The Last Days of Disco
Bright Lights, Big City as a musical? Groovy
By Richard Zoglin
Versace, Ray-Bans, Michael Milken, Duran Duran, Odeon, Christie Brinkley. Partying all night through downtown Manhattan's glam disco scene. Sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll--and a guy who discovers that he really loved his mother too. If you can get past the notion that Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney's 1984 novel about a Manhattan yuppie on a downward spiral, is a time capsule whose time has passed, it's actually not a bad idea for a musical.
And sure enough, now it is one, opening last week off-Broadway with a contradictory set of expectations. On the one hand, it's a rare case of a musical with lots of hype potential that has emerged fully formed--book, lyrics and music by newcomer Paul Scott Goodman--with almost no advance publicity. On the other hand, the musical is burdened, rather unfairly, by comparisons with a very different show, Rent, simply because it originates in the same downtown theater (and with the same director) as that trend-setting hit. Can theatrical lightning strike twice?
The hopes ride largely on Goodman, a Scottish-born singer-composer who was writing and performing one-man shows before he reread McInerney's book three years ago and decided it would be good material for a full-scale musical. "The book was set right when I came to New York City," says Goodman. "I could relate to the fact that [the main character] was a writer. I thought I could write from an honest place." His first draft sparked the interest of the New York Theatre Workshop and director Michael Greif, who developed the show over the past two years. McInerney had little involvement, except as cheerleader on the sidelines. "I sort of thought it ought to be their thing rather than mine," he says. "I just stepped back and hoped for the best."
It's not the best, but Bright Lights Big City (no comma now) has a more engaging mix of substance and flash than any other musical so far this dismal season. Goodman's adaptation, quite faithful to the novel, follows Jamie (nameless in the book though called Jamie in the 1988 movie starring Michael J. Fox) from his dreary job as a fact checker for a snooty, New Yorker-style magazine through his debauched, drug-addled all-nighters on the New York club circuit. It fleshes out, via flashbacks, his fashion-model ex-wife, with whom he's still obsessed, and his mother, whose death a year earlier he still hasn't come to terms with. Greif's production has a sleek, metallic-fluorescent look (with a catwalk above the stage for the band and occasional actors) that transforms smoothly from disco floor to subway train to magazine office.
Goodman's pop-rock score, almost entirely sung through, tends toward the predictable (there are songs, alas, called I Love Drugs and I Wanna Have Sex Tonight), but his lyrics are clever, fractured correlatives for the life-style he's chronicling ("One more topsy-turvy, hunky-dory, manic panic, magic high..."). And if the hard-rocking numbers never really get the pulse racing, the lyrical interludes give some excellent singers a chance to shine, particularly AnnMarie Milazzo as Jamie's mom, who sprinkles Happy Birthday Darling with country-and-western teardrops.
Yet Bright Lights is a curiously uninvolving show. One reason may be Patrick Wilson as Jamie, whose bland, frat-boy good looks convey little of the character's self-destructive desperation. For a show set largely in discos, moreover, the almost total absence of dancing is strange. Then there is the problem of Goodman, who appears onstage throughout as the narrator. The notion of a guitar-toting, '60s-haired guy with a Scottish accent guiding us through this cynical tale of Reagan-era Manhattan is almost quirky enough to work. But it doesn't. What it does offer is a way of duplicating McInerney's ingenious stylistic device: telling the story in second-person singular ("You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head ..."). But the effect is much different. On the page the technique creates an odd, almost intoxicating intimacy; onstage it is purposely distancing, and it softens the edges of the novel's mordant wit.
The show, in the end, is like a Grayline tour of Tribeca--well organized but rather antiseptic. Rent had less polish but more throat-grabbing spirit, which is why this downtown show may never see the bright lights of Broadway.