Now is exactly the time for a small and simple musical to conquer the glitzy behemoth called Broadway. Think of the relief that recession-scorched theater producers — tired of wasting cash on elaborately decorated chorus lines and dancing scenery — would feel if they learned that the new recipe for success was nothing more than the following: a short, modest human-interest story, some sentimental songs, a gifted cast of two and an almost naked set.
I am here to report that a musical opened Thursday night at the Booth Theater that possesses all these elements. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that the commercially savvy will be rushing to copy “The Story of My Life,” a two-character portrait of a friendship by Neil Bartram (songs) and Brian Hill (book), starring the appealing team of Will Chase and Malcolm Gets.
You see, the creators of this production, which is directed by Richard Maltby Jr., have taken their reducing program a little too far. In addition to jettisoning the usual excesses of tourist-trapping extravaganzas, they have tossed away such niceties as originality, credibility, tension and excitement. I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to tell you that Mr. Gets’s character is dead when the show begins. So, for all practical purposes, is “The Story of My Life.”
Here’s the story of “Story” (and stop me if you’ve heard this before). Two little boys grow up as best friends in a small town. One of them, Thomas Weaver (Mr. Chase), leaves for the big city and becomes rich and famous; the other, Alvin Kelby (Mr. Gets), stays home and watches lovingly from the ground as his chum climbs the heights. Long before the script spells it out, we have realized what Thomas has not: that Alvin is his hero and that Thomas can fly higher than an eagle because Alvin is the wind beneath his wings.
Hold on there. That “wind beneath my wings” business comes from a song in the movie “Beaches,” the 1988 weeper about two female friends, one of whom turns into a selfish success while the other remains a selfless homebody. You can understand my confusion. “The Story of My Life” is basically a classic chick flick translated to the stage with a different set of chromosomes.
Not that this in itself is such a terrible idea. Sensitive is this year’s macho, or at least it was last year. Even a manly country star like Keith Urban can be heard singing about how a guy just has to cry sometimes. And what better time in America’s economic history to point out that success isn’t everything?
The problem is that when a show sticks as closely as this one does to the bare bones of a sentimental formula, it needs to adorn those old bones with fresh flesh. “The Story of My Life” doesn’t try to disguise its clichés. Even the eccentricity the show celebrates — in the person of Alvin, the misfit motherless son of a bookstore owner — is utterly conventional.
Told in flashback by Tom, who has returned to his hometown to deliver Alvin’s eulogy, the play follows its two characters from their first meeting as eager children to their last as weary grown-ups. The boys are brought together by a shared affinity for “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the 1946 Capra Christmas classic, and that film remains a touchstone in their friendship. “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings!” says Alvin, as he twirls in the snow, in a scene about halfway through the show’s 90 minutes.
Tom, who is home from college for the holidays, asks reasonably “Aren’t you a little old for that?” But soon both men are on the ground creating snow angels, an activity that will eventually inspire one of the homey, whimsical stories that make Tom a best-selling, award-winning writer. If only Tom could admit that Alvin is his muse, the wind beneath his ... oops, been there.
Aside from “Beaches” and its ilk, the chief source of inspiration for “Story” appears to have been the musical “Merrily We Roll Along,” the beloved flop from 1981 by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth about an egotistical showbiz success (memorably played by Mr. Gets in a 1994 Off Broadway revival) who turns his back on his old friends.
Certainly Mr. Bartram’s music — which is pretty but repetitive, registering as a blurred series of intricate vamps — might be described as sub-Sondheim. And the lyrics of “Story” pose, verbatim, a question asked by Mr. Sondheim in “Merrily”: “What was the moment?” or when did life take the turn that brought its characters to their disillusioned adulthoods. Tom, the writer, keeps saying he doesn’t know how to answer that self-evident question, which makes you wonder about his bona fides as a sensitive artist.
Mr. Bartram’s score has been orchestrated by the wonderful Jonathan Tunick (a frequent Sondheim collaborator) with an unobtrusive elegance that matches Robert Brill’s subtly designed black-and-white set. And as directed by Mr. Maltby, Mr. Chase (of “Lennon” and “High Fidelity”) and Mr. Gets (a Tony nominee for “Amour”) sing and act with winning (and, under the circumstances, merciful) restraint. It is to their infinite credit that even when they’re extolling the precious glories of snow angels and a butterfly’s wings, you don’t feel like punching them in the face.
