A romantic comedy musical about grammar

At rehearsal of The Angry Grammarian, from left: Abrham Bogale, Madeline Snyder, Benjamin Behrend, Niamh Sherlock. Contributed photo.
At rehearsal of The Angry Grammarian, from left: actors Abrham Bogale, Madeline Snyder, Benjamin Behrend, Niamh Sherlock. Contributed photo.

Jeffrey Barg’s first introduction to musicals nearly got him in a lot of trouble.

“I still remember when I was growing up, there was this episode of Mr. Rogers (Neighborhood) that was an opera about spoons,” Barg said. “I don’t remember many details other than it was my favorite episode of Mr. Rogers and I was a huge Mr. Rogers fan growing up.”

Growing up in Pittsburgh was the perfect place to be a fan. The show was taped in the area and Barg found himself on set, staring at the Land of Make Believe.

“I remember going there as a kid to tour the set,” Barg said. “And when we got to the Land of Make Believe, I was so overcome with excitement that I broke rank and ran under the ropes to the castle because I really wanted to meet King Friday. Some security guard had to come pick me up by the scruff of the neck.”

Looking back on that Mr. Rogers opera that centered around spoons, a mountain, Prince Extraordinary and Wicked Knife and Fork, Barg learned you can make just about anything into a musical. 

So, years later, he did.

Barg took one radical idea of writing a column about grammar and transformed it into a romantic comedy musical about grammar and language, which will run at Theatre Exile at 13th and Reed streets from March 8-16. The column, which previously ran in Philadelphia Weekly in the 2000s, was revived in the Philadelphia Inquirer five years ago. Both the column and the play go by the same name, The Angry Grammarian. It harkens back to an idea about 20 years ago.  

“It started at the Philadelphia Weekly, which was a pretty free-wheeling place when I was there in the mid 2000s,” said Barg, who now lives in South Philly’s Bella Vista neighborhood. “You were allowed to try things and screw up. I approached the idea of a grammar column because I wanted to try it. I was a copy editor and was really excited by language and I found there were others out there like me. Once I discovered that, it was a big eye-opening moment for me that there could be an audience for talking about grammar in a humorous kind of way.”

Writing funny columns was one thing. Barg wanted to add more dimensions by bringing it to the stage.

“I’ve always been a big theater buff,” he said. “When I’m not writing, I’m doing community theater. And I’ve also been a musician all my life. I realized you can combine all of these things and musicals are an amazing way to do that.”

The Angry Grammarian is presented by Pier Players Theatre Company. It’s an original story by Barg and David Lee White, with Barg supplying the lyrics and music for the show. Songs in the show poke fun at confusion between words like their and they’re, or how many spaces should be used after a period. 

The written piece that gave readers a chuckle with their morning coffee now has a goal of delighting theatergoers. 

“I had a moment at rehearsal where I just looked around at all these unbelievably talented people working toward this goal of putting on a great show,” Barg said. “Knowing that this is my baby and this thing that David and I have been working on together is coming to life, is incredible. There’s really nothing else like it.”

The show runs just more than two hours and tickets are $25 online at https://pierplayers.ticketleap.com/theangrygrammarian/dates. It also marks the end of the second era of the written version, as Barg announced in his column that he was ending his column.

“I’m actually officially ending my run in the Inquirer and I decided with the launch of the musical, it was a good opportunity to take the column in a different direction,” he said. “I’ll be focusing more on the musical and publishing on my own as well and I’m pretty excited about that.”

Fully into the musical now, Barg isn’t holding back. But don’t worry, you don’t have to be a perfectionist with sentence structure to enjoy the show, either.

“It’s a really fun and funny show about language and grammar,” Barg said. “I think it hits on universal themes because we all care about how we communicate. We don’t always realize that everything down to, like, where we place a comma or a period can affect how what we are trying to say is heard. It’s an opportunity to hear a story that plays with those ideas that, I think, is really fun and will resonate with a lot of people.”