Rarely have I felt as keen a sense of anticipation in an audience as I did at Joseph Brooks' "In My Life." Advance word had it that this musical, by the composer of "You Light Up My Life," was going to be a disaster of legendary proportions.
The letdown came early. "In My Life" is awful, but as disasters go, it's minor league.
The potential was there. The central character, J.T., has Tourette's syndrome - he shouts swear words uncontrollably. His girlfriend, Jenny, is obsessive-compulsive.
But neither character is developed, and the storytelling is so fragmented that if this were a movie, you'd run up to the projection booth to make sure the reels were in the right order.
To give the unexpectedly bland love story some juice, Brooks offers another plot, in which a swishy diva (named Winston) up in heaven wants to make it into an opera -which seems very contrived.
In Brooks' heaven, God is a jingle writer named Al, who wears a baseball cap backward and pants that end at midcalf.
Joining Winston in heaven are J.T.'s dead mother, his sister Vera and Jenny's dead boyfriend -but the dead are as boring as the living. On top of the incoherence of the book, the lyrics are pedestrian, the music monotonous.
The material is too caught up in its own imagined cleverness to give the cast a fighting chance, but they perform valiantly. Christopher J. Hanke and Jessica Boevers are fine as the central couple. David Turner is funny as the cliched Winston. Michael J. Farina gives Al charm.
Roberta Gumbel sings beautifully as J.T.'s dead mother. Chiara Navarra is mannered as Vera, but dances well.
A fortune has been spent on the sets and costumes. It is hard to avoid thinking this is a vanity production. If it isn't, it means not only that there's one born every minute, but also that many of them have big checkbooks.
Any musical featuring a hero with Tourette's syndrome and an ad-jingle composer called Al (who's wisely kept his day job as God) sounds distinctly unpromising.
And Joseph Brooks' musical "In My Life," which opened last night at The Music Box, fulfills every unpromise possible.
In fairness, there is at times a kind of crazy professionalism lurking around in the wings that seems determined never to make it onstage.
Brooks is the show's director, composer, author and producer, so we know where the buck stops. He's also sold more than 80 million records - so we might suspect where the buck started.
Welcome to Broadway!
As a pop composer - one whose hits include "You Light Up My Life," the score for "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" and jingles for Pepsi and American Airlines - Brooks is hardly chopped liver. Here he does an imitation that could have any deli owner fooled.
"In My Life" -it sounds like the name of a TV reality show - is all about, as Brooks drearily puts it, "the wheel of fortune" and "life turning on a dime."
Our hero with Tourette's syndrome, J.T. (a desperately bland Christopher J. Hanke), soon acquires not only a ditzy heroine to match his eccentricities, Jenny (a nicely feisty Jessica Boevers), but also a barely operable brain tumor, the latter life-threatening. (J.T.'s sweet kid sister and mother have already passed on.)
The story is as complex as it is silly, with much of the action set in heaven, here seen as some great Filing Cabinet in the Sky, loosely presided over by Al (a properly avuncular Michael J. Farina).
Al, when he's not being God, writes jingles for Volkswagen and rides a bicycle. He has also secretly commissioned an opera (yes, an opera) all about J.T. and Jenny.
An English-accented angel named Winston (David Turner, an actor who could trademark camp and market it as a brand name) flies in on wires to stage the heavenly opera and presumably make sense of the proceedings.
No one could, but it ends happily.
Unhappily, however, Brooks' music is tedious and his lyrics sentimentally simplistic - this from a man who's sold 80 million records. Perhaps he should have stopped while he was ahead.
By the way, a fruit the show makes emblematic of J.T. and Jenny's happiness is...a lemon. Say no more.
Other people's dreams are boring, I know. But please, for the sake of my sanity - and possibly yours - let me tell you about this one.
I dreamed I went to a Broadway show that was supposed to be madly eccentric and surreal, featuring a giant lemon, transvestite angel and a hero with Tourette's syndrome. But then, in one of those head-spinning shifts of setting that occur only in nightmares, I found myself trapped inside a musical Hallmark card, a pastel blend of the twinkly teddy bear and sentimental sunrise varieties. And suddenly, as the breath was leaving my body, I realized I was drowning, drowning in a singing sea of syrup.
