Bright Lights and Footlights
By Blake Green
There's rarely been surer proof of the commercial invincibility of that power trio -- Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll -- than "Bright Lights, Big City." Jay McInerney's chatty portrait of the fast life of the '80s has sold more than 2 million copies and come to wittily reflect the zeitgeist of a hedonistic age fueled by cocaine.
Nevertheless, the novel's star-studded movie version was something of a dud and, time having jogged briskly onward into new and varied indiscretions and absorptions, the question might arise: Does the world need -- or want -- a musical-theater version of "Bright Lights, Big City"? It was certainly something McInerney wondered when, in 1997, it was proposed to him that his largely autobiographical best-seller be set to music.
Several evenings ago, the 43-year-old author, admittedly still a bit apprehensive, was in the New York Theatre Workshop audience for a preview of "Bright Lights, Big City," which is being hyped as one of the season's highlights. The rock musical created by musician-songwriter Paul Scott Goodman makes its world premiere Wednesday with the same Off-Broadway theater company and the same director that shepherded "Rent" into theater immortality as -- come to think of it -- a portrait of the power of Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll in the '90s.
If McInerney, who's written five less-enthusiastically received novels in the 15 years since (including the recent "Model Behavior"), is ambivalent about seeing his life as a musical -- during the second act, as the layers slowly peel away, "I was actually squirming a little" -- perhaps it's understandable.
"I never dreamed when I wrote this strange, quirky literary novel that it would take on a life of its own," says the author, who also wrote the movie's screenplay and is an unofficial consultant on the show. "All those people up on the stage are there because of my sitting in a small rented room upstate and writing a long time ago. On the other hand, it's not mine anymore."
The idea for the musical evolved from a suggestion made by writer Peter Stone ("Titanic," "1776") to his friend Goodman, a native of Scotland who'd being writing and performing in New York since 1984 -- coincidentally the year he read a paperback he soon discovered to be a blueprint for the life he was leading, one that, he promises, "I actually tired of after a few months."
"'Bright Lights, Big City' was my introduction to the scene," says Goodman -- both when he's being interviewed about his musical and when he's up on stage addressing the audience as the show's present-day narrator, a guitar-playing, teal-suited, Scottish-brogued character who's an outsider and an addition to McInerney's original stew of '80s types. (The novel's narrator, Jamie, the magazine fact-checker modeled on the author, is played by Patrick Wilson, one of whose first lines is the book's familiar opening, "You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.")
Goodman recalls that he had even jotted down a few notes about musical possibilities -- and promptly forgot about them. But when he reread the book, he says, "The idea definitely sparked me, and Peter put me in touch with Jay. We had lunch; he paid, and I thought that was a good sign."
By the time "Bright Lights, Big City" -- the musical -- was presented to director Michael Greif, Goodman had written much of the score. Greif, who like the songwriter is a Manhattan contemporary of McInerney's ("I liked to dance; cocaine wasn't a problem," he breezily notes of his '80s existence), was drawn to the adaptation. "Very quickly we began to focus on the more timeless and universal elements of the story," he says. "The time frame is just a launching pad and indicative of a particular kind of escapism, but the need to escape isn't just something that happened in the '80s."
When they first talked about a musical, McInerney says he jokingly asked, "What are you going to do, have a chorus line pop out of toilet stalls?" -- where the characters have repaired to sniff and snort. And indeed, in one of the first numbers, "I Love Drugs," that's what happens. But, he adds, "one of the things I've been impressed with is they've brought in the more conventional aspect of the story: the traditional coming of age, Jamie struggling with the death of his mother" (played by Annmarie Milazzo, who also worked with Goodman on the vocal arrangements).
Goodman, who felt "all the poetry was dragged out" of the 1988 movie, says he's tried to preserve "that heightened language which is what a musical is -- plus add some of my own." McInerney, who blames his own "earnestness and inexperience" for the disappointing film, also believes "the star [Michael J. Fox] had a public image too far removed from the role." The cast this time around is made up of experienced professionals without public personas.
Aside from McInerney, Greif, who grew up in Brooklyn, is the best-known person associated with the musical, and while he's put his stamp on other productions since "Rent" (he's the artistic director of the La Jolla Theatre in California), the enormous success of that show and, especially, its New York Theatre Workshop roots, have sparked a keen interest in "Bright Lights, Big City," opening in the same late-winter slot.
"Five years ago no one would have wanted to visit the '80s," says McInerney, "but now it's far enough away to look at again." He squints: "In a funny way, it seems very innocent and exuberant. The '90s are so jaded."