ON THE RECORD: High Fidelity and Martin Short's Fame Becomes Me

News   ON THE RECORD: High Fidelity and Martin Short's Fame Becomes Me This week's column discusses the original cast recordings of two of the 2006-07 season's new musicals, High Fidelity and Martin Short's Fame Becomes Me.

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HIGH FIDELITY [Ghostlight 8-4421]
There is no golden formula for Broadway success, but the producers of Rent and Avenue Q can be excused for having thought they might have found one. To their two provocative, contemporary musicals about twenty-something-year-old New Yorkers struggling with life and love in the East Village or far out in Brooklyn, they added a third last December. Here was another Broadway musical as edgy as its two predecessors, with yet another score that — for Broadway purposes — might be considered X-rated. Even so, the third time was not the charm; High Fidelity proved low fidelity, if you will, and as indispensable as that stack of favorite cast album LPs you still waste valuable shelf space on even though you haven't dusted off your turntable since 1993.

In retrospect, the core problem of High Fidelity might well have been apparent to admirers of Rent or Avenue Q, both of which were built around a group of characters with interwoven storylines. The High Fidelity storyline was, relatively speaking, a hyphen: Instead of the familiar boy meets girl-boy loses girl-boy gets girl, our hero Rob already had the girl when the curtain rose. For the first few minutes anyway. Then the girl moved out, and late in the second act she moved back. That was just about it for plot.

In the interim, she moved in with someone vaguely connected with Kurt Cobain, a name frequently dropped (as a joke) to tell the audience how contemporary and with-it this musical was. The boy, meanwhile, had his fling with someone vaguely connected with Lyle Lovett, who was also joked about long past the last chuckle. (The song title tells it all: "I Slept with Someone Who Slept with Lyle Lovett.") As for subplot, there was a supporting sad sack who met another misfit girl; so much a misfit, in fact, that she listens to "Achy Breaky Heart." After a couple of tongue-tied scenes — well, you can figure that one out.

The results were a couple of hours with a few sympathetic characters played by charming actors, an evening that you sat there wanting to like. But as things progressed, nothing progressed. Will Chase was very likable as the hero, busy all night singing and acting but not budging that story along. Jenn Colella made a very likable girl that got away, although with far less helpful material. Christian Anderson was so likable as the sad sack that in a less competitive year he might have garnered an award nomination or two. But High Fidelity had less going on, story-wise, than you'd find in a single scene or two of Rent or Avenue Q. The source of the problem lies in the source material, I suppose. Not having seen the 2000 film nor read the Nick Hornby novel upon which it was based, I would have to guess that both are filled with quirky charms that — as it turned out — simply didn't translate to the stage. An obvious example is the matter of the "Desert Island Top 5 Break-Ups." The hero, in anger at his departed leading lady, decides that she doesn’t even make it onto the list. Thus, we get a major song about the 5 break-ups early on, just after the girl walks out, and the evening builds to another major number about the break-ups near evening's end (and just before the inevitable reconciliation). This one is led by a character named Bruce Springsteen — to tell us how contemporary and with-it this musical is. And discussion of the top 5 break-ups is peppered elsewhere through the show.

The thing is — the concept of Desert Island Top 5 Break-Ups is just not that funny. Maybe in the film, but not in the musical. The authors seem to have put a lot of faith in this idea, building two of their biggest numbers around it. But the songs just sat there. (They were more entertaining in their original staging, when one of the chorus members — the short fellow with long blond hair — appeared as one of the break-ups. But he was pulled out of the number in Boston and replaced with a bonafide woman; apparently someone complained that he looked like a man playing a woman. Or, rather, a man playing a man playing a woman.)

Another case of ineffective song selection came immediately after the break-up number. Hero asks sad sack to tell the other clerk — a grungy Belushi type — about the break-up. "It's no problem," the clerk says, in a song called "It's No Problem," repeating that it's no problem no less than eight times. The song accomplishes nothing; it is an attempt at humor, I suppose, but not a fruitful one. It's no problem, really, only it is; it signals that the characters have nothing else much to sing about. This song gets reprised, too.

