The most interesting credit for "The Life," the new Cy Coleman musical, is, in very small type, "Based on an original idea by Ira Gasman," who is also credited with lyrics and part of the book.
Just how original is it to do a show about hookers and pimps on 42d St. in the pre-Disney era?
Is anyone, by the way, nostalgic for 42d St. when it was a human sewer? Nostalgic enough, that is, to pay $75 to see the kind of sleaze you used to be able to get for free?
If so, "The Life" may be just what you crave. Its stereotypical story is about Queen, a hooker with, you guessed it, a heart of gold. She does tricks only to help her boyfriend, Fleetwood, a traumatized Vietnam vet. Once she has made enough money, they persuade themselves, they will leave sordid New York.
Alas, Fleetwood becomes a cokehead. To support his habit he takes on another chick, ostensibly an innocent lass from Minnesota but in fact a seasoned pro eager to use her talents in the big leagues.
Fleetwood runs up against the most powerful pimp on the street, Memphis. Bitter that Fleetwood seems to be dumping her and their dreams, Queen comes on to Memphis at the Hooker's Ball at the end of a first act that is every bit as long but not quite as amusing as that of "Parsifal."
In the second act, virtually everyone comes to grief.
What is depressing about this is that the stage teems with talent. You wish there were better things for them to do. When you hear Chuck Cooper's sumptuous bass, you wish he were singing Crown in "Porgy and Bess." (There is a kind of cruel irony that, a generation ago, blacks refused to do "Porgy" because of the stereotypes that, as "The Life" attests, have now become part of popular culture.)
Pamela Isaacs makes Queen enormously appealing. She and Lillias White, yet another gold-hearted hooker, sing up a storm in "My Friend." White is great in a show-stopping number, "The Oldest Profession." Kevin Ramsey makes the doltish Fleetwood compelling, and Sam Harris has engaging energy as a snake.
Coleman's music has a smooth tang. Joey McKneely's choreography gives the cast's virtuoso pelvises a real workout. The physical production is appropriately abrasive.
I wish I could be happier that Broadway has finally embraced the assaultive vulgarity of the general culture.
''Fifteen thou-ou-ou-sand!'' As pronounced by the actress Lillias White, each syllable in this numeral opens into a cry of fatigue to make your every muscle ache in sympathy.
As a street-worn Times Square hooker named Sonja, Ms. White has picked up a calculator to figure out just how many clients she has served in her long life on the game. Her wonderfully dazed response to the answer is part of a song called ''The Oldest Profession,'' which arrives like manna in the long first act of the new Cy Coleman musical, ''The Life,'' which opened Saturday night at the Ethel Barrymore Theater.
The jokes in the song aren't very fresh (''I've had so many Shriners I'm up for membership''). Nor is it possible to disguise the fact that Ms. White's acerbic but big-hearted character is a fictional archetype that has been around nearly as long as her chosen profession.
But this performer, who stopped the show by bringing an unexpected infusion of gospel style to the recent revival of ''How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,'' can't strike a note or speak a word without sounding convincing.
Here, she transforms Mr. Coleman's jaunty jazz melody into a throbbing, funny confession that finds the soulful energy in being dog-tired. Even more remarkably, she delivers most of the number seated in a chair. She's not visibly working the audience; she seems to have just opened a faucet and let the feelings flow over everyone watching her.
There's a lot wrong with ''The Life,'' which has lyrics by Ira Gasman and is directed by Michael Blakemore. Its tone is as frustratingly variable as this month's weather; its book, by Mr. Gasman and Mr. Coleman with David Newman, reeks of bottom-drawer, B-movie melodrama, and it consistently dilutes the electricity of its songs by overcrowding its melodically repetitive score.
Yet ''The Life'' has at least one thing going for it, something that's been hard to locate in this season of big but bloodless musicals like ''Titanic'' and ''Steel Pier'': a definite human pulse. Its cast and especially the women in it give off a raw, self-delighted vitality that compels attention even through the show's many embarrassing moments.
''The Life'' has been gestating for well more than a decade (Mr. Coleman spoke of working on it as long ago as 1986), and it has been preceded by an all-star recording of some of its songs, featuring Liza Minnelli and Lou Rawls. And while its book has reportedly gone through many transformations, it still feels in desperate need of surgery, with a first act that is overextended to the point of numbness and outrageously cliched plot turns that beg to be taken seriously.
In focusing on the seedy hustlers and prostitutes who inhabited the margins of Times Square in the early 1980's, before the days of Disneyfication and theme megastores, Mr. Coleman and his associates seem to have hoped to create something with the brusque social impact of ''West Side Story,'' ''Rent'' or even ''The Threepenny Opera.'' (It evokes elements from all three.)
But its story of love and betrayal among predatory pimps and the women they exploit would have seemed creaky even in the Warner Brothers urban crime dramas of the 1930's, when whores were still referred to as ''dance hall hostesses.'' And when the show tries to shock you with full-strength brutality (as when a hooker's face is beaten to a bloody pulp), it jolts in all the wrong ways.
The characters here include Queen (Pamela Isaacs), a principled prostitute who wants a real home and a marriage; Fleetwood (Kevin Ramsey), her weak-willed, cocaine-addicted pimp and lover, and Jojo (a miscast but golden-toned Sam Harris), the show's narrator and the couple's double-crossing friend. Then there are Memphis (Chuck Cooper, of the shivery bass voice), a mean, bear-sized master pimp straight out of ''Superfly,'' and Lacy (the excellent Vernel Bagneris, who is wasted here), a lovable old bartender.
There are also the other working girls on the block, who range from Ms. White's battle-scarred veteran to Mary (Bellamy Young), the deceptively fresh-faced ingenue. Individually and as a team, they're the show's greatest assets. And when they line up on the edge of the stage to sing ''My Body,'' an angry, defiant defense of their profession, the evening truly takes on the spirited, confrontational quality it is always striving for.
Mr. Coleman, the composer of such fabled musicals as ''Little Me,'' ''Sweet Charity'' and ''City of Angels,'' provides some zesty jazz- and vaudeville-inflected tunes. But he often stretches them to the point of thinness, and his ballads are of the ilk you can imagine a lounge singer crooning at 3 A.M. (a feeling underscored by Don Sebesky's and Harold Wheeler's synthesizer-driven, 1970's-ish orchestrations).
Fortunately, most of the ballads go to Ms. Isaacs, who has a husky, vibrato-shaded voice, somewhere between Tina Turner and Helen Morgan, which resonates affectingly with pain and longing. Like Ms. White, she delivers absolutely everything (including some clunky sung recitative) with commanding sincerity and polish.
Joey McKneely's dance routines, while lively, often feel like secondhand Fosse (a mistake when the real thing is on display nearby in ''Chicago''). But Mr. Blakemore has the good sense to keep the staging clean and naturalistic. And Robin Wagner's gritty sets and Martin Pakledinaz's dead-on, amusingly tacky costumes exactly evoke a time it's hard to feel much nostalgia for.
For all its irritating lumpiness and misjudgments (and there are sure to be audience members who will find it offensive), ''The Life'' at least is alive. And it actually has some songs, and at least two performances, that linger in the memory. Small potatoes, maybe. But in this season of anemic new musicals, that's something to hold onto.