March 9, 1999
To rise above the needle
MARK FISHER meets a Scot in New York bloodied but unbowed by the critics.
IT'S three o'clock on a New York morning. Paul Scott Goodman is famished. The Glaswegian ex-pat is coming down after the first night of Bright Lights Big City, a novel of cocaine-fuelled 1980s life by Jay McInerney, transformed into a musical by Goodman, who also stars. He's come off stage, done the post-show party, it's the middle of the night, and it's time for food. He goes to make a sandwich, and the phone rings. It's his sister-in-law. She's been monitoring the New York Times website, waiting for the first-night review to be posted. Goodman picks up the receiver. "It's bad," she says.
It's the next afternoon, and I'm meeting Goodman at the New York Theatre Workshop, home of the company that produced More Stately Mansions in last year's Edinburgh International Festival, as well as the Broadway and West End musical Rent. Around the building, the atmosphere is brittle and hung over. You don't recover easily when the New York Times describes your efforts as "easily the most frustrating experience of this bottom-drawer season for the American musical". Words like "insufferable", "excruciating", and "ham-handed" only twist the knife.
In the dressing room Paul Scott Goodman is searching for a phrase to sum up his reaction. "It's too fresh, this wound," he says, dazed but not defeated as he pours a consoling glass of Oban malt. "I can't get my mind around it. It's not over yet, though. I'm going to do the run, and who knows what will happen?"
You have to feel for the guy. In this city, the status of the New York Times is God-like, and it's strictly an Old Testament God, one that casts down fire and brimstone as readily as love and munificence. What the critic from the Times says goes. There are plenty of other reviews, but none that carries anything like the same authority. For Goodman to have had four years' work dismissed in a 1000-word notice must feel like a head-on collision. He looks startled and stunned. All his hopes, plans, and expectations are on hold. Now only word of mouth can save the day.
And it might. The worst of it is that, to my mind, the critic Peter Marks is wrong. I saw Bright Lights Big City this time last year in a try-out production in the same East Fourth Street theatre, and thought it worth a second trip across the Atlantic to see it in its full glory. I wasn't disappointed. Twelve months on, it's still an exhilarating show.
Directed by Michael Greif, who was also responsible for Rent, it's a slick, contemporary-rock musical with a driving score that pauses only for the scantest of narrative explanation. With catchy numbers such as I Love Drugs, I Hate the French, I Wanna Have Sex Tonight, and Coma Baby, it has a wit and a forthright urbane style that is all modern in a genre so often ossified. For all its guitar-based arrangements, however, it never relinquishes those good old-fashioned musical values of story-telling clarity and hummable tunes.
Above all, it does great justice to McInerney's novel, adding emotional depth to his tale of the hedonistic excesses of Jamie, a would-be novelist searching for emotional fulfilment in the upwardly mobile New York of the Reagan era.
For the critics, though, it's one too many rock musicals about drugs. It doesn't matter that Rent was a low-life updating of La Bohème, where Bright Lights is a reworking of a middle-class eighties novel. All that seems to matter are the pointless points of comparison.
Bolstering Goodman's ego, however, are the gang of girls [editor's note: who? Angela, Cathy, Kim, Laura and I? naa. not us.] who've been making repeat bookings since the show opened its preview run in January, not to mention the unofficial website that's sprung up. One influential producer is convinced it would get a Tony award if it played on Broadway. "The audience response has been genuinely nice," says Goodman. "That's the stunning bit. Everything seemed to be rolling, everybody was responding, the cast were feeling great."
Goodman has lived in New York since 1984, believing it to be the best place to establish a career in musicals. He's been obsessed by the form since taking juvenile parts in Glasgow amateur dramatics shows. After studying at Glasgow University, he headed to London, where he worked as a press agent for Keith Moon, before setting out as a singer-songwriter. He went on tour supporting Joan Armatrading, John Cougar Mellencamp, and the Average White Band, then to the US, where he wrote seven musicals, and won three major awards. Bright Lights Big City is his first mainstage production, and as sole lyricist, composer, and key performer, it has been no small undertaking.
"I think it's skilfully done," he says. "That's why I'm wounded. But am I devastated? No. It's a good show. If I lay down and start whimpering, he's beaten me, and I can't let him do that. So many people are admiring of the stuff, and they can't all be wrong. The audience that are laughing and clapping, and crying when the mother dies can't be wrong."
As we talk, we're joined by Patrick Wilson who, as the lead actor, has come in for special needling from the New York Times. All I can ask is the trusty journalistic stand-by: "How do you feel?" "I feel a little betrayed," says Wilson, an attractive, square-jawed, blond-haired young actor whose performance carries the show. "It's just annoying to see the words 'aloof and impenetrable', which is so bizarre. It's not like I'm tooting my own horn, it's just an odd thing to say. I could take a lot of things - if anything I would take over-acting, but to say I'm not there ... come on, I couldn't have had that bad a night!"
If it means the end of Bright Lights Big City, it'll be a shame, but it won't be the end of Paul Scott Goodman. Once he recovers he'll be getting his head down on a show commissioned by leading British theatre director Mike Ockrent. Called Rooms, it'll be a two-hander about a couple of songwriters who meet in the Glasgow of the late seventies, and continue their relationship over two decades. "I'm stunned," says Goodman. "But am I finished? No."