Hey, wait a minute. That was no nightmare. That was "In My Life," the new musical that opened last night at the Music Box Theater, written, directed and produced by Joseph Brooks, who is also the show's composer and lyricist. Mr. Brooks's head-to-toe participation here may be the most complete example of auteurism ever to enfold a Broadway musical. This means that you get to step inside the mind of the man who wrote the 1970's pop mega-hit "You Light Up My Life" (and directed the schmaltzy hit movie of the same title) and jingles for Volkswagen and Dr. Pepper ads. If only that mind had more interesting furniture.
The gleeful advance word on "In My Life" - a story of a guitar-strumming songwriter (yes, with Tourette's syndrome), the obsessive-compulsive woman who loves him and the dead people who mess with their lives - suggested that finally the real "Springtime for Hitler" had arrived in New York. (For the benefit of those who are not theater queens, "Springtime for Hitler" is the musical within the musical of "The Producers" and a show so outrageously bad that it could be mistaken for a masterpiece.)
Now it's true that "In My Life" does have a few jaw-dropping moments of whimsy run amok. For example, when God (Michael J. Farina), a schmo-next-door type who asks that people call him Al and wears a baseball cap backward, sings Mr. Brooks's peppy Volkswagen song in vaudeville style. Or when an exceedingly arch angel named Winston (David Turner), who looks like a cross between Boy George and Marilyn Manson and is staging an opera for God, asks the members of the audience to clap their hands if they "believe in fairies."
But it becomes clear early on that beneath the swirling madcap flourishes and willful tastelessness lies a small pink candy heart, of the kind that schoolchildren exchange on Valentine's Day, with phrases like "U R 2 sweet" inscribed on them. To describe the logic-free, ontology-embracing plot of "In My Life" may make it sound like a grotesque folie de grandeur. Boy meets girl; boy gets brain tumor; boy's dead sister intervenes with God, while angels roam around a big room filled with silver filing cabinets (that's heaven) and occasionally put on lavish period costumes to perform mock operas.
But the careering story line and its bizarre accouterments are merely an excuse to deliver inspirational messages that are commonly found on television movies of the week and to trot out one sticky boy-band-style ballad after another. The neurological and psychological tics of the show's romantic leads rest upon them like lampshades on the heads of tipsy party guests.
J. T. (Christopher J. Hanke) is driven by Tourette's syndrome to speak in occasionally obscene rhymes, while his girlfriend, Jenny (Jessica Boevers), admits she suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder. But they look and sound like members of the Brady Bunch. And their biggest problem, aside from that nasty brain tumor, is getting up the courage to overcome fear of commitment and confess that they love each other.
They deliver a lot of interchangeable ballads. (From the title song: "Till the rivers run dry/ Till the last sad goodbye/ That's how long my heart will be true." From another number, "When I Sing": "I know my road is long, and sometimes it all goes wrong/ But I will not fall - I'll rise up tall and strong.") For other songs of uplift and nostalgia, they are joined by J. T.'s opera-loving mother, Liz (the silver-voiced Roberta Gumbel), and his ballet-loving little sister, Vera (the megaphone-voiced Chiara Navarra), who were killed in a car accident but continue to warble away in heaven.
Mr. Brooks has enlisted a deluxe technical team - Allen Moyer (sets), Catherine Zuber (costumes) and Christopher Akerlind (lighting) - to realize his vision of heaven and earth. Mr. Turner, whose Winston would have fitted right into "Taboo," gets to wear the flashiest clothes and perform the flashiest numbers, including a dance macabre with a skeleton. Mr. Farina's Al, who wants to take a vacation from overseeing the universe, appears to have been inspired by Joan Osborne's sung speculation that God might be "just a slob like one of us."
Throughout "In My Life," the characters keep insisting, in song and speech, on how strange life is and how crazy they all are. They protest too much. "In My Life" brings to mind that annoying breed of people who never stop talking about their quirks ("Yep, I collect dolls made out of seashells and eat gummi bears for breakfast - that's how wacky I am") because they are so afraid of being found out as the squares they truly are.
Life turns on a dime. ... In this world, you never quite get what you pay for. ... In this time called life we are just players in the game. ... Life is only a ride on the wheel; we fall off and get back on. ... Where is the human in humanity? That hit parade of trite platitudes, plus a heap more, are stitched with jaw-dropping conviction into the megalomaniacal folly that is "In My Life." An overblown soap opera framed by bizarre afterlife interludes and dripping with mawkish sentiment, this astonishing misfire will be a must-see for all the Broadway tuner-train wreck completists who still speak wistfully of "Carrie."
