Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - February 19, 2009
The Story of My Life Music and lyrics by Neil Bartram. Book by Brian Hill. Directed by Richard Maltby, Jr. Set design by Robert Brill. Costume design by Wade Laboissonniere. Lighting design by Ken Billington, Paul Toben. Sound design by Peter Fitzgerald, Carl Casella. Projection design by Dustin O’Neill. Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Cast: Will Chase, Malcolm Gets.
But unlike James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s Pulitzer Prize winner, The Story of My Life does not offer even glancing insight into the artistic condition it wants to pretend it treats. It presents Thomas Weaver (Will Chase), a best-selling author of small-town, home-spun tales, struggling to assemble the eulogy he will deliver at the memorial service for his lifelong best friend Alvin Kelby (Malcolm Gets), who refuses to be exorcised until every word is perfect.
Their confrontation is ornamented with the expected disagreements that always crop up within long-running friendships ("Why did we stop talking?"), as well as some predictably astonishing personal revelations that nudge the story along ("Why did you never tell me why you called off your wedding?"). There are also several solos and duets of gilded Hallmark vintage linger lightly in the ear and mind, and enough musing on Thomas's tortured writing process to provide thinking-musical street cred. Even so, the discussion between the man and the ghost that won't unblock his talent is literally all that happens across 90 minutes of playing time.
But in a Broadway theater, there’s a fine line between “small” and “inconsequential,” which this musical crosses time after time. A number of Bartram’s compositions are legitimately standalone beautiful: the intricate “Mrs. Remington,” recollecting the elementary school teacher that united the two; “1876,” about the book (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer) that inspired Thomas to become a writer; and “Normal,” in which Thomas tries to “straighten” out the far-too-unique Alvin. But the lack of in-depth characterizations and an overreliance on repetition and heavy-handed metaphors (be prepared to be assaulted with endless theorizing - and singing - about the “butterfly effect”) makes the show seem like little more than a song cycle with delusions of grandeur.
The participation of a top-tier director (Richard Maltby, Jr.) to enforce unadorned honesty as the overriding theme and a world-class orchestrator (Jonathan Tunick) to give the score weight and sweep it would likely never receive under other circumstances does help elevate this often heavy-legged show. And the minuscule cast and triumphantly modest scenic requirements (Robert Brill’s set is little more than one half-bookshelf and a few attendant pieces of furniture, which Ken Billington and Paul Toben have aggressively lit) make it obvious why this show was produced in these perilously lean economic times.
Unfortunately, nothing about the show as a complete theatrical enterprise registers as the work of artistic-minded professionals fueled by an intense desire to communicate something vital about the human experience. It reminded me most of the almost-almost-there offerings that typically form the bulk of the entries in the New York Musical Theatre Festival: titles that display their writers’ latent but undeveloped promise, but that no one in charge seriously thinks will - or should - go anywhere. Bartram and Hill obviously feel strongly about their subject, likely because one or both were touched by the loss of someone close to them, but that passion doesn’t prevent you from checking your watch every three minutes.
Anyone can put their baldest emotions on a stage and mildly move or gently touch a viewer; good luck coming away from Bartram and Hill’s outing without thinking about the decades-long friendships that have irrevocably altered your life - that's just the way proximity works. But the greatest shows in the musical theatre canon, the ones that engage the inner circles of your spirit, are those that translate the petty concerns everyone experiences in searing words and music that make them dramatic and universal inevitabilities. Deeply felt as Bartram and Hill’s story may be, it never makes the leap from their existence to ours. Its isolation makes it superficial, and its superficialiaty makes it a really tough slog.
Staying involved - to say nothing of staying awake - would be all but impossible if not for Chase. Unstoppably energetic, whether depicting Thomas’s bullet train ride to adulthood or his writer’s block-inspired lethargy as an adult, he’s absolutely right in every way as the man who’s forever lost within himself, and who’s built everything he has on lies that derive from the truth. Chase’s rock-modern voice may have been put to better use as the lead in High Fidelity (the last role Chase originated on Broadway, over two years ago), but he’s singlehandedly responsible for keeping this show from being as old-fashioned as Bartram and Hill apparently want it to be.
Gets is playing, well, what Gets usually plays: nerdy, neurotic, and impish, an eternal outsider with his nose pressed against the window. It’s mostly right for Alvin, who operates on a wavelength Thomas couldn’t find more foreign. But it’s far too familiar and easy a choice; Gets doesn’t say anything in any way you haven’t heard from countless times in the past.
That makes him not that much different from The Story of My Life itself. Like Alvin, the show is genuine: the truest and sincerest new musical Broadway has seen in the last couple of seasons, and a welcome antidote to the synthetic excesses of the likes of Billy Elliot, 13, and [title of show]. But it prides itself on regurgitating ideas and feelings others have described more originally, more specifically, and more richly elsewhere. When Thomas and Alvin describe their disintegrating relationship with lines like “The symbolism was glaringly obvious” and “The usual platitudes hung in the air,” it’s heartbreaking how intimately you understand exactly what they mean.