Shopping & trucking - The Great American Trailer Park Musical
This article is from 2008.
When a show is dubbed as a cross between Desperate Housewives and South Park, it’s going to get noticed. Emma Lennox hears some trash talk from those behind The Great American Trailer Park Musical
The humble trailer park is an unlikely setting for a big song and dance extravaganza but perhaps there’s a little razzle dazzle glinting off those hot tin roofs. Since 2001’s Tony Award-winning Urinetown: The Musical, the imaginative limits are being tested Off Broadway and now its spotlight is on strippers, junkies and the assorted crazies of Armadillo Acres Trailer Park. But then if country and western singers have taught us anything, it’s that there’s plenty of drama to be drawn from ‘the wrong side of the tracks’. Even the derogatory term ‘trailer trash’ is something of a fashion label these days, with the super-elite donning trucker caps to poor old Britney going the whole hog with achy breaky heart syndrome.
Now, arriving centre stage is The Great American Trailer Park Musical which, like its bold as brass title, is not shy about flaunting its dirty laundry on the Fringe. ‘People’s first assumption is that the show is dirty, demeaning, embarrassing and insincere,’ says Eva Price, producer of Trailer Park’s national tour and the woman responsible for its UK visit. ‘Well, they have the dirty part right.’ Devised in 2004 by Betsy Kelso with music and lyrics by David Nehls, Trailer Park is the story of stripper-on-the-run, Pippi, who brings a whole lotta trouble to the Floridian park. To be precise, if this was a popular daytime talk show, its title would be, ‘I’m a stripper hiding in a trailer park from a magic marker sniffing boyfriend and have fallen for a tollbooth operator whose agoraphobic wife doesn’t give him space.’ Even Jerry Springer would struggle with his final thoughts on this one.
Thankfully, there is no sanctimonious sermon from the nasal soothsayer, instead a commentary is given by a Greek chorus style threesome of larger than life residents. Doreen Barnard plays trailer park owner Betty who, ‘loves to put her nose in everyone’s affairs’. Betty imparts wisdom through songs including ‘The Great American TV Show’, which Barnard picks as a favourite for making fun of, ‘exactly what the entire show spoofs: that kind of over-the-top, dirty-laundry-in-hand ethic that seems to be taking over the US.’ Crucially for a show with ‘great’ and ‘American’ in its title, lack of subtlety is Trailer Park’s key to success.
Everything from the set designs to the garish costumes is an exaggeration of the already grotesque white trash aesthetic of popular culture. The late 80s/early 90s emergence of reality TV affairs such as Cops and talk shows like Jerry Springer have culminated in what Barnard criticises as a loss of national dignity: ‘Regrettably, privacy has become synonymous with snobbery in the US and is, therefore, a bad word.’
It has also had the effect of caricaturing those below the poverty line, making easy pickings for more recent comedies which have been hits in the UK such as My Name is Earl and Jerry Springer: The Opera while Trailer Park Boys is Canada’s most successful TV export. The mockumentary style adventures of the latter is a well-written example of character-driven comedy in a classic sitcom set-up of losers always losing. Although Barnard states that with the exposure people are, ‘more willing to take a hard look at the realities of poverty than they were 30 years ago,’ it seems that if they are looking at trailer parks it’s purely to laugh at the ironic tragedy of a mobile home going nowhere.
Both producer and actress, however, are keen to distance The Great American Trailer Park Musical from the cheap humour of stereotyping. ‘The characters are colourful, irreverent, and totally surprising,’ says Price, adding that in America, ‘people often thanked us for showing a human side to people living in a trailer park, and not mocking them.’ In reviewer shorthand the New York Sun described it as ‘Desperate Housewives meets South Park’, but the reality is less subversive, and more of a warm-hearted look into the lives of the show’s women. Perhaps an all-singing, all-pole dancing, rural take on Sex and the City fits the bill better, as Barnard confirms, ‘people identify with the characters’ predicaments, if not necessarily with their choice of clothing’.
The Great American Trailer Park Musical, C, Chambers Street, 0845 260 1212, 30 Jul-25 Aug, 10pm, £9.50-£11.50 (£8.50-£10.50).