When the question is raised, “What was the worst song ever recorded?” among the most popular answers is an offkey lament for a lost cat titled “My Pal Foot Foot.” It appeared on the album Philosophy of the World, released in 1969 by the Shaggs. It’s said that only 1,000 copies of the LP were pressed, and that the band’s manager absconded with 900 of them.
He wasn’t the only one who made their lives miserable. The Shaggs were three teenaged sisters from a little town in New Hampshire, Dot, Betty and Helen Wiggin. None of them was musically trained or naturally talented or wanted to be a rock star. But their overbearing father Austin Wiggin believed musical success to be their destiny, based on a palm reading. So he made the girls drop out of school, bought them instruments from a pawnshop, forced them to practice and got them a regular gig at the local town hall.
They never got any better than they started out. Dot and Betty’s guitars were never in tune, and Helen, the drummer, was noted for keeping time with something only she could hear – certainly not what her sisters were playing. The lyrics they wrote sounded depressed, like girls who were just waiting for their father to die so they could stop obeying him. And that’s just what they did, breaking up in 1975 when Austin passed on.
But in the interim, a weird thing happened: Frank Zappa somehow got hold of a copy of their record and played excerpts from it on the Dr. Demento radio show, waggishly proclaiming the Shaggs “better than the Beatles.” The band then had a brief flush of bemused popular success; their LP was rereleased in 1980, panned by critics even as it attained cult status. Some in the punk world proclaimed the Shaggs progenitors of Outsider rock; Kurt Cobain became a big fan. The Wiggin sisters seemed embarrassed about the whole phenomenon.
Their strange story inspired Joy Gregory and Gunnar Madsen to write an “unconventional musical” called The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World, which premiered in Los Angeles in 2003. A New York Theatre Workshop/Playwrights Horizons co-production ran Off-Broadway in 2011 and garnered a slew of awards. A movie version has long been rumored to be in development. Now, for the first time since the 2011 run, the Bridge Street Theatre in Catskill is readying a revival, featuring one of the show’s original stars, Steven Patterson, as Austin Wiggin. “It’s probably the greatest role I’ve ever had in my career in musical theater – sort of like having to play Mama Rose in Gypsy and King Lear on the same night – and I can’t wait to revisit it with this cast,” says Patterson. In the amateur spirit of the origin story, students from the Catskill Central School District, Alexa Powell, Amara Wilson and Meeghan Darling, will portray Dot, Betty and Helen Wiggin. Also in the cast are Molly Parker Myers, Julian Broughton, Magnus Bush and Edward Donahue. John Sowle directs.
The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World will be performed Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. from July 11 to 21. The preview on July 11 and the July 14 matinée will feature “pay what you will” pricing. For other performances, tickets cost $22 in advance, $25 at the door if still available, $10 for students aged 21 and under. To order, call (800) 838-3006 or visit https://shaggs.brownpapertickets.com. Visit https://bridgest.org for more info. The Bridge Street Theatre is located at 44 West Bridge Street in Catskill.
The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World , Thursday-Sunday, July 11-21, 7:30 p.m./2 p.m.,$25/$22/$10, Bridge Street Theatre, 44 West Bridge St., Catskill, (800) 838-3006, https://shaggs.brownpapertickets.com, https://bridgest.org