Lewd, licentious yet lovely

Of course it should be on TV - Jerry Springer is a modern classic, writes Susannah Clapp

This show is one of the best things to happen to musical theatre in the past 10 years. The rapt audience at the Battersea Arts Centre's opening night four years ago recognised its originality immediately. The version we watched was half-finished and barely staged, with only a piano for accompaniment, but its invention outshone anything on offer elsewhere. The lyrics were scabrous, but the music soared. It put the modern world on stage: ridiculous, outrageous but recognisable.

In 2001 the National was offering the ballyhoo of South Pacific as its Christmas show, while the West End recycled the blandly retro Peggy Sue Got Married. Jerry cut through all that with its glorious comedy, its mixture of the lewd and the lovely. When the show arrived - expanded and darkened - at the Lyttelton, it provided the biggest thrill at the National for decades.

'Chick with a Dick', 'My Mom used to be my Dad': the chorales rise sweetly. It's an inspired joke, this setting of trash TV to elevated music. As a satire, it cuts two ways. It savages the cult of public confession, whipped-up crowd hysteria and the sanctification of media celebrity. When the chorus sob out 'Jerry', they elongate the vowels to make a 'Jerry Eleison'.

At the same time, it doesn't let high art off lightly. It reveals opera as the perfect vehicle for blubbing soliloquies and violent encounters - like Jerry's show, it is made up of melodramatic exchanges in which people are so busy bellowing that they can't hear each other scream.

Montel wants his girlfriend to pin him into diapers: the aria in which he explains his dilemma is exquisite, absurd and heartfelt.

Jerry Springer meets one of the essential requirements of a powerful musical: its characters sing to music that allows them to express more than their words say. It meets an essential requirement of drama in examining a real subject: the worship of fame and the self. It is wonderfully funny. Of course it deserves to be televised.

·Susannah Clapp is The Observer's theatre critic

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