'Bright Lights, Big City': 80's Touchstone; 90's Musical
By WENDY SMITH
"BRIGHT LIGHTS BIG CITY," the musical? "Are we going to have a chorus line high-kicking out of the bathroom stalls at Area?" asked the author Jay McInerney, when approached about a stage adaptation of his best-selling 1984 novel.
The creative team at New York Theater Workshop, where the adaptation opens on Wednesday, faced two main challenges. First was the question of whether audiences in the more sober 1990's could relate to a story so firmly and famously rooted in the excesses of the 80's, from all-night club-hopping to casual promiscuity and open drug use.
The second problem was more technical but equally thorny: grappling with his mother's death, his failed marriage, his boring job at a prestigious magazine and his waning hopes of becoming a writer, the book's troubled protagonist addresses himself as "you" throughout, in a second-person narration. On a stage, there is no obvious equivalent.
As the project developed through a series of readings and a studio production, it became clear to those involved that the two problems were intertwined and could be resolved by a single device. "There's a conscious effort in this production to say, 'We're looking back at the 80's from this time,' " said the show's director, Michael Greif.
Mr. Greif was sitting recently with Paul Scott Goodman, the musical's composer, lyricist and librettist, in the same second-floor kitchen at New York Theater Workshop where Mr. Goodman had sung through a first-draft version in November 1996.
"As we all got excited about having a very present point of view onstage," Mr. Grief said, "Paul became the catalyst for the evening."
As a result, Mr. Goodman now appears in the musical as a character called "Writer," who delivers most of the novel's descriptive passages and conveys unwelcome insights to the protagonist, unnamed in the book but called Jamie in the musical.
A Glasgow native, whose parents were active in amateur Jewish theater and who performed Al Jolson tunes as a child before picking up a guitar and joining a punk rock band, Mr. Goodman, who is 39, seems at first glance an unlikely conduit for Mr. McInerney's very New York tale.
That's just the point, said James C. Nicola, the artistic director of New York Theater Workshop. "Viewing Manhattan in the 80's through Paul, who is Jewish and from Scotland, gives texture and emotional depth to the piece in an unexpected way. It's not a direct adaptation of the novel by someone who's part of this culture; it's a story narrated by someone outside."
Outsider or not, Mr. Goodman felt a strong connection to the novel when he first read it in 1984. Himself a recent arrival to Manhattan, he was so excited by Mr. McInerney's portrayal of New York City's pleasures and temptations that he made a few tentative notes for a stage version. He put them aside, however, to write and perform several one-man musicals, including "Tiny Dancer" and "Domestica." Not until 1996, wanting to tackle a bigger project, did he take another look at "Bright Lights Big City" on the suggestion of the playwright Peter Stone, a friend and mentor.
"As soon as I reread it, I thought, 'Definitely,' " Mr. Goodman recalled. "For one thing, there was a real reason to have songs. In a lot of musicals you say, 'Why are they singing?' But this was set in clubs with music: it made complete sense." Mr. Goodman contacted Mr. McInerney and requested permission to start writing songs based on the novel.
"My first reaction," said the author, "was, This has been a book and a movie: does the world really need a musical version?" Nonetheless, he gave informal assent and was impressed by the resulting music, "a hybrid between what you might find in a Sondheim show and something that could have been composed by the Clash in 1979."
Believing himself too inexperienced in the world of musical theater to know whether the songs he liked added up to a viable production, Mr. McInerney asked a friend, Stephen Graham, a member of New York Theater Workshop's board of trustees, if someone in the company would have a listen.
That is how Mr. Goodman wound up singing the score for Mr. Nicola, just then basking in the glow of the workshop's mega-successful production of Jonathan Larson's "Rent." And, Mr. Nicola said, not at all anxious to get involved in another musical that would tax the small nonprofit company's financial and technical resources.
(The "Bright Lights Big City" production budget ultimately reached about $500,000, roughly double the workshop's norm.)
