A musical about terrible musicians makes the music tolerable; is that a good thing?

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Meet the Shaggs. (Photo by Joan Marcus.)
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The Shaggs, three teenage sisters in small-town New Hampshire, were a quirky novelty act that released one independent record in 1969. It sold just a few dozen copies, and no wonder: They couldn’t really play their guitars or drums, or sing particularly well, or keep in time. (Listen here and you’ll understand.) That would have been the end of the story, if they hadn’t eventually become an outsider-art totem to fellow rockers (Frank Zappa, then NRBQ, and later Kurt Cobain) drawn to their naïve ... genius? They became cult legend.

It's a nice story. But how do you turn the story of a band that doesn’t know anything about music into a musical? The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World, named for the band’s only album, goes behind the music. The socially awkward Wiggin sisters grew up working class, with a hot-tempered and frequently unemployed father who decided one day that his girls were going to make him rich. He pulled them out of school, bought them instruments, and spent all the family’s money promoting their new band. By the time their record was released, they were bankrupt, their manager had screwed them over, and the girls wanted out so they could start their own lives.

Something of a cross between Gypsy and The Virgin Suicides, this isn’t a happy story—not even with the unexpected coda of belated semi-fame. Joy Gregory’s script puts all the familial pathos, documented in The New Yorker by Susan Orlean, on display with just enough humor to make it bearable. She also effectively imbues the three girls with distinct personalities, even if they all seem to share a certain blank-faced passivity.

Peter Friedman plays the father as volatile but ultimately, in a strange way, well-meaning; while his control over his daughters is obsessive, his belief in them is deep and true. The girls—angelic Helen (Emily Walton), assertive Betty (Sarah Sokolovic), and self-aware black sheep Dot (Jamey Hood)—are all compelling on stage, even if their accents fade in and out. And Kevin Cahoon gets some great comic scenes as the band’s oily manager.

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The show’s creators opted to tell the band’s story with music, but very little of it is the band’s own. This was surely a wise decision from one perspective—most people couldn’t endure a whole evening of the off-kilter originals; if you don't believe me, try clicking "play" on the video below.

But this treatment saps the story of some of its distinctiveness. There are some strong traditional musical-theater numbers by Gregory and composer Gunnar Madsen, from Helen’s comic flirtation “Impossible You” to the Patsy Cline-ish “Flyin’” sung by the girls’ mother Annie (Annie Golden). But the songs the girls sing together evoke the sweet, simple, melodic strain of '60s pop, not the bizarre freestyle originals The Shaggs sang in real life.

In other words, the performers sound good—which undercuts the real sadness of their story. This isn’t a tale of a great, undiscovered band that didn’t get the big break it deserved. This is a tale of a band that had no business being a band. Their tragedy wasn’t not making it to the big time; their tragedy was making it to the stage at all.

There’s a moment in the Act II where The Shaggs are in the studio. Brilliantly directed by John Langs, the scene cuts back and forth between the girls singing their song, as they think they’re playing it—in sync, in harmony, on key—and the song as they’re actually playing it, which the recording engineers are hearing in the booth: jarring, discordant, amateurish, a mess. “It’s like innocence, but it’s twisted,” the group’s manager offers up as praise, but the engineer feels otherwise, comparing the sound to “seriously disturbing cubism.”

There’s no accounting for taste. Perhaps The Shaggs were amateurs whose music is best forgotten. Or perhaps they knew exactly what they were doing, creating complicated song structures that was simply ahead of its time. Zappa reputedly said they were “better than the Beatles.” Most people would disagree. Nonetheless, it might have been more interesting if the play gave the audience more than a tiny taste of the band’s real sound, and let us decide for ourselves.

The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World is playing at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd St. Tickets are $75. Call 212-279-4200.