Long before a giant lemon (not kidding!) descends to dominate the stage in the final song, the suspicion arises that this might be an elaborate joke, like Bialystock and Bloom's insurance scam to hatch a surefire flop in "The Producers." But no such trickery seems intended. The brain child of composer-lyricist-book writer-director Joseph Brooks -- who gave the world 1977 schmaltz fest "You Light up My Life" and a string of advertising jingles -- this baffling mix of romance, Tourette's syndrome, brain tumors and heavenly intervention remains unswervingly earnest, even as it lurches unintentionally into parody.
"Listen to the best music you've ever heard in your life," urges a CD sampler being given away by the thousands all over New York's theater district this past month to promote "In My Life." Maybe if you have Tourette's, OCD, ADD and a tumor jabbing away at your optic nerve, as does the struggling songwriter hero of this show, J.T. (Christopher J. Hanke), you might be forgiven for making such an audacious claim.
To more objective listeners, the songs will sound as generic and interchangeable as the chorus performers elevated to leading roles who interpret them here -- Hanke's "American Idol" power surges notwithstanding.
Then again, the tunes are probably evergreens next to J.T.'s college radio hits, the titles of which we are tantalized with -- "Creatures of the Morning Rain," "Purple Girl," "Blue Apple" -- but, alas, never hear.
Just as they're vowing in the take-a-chance opening song to "climb out from the lost-and-found and try to turn my life around," cute twentysomethings J.T. and Jenny (Jessica Boevers) meet in a Manhattan diner and instantly identify each other as soul mates. Village Voice staffer Jenny seems only marginally less verbally manic than J.T., so it's a natural that they bond over Jung, synchronicity and "Buridan's Ass" -- a postulate by 14th century French philosopher Jean Buridan (again, not kidding!).
But just as they plan to move in together, J.T.'s blinding headaches alert doctors that he requires emergency surgery. "I can't have this thing now!" he wails. "I just got a girlfriend and it looks like I'm gonna get a record deal." Even worse, J.T. fears the surgery might erase his memory and his songwriting capabilities, killing his plans to leave an artistic legacy: "I want to make a difference." So he declines to go under the knife and keeps his condition a secret until it's almost too late.
Just in case this all seems a little too "Days of Our Lives," J.T. and Jen's travails are overseen by Winston (David Turner), a terribly British, flamingly gay, glamrock-styled accountant-turned-archangel -- and I mean arch. He flutters down at intervals from heaven -- a massive file room staffed by silver-haired mods in platform go-go boots -- to gather material for his "reality opera." Providing regular injections of embalmed frivolity, including a kick line of skeletons (don't ask), Winston experiments with staging the piece as a pirate opera and a Mozartian marriage, rooting throughout for a tragic ending.
Also looking on from heaven are J.T.'s mother (Roberta Gumbel) -- she sings Italian opera in an elevated Donna Reed kitchen lifted, designwise, from "The Pillowman" -- and his poisonously sweet kid sister, Vera (Chiara Navarra). In the treacly anthem "When She Danced," we learn the pigtailed tyke could have been a prima ballerina. But mom and daughter were killed in a collision with a drunk driver, who's also in heaven, where Vera forgives him with a hug (regrettably, still not kidding).
When earthbound characters, afterlife denizens and J.T. in limbo all join to stand erect with fists clenched, solemnly singing their plea to God for the hero's young life in "Not This Day," the turgid "Les Miz" ripoff involuntarily delivers one of the most hilarious skewerings of overwrought musical emotion since the "South Park" movie.
Perhaps most mystifying is that God, a schlub named Al (Michael J. Farina), for no good reason sings jingles for Volkswagen and Dr. Pepper, among Brooks' biggest successes. The deity is a jinglemeister? Joe Brooks is God? Freaky.
In J.T.'s "I Am My Mother's Son," the show has one pretty song that sounds like it's part of a narrative and not just random Hallmark gurgling. But Brooks' lyrics generally range from preteen poetic ("It's raining flowers from the sky/Don't let the moment pass you by") to syntactically ugly ("In my life/I am lucky that I had the chance/To find you/To not have missed the dance"). And while the director has surrounded himself with a gifted design team -- Allen Moyer provides the sets, Catherine Zuber the costumes and Christopher Akerlind the lighting -- there's a strong sense that lots of money is being hurled at the stage with no unifying creative vision to guide it.
In the end, maybe the irksome Vera sums it up best when she sings, "Who are all these people and what are all these songs?"