powell. The whole thing happened to me really fast.

C: You started as an ensemble member, but now you're Jerry. What are you doing to prepare? Are you watching "The Jerry Springer Show" all the time?

BDS: I just saw a taping of "The Jerry Springer Show" yesterday.

C: Live?

BDS: Live. I got to meet him for just a second. He's a very nice guy, very funny, and he does his own warm-up act if you ever go see the show. Old, kind of Pocono's comedy. It's a lot of fun, but it's really interesting to watch him during the show. Obviously I was doing a lot of that. The arc his life has taken is interesting.

I don't know if many people know this, but he started off as a campaign aid for Robert Kennedy. Of course, everyone knows he was the Mayor of Cincinnati and in trouble for being with a prostitute. And then there's "The Jerry Springer Show." I was actually there their last day of taping for the season. They just concluded their sixteenth year. Jerry Springer has been on the air for sixteen years. That's more than half my life!

C: He's a real person. Is there a lot of pressure to be like Springer?

BDS: There is a lot of pressure. More so in Chicago than they had in London. People are going to expect a certain amount of "Oh, he talks like Jerry. He moves like Jerry. He acts like Jerry." Certainly I try to do as much of that as I can. But when you see the piece, it's not a bio piece about Jerry Springer. It's a separate character (based on him) who goes through a whole other set of things that have nothing to do with Jerry Springer in real life.

There are mannerisms and characteristics in the first act of Jerry while we're shooting an episode, that's the premise of act one. But in the second act, I have to let a lot of that go and really start to develop a character like you would in any other piece.

C: Without giving away too much, tell us a little bit about the show.

BDS: In the first act, you're going to be exposed to a Jerry Springer episode in its full force. Situation, characters, language, the whole thing. And then there's a twist at the end of the first act, which I won't get in to. In the second act, the opera moves on to a much more serious level. It really gets into a conversation about what's right and wrong, what's good and what's evil. I think the second act is what really makes people love the show. The first act will make you laugh, and so will the second, but the second act will really make you stop and look at things.

C: So there's more going on than just watching an episode of Jerry Springer?

BDS: Yes, it becomes more than just foul language and foul situations in the second act.

C: Speaking of foul language and the kind of situations associated with it, in the U.K. since the 2003 opening there have been quite a few protests about the show. Are you worried about any of that? Is it on your mind?

BDS: It is on my mind. I don't think you can do this show without knowing some of the reaction it's gotten before. But I'm not worried about it. I think if anybody came to see the show, their objections might be blunted a little bit. And certainly, anybody who has an objection to the show, I would challenge them to come see it.

C: The flip-side of that, which I found most interesting, was that even though so many people objected to the show, it swept awards shows in the U.K.

BDS: It swept the Laurence Olivier awards, which is the equivalent of our Tony awards. In fact, the ensemble won best supporting actor.

C: The whole ensemble?

BDS: The whole ensemble won the best supporting actor award. It's really an ensemble piece. The show does not belong to me. The show absolutely belongs to the ensemble. It is an opera, and the show does not function without them.

C: So the pressure would be on, a bit, because this is the American opening. The first mounting here.

BDS: It is the first mounting here, and we're going things a bit different than London did. We have a lot more staging and a little bit more dance. The London recording, at times, is very opera. We're stepping away from stand-and-sing and putting a little movement in it.

C: What do you think, as an actor, is the biggest challenge of this show? Is it portraying Jerry? I think the most interesting thing from an actor's point of view is "What's the hardest part?" What's yours?

BDS: Initially I thought it was going to be portraying Jerry; getting Jerry down enough that people would accept it. Very quickly I learned that isn't the case. There's the fact that I'm the only speaking character in an all-music show. And so there are times where I go three or four minutes without saying anything, and then I come in with a question. In the first act, I speak almost nothing but questions, just like Jerry on the show. Very few comments, a lot of questions. That was tough. It is a whole new challenge to be on stage with people that are singing, dancing, and moving. They have a whole musical theatre aesthetic to what they are doing. I come from a musical theatre background so I understand that. But I have to come at it from an actor's stance. Someone who is just working with the text and not dancing, not worried about what note he's singing (which is usually what I'm concerned with) and that's an interesting challenge when there are thirty people singing at the top of their lungs and dancing while I'm just standing there, in character, listening, waiting for when it's time to go.

C: How long does the show run?

BDS: We run until July 8. We have a nice long run. Previews start May 3, and the official opening is May 14. The show plays a little over two hours. For an opera, it's a quick opera done in two acts.

For show times and to order tickets, visit bailiwick.org or call The Bailiwick Theatre Box Office at 773-883-1090.

Images courtesy of briandsimmons.com and bailiwick.org.