High Fidelity began with an effective and promising opening number, "The Last Real Record Store on Earth." Then we had the "Break-Ups," which simply took up time, followed by "It's No Problem." By this point, 20 or so minutes into the show, all momentum was vanished forever.

So we had a likable show that — through inertia — you couldn't much like. The good points included the aforementioned performances by Chase, Colella, Anderson and Kirsten Wyatt; a fascinating and clever set by Anna Louizos, in the Boris Aronson vein (which is high praise); and a set of lyrics from Amanda Green. Ms. Green has seemingly spent most of her 40-odd years avoiding theatre (as opposed to her lyric-writing father, Adolph, who was an omnipresent Broadway fixture for half a century). Even so, she is a theatre lyricist, all right, with an ability to draw characters in words and a talent to present images that are usually refreshing and sometimes surprising. Let us call her not a chip off the famous old block, but more like a mixture of Sheldon Harnick and Carolyn Leigh. Which is a pretty good mixture.

A two-week failure like High Fidelity might be enough to send Green away from Broadway altogether, but I hope she sticks around. Hopefully working with a composer who has more of a feel for theatre than pop-writer Tom Kitt, who did a fair enough job on High Fidelity but doesn't seem to have the musical comedy gene. (And why should he?) Let it be added that Ms. Green has displayed a tendency to write lyrics you might call racy. I suppose they thought this flavoring would add spice and relevance to the score. But I don't think spice and relevance in the racy lyrics helped High Fidelity much.

MARTIN SHORT: Fame Becomes Me [Ghostlight 8-4420]
A similar conceptual problem afflicted poor Martin Short's Fame Becomes Me, formerly title If I'd Saved, I Wouldn't Be Here. All major stars who do one-person shows on Broadway, of course, do so only because they can't get a film job and need the money. If you believe that statement to be an accurate and humorously witty commentary on fame and Broadway, then you'll probably find Fame Becomes Me riotously raucous. But, one: Is that so? Two: Is that funny? And Three: Isn't Martin Short too fine a comic, and too good an actor, to waste on what is, at best, a lightly jabbing spoof of a subject that can't quite withstand a light jab?

It was the conceit of Mr. Short's handlers (and, one must confess, Mr. Short himself) that Martin Short returned to Broadway solely because he was in desperate need of the millions he could make there (which, in reality, are more like hundreds of thousands — if the show had been a hit, that is). The Martin Short they paint in Fame Becomes Me is a no-integrity, little-talent hack. Thus, audiences got to see the multi-talented Short work his tail off, but not his heart out, trying to add class to what he himself devised as a classless affair. We love you Marty in just about anything; we gave you a Tony Award for Little Me>/I>. (And you deserved one for The Goodbye Girl, too!) Here, you make a whole nothing out of a lot. But we'll still warmly welcome you the next time you hit the street, at which point we are certain (for reasons unknown) that you will live up to our high expectations. Only, not this time.

What, otherwise, did Fame Becomes Me have to offer? The original cast album contains hints and memories. Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, those Hairspray boys, wrote a jokebook-scoreful of pastiches. Some of them are very good, and very funny, but they are the equivalent of a tableful of meringue: No meat, no meatballs, no matzoh balls even. (Shaiman also signed on to entertain the troops, with a performance that mixed Davey Burns and Chico Marx. Wittman directed, although matters seemed to get out of hand.) The cast worked hard, trying to whip up hilarity. Brooks Ashmanskas did especially well in a variety of roles. Capathia Jenkins, too, attracted notice. The other cast members, Mary Birdsong and Nicole Parker, are especially funny in a section containing impersonations.

But scattered hilarity does not a satisfying meal make, and Fame Becomes Me doesn't become Martin Short.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. Prior On the Record columns can be accessed in the Features section of Playbill.com. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)

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