Bright Lights Big City
Music, book and lyrics by Paul Scott Goodman
New York Theatre Workshop
Musical Theater Review
By Ken Mandelbaum
Evocative of a strata of New York City life in the '80s, Jay McInerney's novel Bright Lights, Big City concerns a week in the life of a 24-year-old man adrift in Manhattan. Drugging and partying; pining after the wife/model who left him; recalling the mother who died a year ago; rapidly losing his job as fact checker at a magazine not unlike The New Yorker; he self-destructs but ultimately finds the path to a turnaround.
The novel has virtually no plot, and depends for its flavor on the unusual, second-person-singular, you-are-there narration. Although McInerney's screenplay for the film version adhered rigidly to the book, the absence of the novel's narrative voice along with the relative plotlessness of the source made the film unworkable.
The new musical version attempts to address this problem, but in decidedly bizarre fashion: Paul Scott Goodman, author of the book, music, and lyrics, also appears in it as "The Writer," and his performance is pretty hard to get beyond. At the top of the show, he's himself, telling us, "I found this book a couple of years ago," and how it appealed to him because it reminded him of himself during the same period. This is patently ridiculous, roughly equivalent to having Alan Jay Lerner appear at the top of every performance of My Fair Lady to tell us in song that Shaw's Pygmalion inspired him to write the show we're about to see.
Thereafter, Goodman, guitar in hand, pops up every so often as narrator (director Michael Greif tries to keep him in the shadows as much as possible), but his presence is smug and obnoxious; Goodman even has the chutzpah to appear near the end as the new man in the life of the hero's gorgeous wife. And everything that Goodman sings could just as easily been performed by members of the company.
While Goodman's presence is unnecessary, the device does serve to restore some of the narrative voice of the book. And while the outline of the novel has been retained in the show, the musical is much less faithful to the source than the film; like the novel, it's phantasmagoric, helped by the fact that the show is almost entirely sung. But if the film's inappropriately straightforward plotting has been avoided, the novel (whose title comma has been dropped, and whose nameless hero retains on stage the name -- Jamie -- invented for the film) continues to resist dramatization, at least in the hands of Goodman's rather primitive talent.
The evening does have its share of attractive melodies, but the author is a better composer than musical dramatist. His lyrics tend towards laundry-list catalogues, and in general fail to individualize the characters, so a rigorous, old-guard magazine editor sounds pretty much the same as a stoned barhopper. The characters never land, and there's little vividness or wit in the words.
And one continually has the sense that Goodman has over-musicalized a slim source, creating an elaborately composed, two-and-a-half hour opera that amounts to a tremendous amount of singing about very little. Worse, while everything that obsesses the hero in the novel is present on the stage, the show is never emotionally involving; there's little narrative drive, and boredom sets in early.
Greif's staging and a fine cast do everything possible to keep the energy going and to create the illusion that what we're watching matters. Although Paul Clay's set -- band on an overhead bridge, a wall of doors and some screens on wheels below -- is too barren to convey the world of the story (the film's realism and location shooting at least captured the look and feel of '80s Manhattan), Greif keeps things moving. In the enormous central role, Patrick Wilson demonstrates that he is among the rising musical theater talents of the moment, even if he has already had better material to perform in shows ranging from Carousel to Harmony. Kerry O'Malley's sympathetic co-worker, AnnMarie Milazzo's mother, Jerry Dixon's bad-influence friend, and Natascia Diaz's potential savior girlfriend are all strong, but the company is uniformly excellent.
Because it has the same director, design team, and producing company as another piece about young people and a particular zeitgeist -- and even has the cast wearing face mikes -- Bright Lights Big City has inevitably been compared to Rent. But there's really no comparison: The earlier show had a solid narrative foundation in La Bohème, made highly creative use of it, was full of passion and romance, and was the work of one with a genuine theatrical gift. While Goodman may have some composing talent, he is in over his head here, and Bright Lights Big City is more exhausting than enjoyable.
3/15/99 Issue #77