Paul Scott Goodman heads into the 'Bright Lights' at New York Theatre Workshop.
By Paul Wontorek
These days, any virgin composer who arrives on the theater scene with a new musical that lives on a rock beat is going to have to deal with the legacy of Jonathan Larson's Rent. For 38-year-old Scottish-born Paul Scott Goodman, things are gonna be even tougher. Bright Lights, Big City -- his new, mostly sung-through musical version of Jay McInerney's early '80s documentation of New York's cocaine, publishing, and modeling scenes -- reeks of Rent. It's being presented by New York Theatre Workshop, the original home of Rent. It boasts Rent's director, Michael Greif, and design team, who have all worked together to give the show a similar look and feel (although the world of BLBC is allowed slightly more retro touches). Bernard Telsey Casting, who discovered the fresh faces that gave Rent its urgency, employed similar criteria here, with the highlight on multiracial and unique. (One could easily imagine the cast taking Larson's show on the road.) Even the story -- a frustrated writer trying to find his place in a New York world of easy sex and hard drugs -- is something Mark Cohen and friends could relate to. And in a Broadway musical season that hasn't found its rhythm, everyone would love to see another new talent explode on the scene. Is Paul Scott Goodman our man?
It's probably no surprise that such questions are a nuisance to Goodman. Although he says that the rapturous reviews of Larson's show did fuel him to write (and that the Rent cast album offered inspiration), he wants his work to be judged on its own. But he's also secure enough to appreciate the attention this is allowing him. "Am I going to be on the cover?" he asks, half-joking, as InTheater sits down with him backstage. When he hears that his photo will be relegated to an inside page he just smiles and shrugs.
In the show, Goodman plays "Writer", sporting a teal suit, rose-colored glasses, and red plaid sneakers, his long hair shagged around his angular face. His dressing table mirror boasts photos of his three daughter, aged four, seven, and 10, and his wife, actress Miriam Goodman (who won't allow the kids to see dad's "raunchy" show as of yet). A worn-out paperback copy of Bright Lights, Big City sits on a shelf behind him, marked up with comments and underlined passages. Like a true struggling songwriter, he happily boasts that when he lunched with McInerney to present the idea of musicalizing his acclaimed novel, the author paid. "It was a very special thing," he laughs. "I had the first draft done just a few weeks later. McInerney probably thought I was a f**king lunatic!"
Paul, most of the rest of the world left this novel with the '80s. So why resurrect Bright Lights, Big City?
Well, of course I read it back in 1984, when I first arrived in New York. I remember I made a couple of notes in the back and put it away and didn't think about it again. Peter Stone, who is a mentor of mine, was always saying I should write a big musical, but I could never find the idea. He suggested it. When I reread it, it immediately came to me.
Yeah, I don't see why people would laugh. Maybe people are so used to The Goodbye Girl and all those shows based on movies. That's the new genre.
I thought it was disappointing. It didn't work. It was a very poetic book, and they lost that poetic soul in the movie.
Ah yes, the ferret. I tried to write a song for the ferret to sing: "There's not much merit being a ferret." But, it just seemed…
When I did the first draft, I picked up the guitar and started singing, "Coma baby, coma baby…" That's where the tune came from. The staging just evolved that way.
It's actually ironic 'cause for years, I've been writing one-man shows; this time, I just wanted to write a show and sit back, removed…. But when we did the first reading, I narrated it, reading the stage directions. When we reworked it and did the next reading, I wasn't in it anymore and Jim [Nicola, NYTW's artistic director] said he missed my presence onstage. And since the book was written in the second person, it worked to have that "you" voice coming from me. So, I worked myself back in for the studio production. I didn't know what was going on. I was just feeling it out. I mean, it felt right, but I didn't want people to say, "Who's that guy up there?"
Sure. It's a dream to work toward something and then have it happen. It's an amazing thing. I'm lucky. I mean, I deserve it, but I'm lucky. I'm just trying to savor it and not let it all fly by. I wanna write tons of musicals. This will be the first of many. This is the one to get my kids a really nice apartment.
I've just been commissioned by Jujamcyn to write a musical that will be directed by Mike Ockrent. It's a two-person musical, a boy and a girl together -- that's the idea.
No, not really…maybe…who knows? The other project I'm thinking about is Basquiat. Sunday In the Park With George has always been one of my favorite musicals, so that intrigues me. But I don't know. The next one I'll do is the two-character one, 'cause the Jujamcyns gave me a check!
Yeah, "R" or "JL," Jonathan Larson…
So what's your question?
Maybe. That doesn't bother me.
Fuck them. You can quote me on that. No, really. Fuck you. You wanna make an issue of that? "Is it as good as Rent?" I wrote my own show, I brought it [to NYTW]….I always thought Michael Greif would be a good director. Why shouldn't one creative team move from one project to another? Woody Allen has done that for years. It's like if you put a band together and you get a bassist and a drummer that've played together before. They know each other; it's shorthand, right? As far as the whole Rent thing goes, I knew [Jonathan Larson]. We were both working on musicals and I always felt we were different kinds of writers. I wrote on guitar, he wrote on piano. Our approach was different. The only similarity was that we both wanted to write rock musicals for a new generation.
Well, I think Jonathan's success did inspire me. When he died, it was a shock for me. I found myself writing, then taking a break and listening to Rent, then going back to writing. I think I wrote the first draft so quickly because I was in such a haze. The grief within me just came out in the writing. So in that way, yes, I was inspired.
I think it's a really great show. And if you don't like it, fuck you.