Spiro Agnew, wherever he is, is doubtlessly smiling over the success of I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change. His "silent majority" has spoken -- loudly and clearly, if not awfully overtly (as is their wont) -- and this amiable musical about mating rites and wrongs quietly commenced its third year (!) at the Westside Theatre on the first of this month. The jaws of seasoned theatrical professionals dropped -- kerrrplop! -- to pavement level.
Howdayafigure? Well, for that answer, you have to sit at the feet of Joe DiPietro, who wrote the book and lyrics for this enterprise and knocked it out of the ball park his first time at bat. A simple, unassuming little show about hopeful heterosexuals in the nineties? How Pollyanna! Nobody told him that this just isn't done, and he did it -- beautifully.
"When we were coming into New York," he recalls, "people were saying, 'Oh, it's not edgy enough for New York, not dark enough.' Today's musicals have lost the comic element, and this is definitely a throwback to what musicals used to do all the time. This show is, unapologetically, a musical comedy. People really respond to that. There's no darkness in it -- there's poignancy but no darkness -- and it does have a certain edge. It kinda makes fun of people, but it doesn't dislike these people.
"One reason the show works is that it takes a very specific world -- middle-class, straight, suburban people. It creates this world, and it stays in this world. There's an audience out there for that, and it's often forgotten in New York circles. People in New York aren't as middle-class and straight as the people are in the show. Anyone who sees this show will find something in it for them. People are people."
I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change got its name from its title tune, but the song got dropped; when they opted to go with that title anyway, another number with that name was whomped up for the finale. "When I came up with it, I was afraid I'd be the only person who knew what it meant," DiPietro admits, "but then I told it to people, and everyone across the board knew exactly what it meant -- and laughed at it."
In short, it is (that awful word) "relationships" -- set to music -- but it wasn't always this way. The show evolved, like the species, from a primitive nonmusical state. In the beginning it was Love Lemmings, a cabaret-sized stretch of sketches about connecting. "It was a 60-minute show based on material I had written through the years and had performed in basement cabarets throughout the city. We did it just for fun, for our friends, but it kept expanding. Eventually, it actually got to the Village Gate." It was at this juncture that a producer, Ted Rawlins, saw the show and defined it for the man who had created it. "This is a musical revue. Put music in it," he told DiPietro. "Sure," said DiPietro, having no idea what a revue was or how to go about doing it. "I'd never written a lyric in my life, and because I hadn't, I figured, 'How hard can that be?' If I'd realized how hard, I might not have done it." He pauses a second, turns those words over in his head, then begins backpedaling. "No, I'm sure I'd have done it, but I'm glad I didn't know. It was definitely hard. I wanted to write the lyrics because I wanted the songs to be comedy songs. I didn't want them to be too serious or too earnest. What was good about Love Lemmings is that it had a real point of view."
That was clear from the outset when the show lifted off at the American Stage Company in Teaneck, N.J. Even in that embryonic condition, without shape or music to it, people related. "The type of comedy I write is very much about people's lives. Its success or failure depends on how much people relate to it. I think -- especially when I was writing the show in New Jersey, where I grew up [in a little town called Oradell] -- I just knew those people. What I found, though, was the more specific I got about them, the more universal the piece became."
Adding music to the mix enlarged the heart of the show even more, and it never again was known as Love Lemmings. Indeed, only three skits from the original show survived this musicalization. "Somebody hooked me up with Jimmy Roberts, whose music I really loved. Ironically, he had seen a tape of the show, and he thought it didn't need any music. When we started adding songs to it, I could see right away they opened up the piece. For two years I learned -- on the job -- how to write lyrics. Jimmy taught me a lot. He was very patient and told me to listen to Hammerstein and Sondheim and Larry Hart, those guys.
"It had always been in the back of my mind that if I ever made Love Lemmings into a real theatre piece, I would want the first act to be about being single and the second act to be about being married, so when it was suggested that this should be a musical revue, that was the first thing I thought of. It gave the piece some structure, which it never had."
You'll have to take DiPietro's word for Act II. He is 36 and single, but he doesn't feel handicapped by the lack of first-hand marital experience. "I tell people there's something of me in everything. I write from the inside. We all may have different bodies at different stages, but essentially we want the same thing, so I relate pretty much to everything in the show -- even though a 40-year-old divorced woman is about as far away from my life as you can get right now."
Divorce and death are the last acts of this love-and-marriage cavalcade, but the show itself musters an upbeat finish. "The theme of the show is said in the final number," DiPietro says, "and that is to keep coming back for more. The important thing is that you keep trying to find love, trying to find a relationship."
James Hammerstein, who co-produced the show with Bernie Kukoff and Jonathan Pollard, came up with the simplest explanation for the success of their sleeper hit: "People feel better leaving the show than they did when they came in."
Apparently, they go out and multiply, spreading the word of mouth (in hushed tones, of course, as befits Agnew's "silent majority"). For the time being and for some time to come, it is very easy to see that I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change won't change.
-- By Harry Haun