If the description "an original story about friendship, success and the choices we make at the turning points in our lives" sounds generic, it is. "The Story of My Life" is a singing Hallmark card. The show hijacks Bobby from "Company" and folds him into a labor-of-creativity scenario a la "Sunday in the Park With George," then pussyfoots coyly around its burning question of unrequited, undeclared love. This flavorless new musical is not exactly terrible, but it's not terribly interesting, either, which makes you wonder why its producers thought it belonged on Broadway. Whatever the reason, it's unlikely to be staying long.
Composer-lyricist Neil Bartram wastes no time genuflecting to Stephen Sondheim in the first song, in which bestselling author Thomas Weaver (Will Chase) urges himself to "Write What You Know." Making good on a childhood promise, Tom is preparing to deliver the eulogy at the funeral of his former friend Alvin Kerby (Malcolm Gets). Tom's obsession, and the show's sputtering narrative engine, is to pinpoint what made the friendship dissolve: "When was the instant it splintered and cracked?"
Unfortunately, most of us can get an approximate answer from that first song. "Some lives hurtle forward, and some never budge," sings Tom. Fame and success took him to the city, while, like George Bailey in his favorite movie, "It's a Wonderful Life," Alvin stayed behind and took over his father's bookstore, clinging to his friendship with increasingly evasive Tom and then waiting in vain for an angel to rescue him.
Whether it's the intention of book writer Brian Hill or simply an impression stemming from Gets' performance, the clues all point to Alvin being in love with Tom, and Tom remaining in deep denial until it becomes easier just to sever ties. Alvin never got over his mother's death and he never got over his best friend's abandonment.
Even when he's smiling and laughing and marveling like a borderline idiot at the wonder of life and snow angels, Gets' Alvin at heart is one of those stereotypical sad-sack gay geeks who should have vanished with the mopey folk-guitar-playing kid with the unfortunate red hair in "Fame." Alvin is an unapologetic eccentric but he's also a ridiculous character, and despite the sensitivity and decent singing voice Gets brings to the role, he has nothing plausible to play.
Hill and Bartram return repeatedly to seek out the root of the friends' undetected crisis, but the show somehow forgets to locate that conflict. We get a recap of the boys bonding at elementary school over their Halloween costumes, a children's television-type detour into the magical world of books, and a series of episodes that spring out of Alvin's high-flying imagination and later become the basis for Tom's stories.
That in itself poses a major problem, since these are supposedly life-changing tales that have inspired a passionate worldwide readership and a string of literary awards, but all the evidence points to a bunch of sugary fables in the "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" mode. It's even harder to swallow that such poignant material was written by Tom, played by Chase as an unfeeling empty shell of a man.
Again, the actor is not at fault. While nobody besides Dolly Parton or Cio-Cio San should be asked to sing a song about a butterfly, Chase has a warm voice and does as much as is conceivable with a character that barely fleshes out one dimension. He's a talented performer, but after "Lennon" and "High Fidelity," his habit of adopting dogs makes you wonder if his agent is sleeping through meetings.
Perhaps the core theme is unacknowledged inspiration or the artist's responsibility to his muse. Perhaps it's the complexity of life and how that defies neat encapsulation. Perhaps it's the power of stories to evolve out of seemingly insignificant details and to endure. But like most everything else, those reflections evaporate as they surface. Even in its most touching moments, this dull, drippy show never makes you care much.
Matching the story and characters, the songs don't leave any lasting impression. They are pretty, melodic, interchangeable and more than a little derivative. (In addition to Sondheim, Bartram borrows from William Finn and Stephen Schwartz.) And Richard Maltby Jr.'s efficient, anonymous production unfolds on Robert Brill's white-on-white minimal set as if its innocuous vanilla-ness were a virtue. But quote ads proclaiming "Pleasant!" or "Inoffensive!" don't sell tickets to Broadway musicals.