February 21, 2009

An Alternate View of "The Story of My Life"

Last week, I visited my old high school for the first time since The Phantom of the Opera was in previews and I’ve been in a sentimental mood ever since. Maybe that’s why I kind of like The Story of My Life, the new, sentimental mini-musical that opened this week at the Booth Theatre. And if I sound defensive (note the weaselly “kind of”) that’s because I’m in such a distinct minority on this one.

The critics haven’t been kind to this tale about two guys who bonded as six-year olds and what happens to their friendship as they grow up and one becomes a bestselling author while the other stays in their hometown and runs the local bookstore. It’s one of those familiar and oft told tales—the play Old Acquaintance, the movie “The Turning Point,” a whole shelf of chic lit novels—but the protagonists aren’t usually male. And they don’t usually sing.

The Story of My Life opens as one of the friends is struggling to write a eulogy to read at the funeral of the other, who has died under mysterious circumstances, and the rest of the show is a series of flashbacks. Neil Bartram, who did the music and lyrics, and Brian Hill who wrote the book, have said that they originally started to write about the platonic friendship between a man and a woman but when the story kept drifting into a romance, they changed the characters to two men. That wasn’t the only challenge they faced. And they haven’t finessed all the others quite as easily.

Like so many young musical writers, they have a hard time escaping the long shadow of Stephen Sondheim—they even use Sondheim’s favorite orchestrator, the masterly Jonathan Tunick . Some of the show’s songs are so reminiscent of his work that Sondheim, who, according to the chatrooms, attended a preview of The Story of My Life, probably should share in their royalties payments. And because the show only has two characters, there’s an inevitable sameness to the musical numbers—first one guys sings, then the other guy sings; a couple of times, they sing together.

When they’re not singing the guys are talking to one another about their past and about their peculiar devotion to the classic movie “It’s A Wonderful Life,” which has almost as much of an influence on this show as Sondheim does. Angels play a significant role.

And yet, I repeat, I liked The Story of My Life. It’s partly that the guys are played by Will Chase and Malcolm Gets who sing well and who use their considerable personal charm to flesh out characters who tend more toward types than real people. It’s partly that some of the songs and many of the lines are clever. But I think it’s mainly that, like most folks, I’ve been on both ends of the friendship thing—the one who left and the one who was left behind. The Story of My Life didn’t tell me anything new about friendship but it did remind me about the value of old friends. In the last few days, I’ve gotten in touch with three of my oldest ones.

Update: the show closed on Feb. 22, after just five performances

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