But Mr. Nicola found himself "completely entranced by the wit of the piece and the soulfulness of the music," he said.
New York Theater Workshop produced a first reading in January 1997, with Mr. Goodman voicing the stage directions and playing the guitar for the actors performing the songs.
Though the show's form has evolved since, its substance is unchanged. Plot and character development occur through music; there is virtually no spoken dialogue. "I never think of myself as a playwright or a librettist; I'm a songwriter," said Mr. Goodman, who won a Songwriters Hall of Fame award in 1988 for outstanding new songwriter. "I try to make the songs tell the story."
The music reflects the composer's roots in 70's rock-and-roll. He cites Johnny Rotten and Elton John as influences. "Bright Lights Big City" has only a few echoes of the 80's club scene disco beat. "I didn't want to try and make it an 80's sound," Mr. Goodman said.
"I just wanted to write in my own style."
That style was polished in the early 1990's when Mr. Goodman performed a number of one-man musicals, as did the future composer of "Rent," Jonathan Larson. The two even collaborated a few times, Mr. Goodman said. "We were friends and rivals," he added, "because we both wanted the same thing: to bring rock-and-roll to the theater."
Mr. Greif joined the "Bright Lights Big City" project in the spring of 1997 and worked with Mr. Goodman on shaping the material during the New York Theater Workshop summer residency at Dartmouth College. Mr. McInerney contributed "only if asked," Mr. Goodman said. The novelist explained: "I was eager to help but not to crowd them."
Mr. Greif, the artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse in California, presented a well-received revival of Sophie Treadwell's "Machinal" several years ago at the Joseph Papp Public Theater and has directed mostly straight dramas, with the notable exception of "Rent."
The director said he wasn't searching for a new musical. "I was looking for the opportunity to work with a writer to develop a project. 'Bright Lights Big City' was wonderful, juicy stuff; the issues we were grappling with in terms of how to tell the story were fascinating."
Most fascinating, and most difficult, was the question of narration. Mr. Goodman sat in the audience at a staged reading that Mr. Greif directed in September 1997, but something seemed missing when the story unfolded without a mediating voice similar to the one that gives the novel its distinctive tone. By the time of the studio production in February 1998, the character of the Writer had been created for Mr. Goodman.
Not every member of the audience got it. "One of the most frequent questions from the studio production was, 'Why is this guy with a Scottish accent up there spouting poetic thoughts?' " Mr. Goodman said. He wrote a new opening in which he speaks in his own persona of reading the novel and sharing its vision. "We're spelling it out," he said. "I found this book; it really turned me on; I wanted to write a musical; let's go!"
For Mr. Grief: "The opening speech makes this a very local, specific event. In this particular production, the man who wrote the piece is actively involved in the telling. We decided that his narrative presence would enrich the experience, but people who see the show have different opinions about that. There's controversy, and that's interesting."
Asked about the device of the Writer as narrator, Mr. McInerney replied tactfully, "It was a little jarring to me at first, but it strikes me as a pretty good solution."
Mr. Greif is braced for the inevitable comparisons with "Rent," which he partly invited by collaborating again with that production's set (Paul Clay), costume (Angela Wendt) and lighting (Blake Burba) designers on "Bright Lights Big City." Like "Rent," the cast is made up of young, unknown performers: Patrick Wilson plays Jamie; Napiera Daniele Groves, his estranged wife; Annmarie Milazzo, his mother; and Jerry Dixon, the Mephistophelean character who guides him through the club scene underworld.
And yes, both musicals are about young people living in New York City and testing limits, Mr. Greif acknowledged. But, he said: "They are remarkably different and have very different strengths. 'Bright Lights Big City' is a much darker piece; it takes a long time for Jamie to get back to his true heart. Whereas the characters in 'Rent' wear their hearts on their sleeves immediately. I think there will be comparisons, but that would have been true of any next musical I took on."
Sunday, February 21, 1999
Copyright 1999 The New York Times