In My Life Music, lyrics and book by Joseph Brooks. Directed by Joseph Brooks. Musical staging by Richard Stafford. Scenic design by Allen Moyer. Costume design by Catherine Zuber. Lighting design by Christopher Akerlind. Sound design by John H. Shivers. Projection design by Wendall K. Harrington. Hair and wig design by Tom Watson. Casting by Dave Clemmons Casting. Associate director Dan Fields. Starring Jessica Boevers, Christopher J. Hanke, David Turner, Michael J. Farina, Roberta Gumbel, Michael Halling, Laura Jordan, Courtney Balon, Janthan Graff, Carmen Keels, Kilty Reidy, Brynn Williams, and introducing Chiara Navarra.
An open letter to Joseph Brooks, whose new musical In My Life just opened at the Music Box.
Dear Mr. Brooks:
Congratulations! You've achieved something that few people ever will: You've written an original musical that's opened on Broadway. That takes a lot of determination, courage, and fortitude. I won't speculate on how it compares to making and scoring your own film, which you did with You Light Up My Life in 1977, but it's nonetheless a noteworthy accomplishment.
What's even more remarkable is that, as with your movie, you've done it all yourself: producing; directing; writing the music, lyrics, and libretto. Those are five hefty hats to wear - many of musical theatre's most respected talents never attempted so much. Lyricists have written musical books, composers have written lyrics, and some brave souls have written everything. But even they generally stop there, because they realize how vital collaboration is in the creation of great musicals.
After all, even the best writers need someone to help shape the material and provide an outsider's perspective. A writer can easily get trapped in his own little world, especially if he's directing his own work, and not realize what he's doing that's preventing his vision from being adequately communicated to the audience. In short, he needs someone to say "no" every once in a while.
And, Mr. Brooks, as you have apparently not been so blessed during the creative process of In My Life, I'm going to do that for you now.
No, you should not have attempted all this yourself. The people capable of doing it all and doing it all well are unusually gifted geniuses, a rather exclusive pantheon to which, I'm sorry to tell you, you don't belong. Know your limitations - don't be afraid to work with people who will challenge you, yell at you, and not let you have your way all the time. Your work will only benefit.
No, you shouldn't try to put everything you can imagine into your show. Your combination love story and death story, which purees Hammerstein, Beckett, and LSD in a malfunctioning celestial blender, is too busy. You'd be better off just focusing on J.T. (Christopher Hanke), the Tourette's Syndrome-afflicted pop musician, and his girlfriend/soulmate Jenny (Jessica Boevers), the Village Voice personals editor. Once your firm up the story of how they learn to love each other and come to terms with his myriad ailments and their potentially serious repercussions, you'll be on the right track.
No, the subplot about Jenny's friend Samantha (Laura Jordan), who lost her boyfriend Nick (Michael Halling) in a car accident, won't play if you don't fully develop either character. If you want to involve another couple in the story, particularly when half the scenes are set in Heaven, their roles must be less extractable than these are.
No, you shouldn't rely so heavily on Winston, the flouncy, Goth angel-narrator that David Turner plays with such jovial relish. He allows for easy comic relief, but the laughs should come from J.T. and Jenny, so we understand and care about them more. Having Winston produce an opera about their bizarre, tragic affair and comment on it, often meta-theatrically, in every other scene is just asking for trouble.
No, a song in which Winston dances with a skeleton isn't a good idea. It will only elicit derisive laugher and shove your show even closer to complete camp. Once people see it, they'll have trouble taking seriously anything that comes afterwards. (The same is true of Winston's pirate opera parody.)
No, depicting God as a good-naturedly schlubby auto mechanic-type named Al (Michael J. Farina) isn't smart, especially when you write Him as a clueless bystander who can't bother to be lured away from His vacation. (And no, interpolating your own Dr. Pepper and Volkswagen jingles isn't a good way to round out Al's songstack.)
Finally: No, even if lemons factor vitally into your story, as they do here, they should never grace your marquee or Playbill cover. Thematically structuring your musical around citrus is a unique idea worthy of some respect; have some for yourself and don't give critics and snarkier audience members such an open invitation to tear you down. Your show is more lemonade than lemon, so focus on the sweet instead of the sour.
However, Mr. Brooks, as important as it is for you to be told "no," sometimes you also need to hear someone say "yes."
Yes, much of your score is attractive. You'd do well to eliminate Winston's songs (and, really, Winston), but you bring theatrical respectability to the pop stylings of the soul-searching title song for J.T. and Jenny, and I'll be surprised if there's a more beautiful song on Broadway this season than your luscious, dramatic "Not This Day" near the show's end. If your compositions occasionally venture too close to American Idol in sound and construction, they're almost all right, and music director Henry Aronson and orchestrator Kinny Landrum make them sound great.
Yes, you picked a first-rate design team: Allen Moyer's depiction of heaven as an infinity-spanning collection of filing cabinets and Jenny's apartment as an earthbound refuge is a master class in contrasts; Catherine Zuber's costumes, blue-based for Up There and with a more varied palette for Down Here, burst with visual appeal; and Christopher Akerlind's lights and Wendall K. Harrington's projections are typically excellent.
Yes, you cast your show well. Hanke and Boevers, if somewhat lacking in charisma, are both likable, and project enough optimistic innocence to involve us in their plight. Boevers has never been better, and Hanke convinces as a well-meaning borderline basket case. Chiara Navarra is a comic and vocal spitfire of a find as J.T.'s sister; thanks for providing us a future opportunity to say we saw her when. Farina's an appropriately cuddly omnipotent. Roberta Gumbel's gorgeous, shimmering soprano is an utter joy to hear; feel free to expand her role as J.T.'s mother as much as you like - she's superb.
Most important, yes, you should have written this show. You'll take a lot of flak for it, but despite your miscalculations, you've given us a one-of-a-kind musical comedy we'll always remember and talk about. True, less of it should be unintentionally funny (thank Winston for most of it). But the Jenny-J.T. relationship is engaging, full of honesty, heart, and a pervasive, sincere sweetness that more shows need. Thanks for not giving us another cold-blooded, committee-crafted crowd pleaser like Wicked, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, or Spamalot.
I must be honest with you, though: I doubt In My Life will find the success those shows have. But whatever happens, you've likely written the weirdest Broadway musical that most people will ever see. Not the worst, mind you, or even the worst this season - Lennon and The Blonde in the Thunderbird have lowered that bar farther than you could ever reach. But you still have a lot to learn, though please, don't lose your passion or individuality. We're in desperate need of them right now.
Regardless, welcome to Broadway, Mr. Brooks, and feel free to come back again. But do us - and yourself - a favor: Don't return alone.