Two songs into The Story of My Life, the new musical opening at Broadway's Booth Theatre this month, out pops an enduring movie-made icon: Clarence, the affable and literally unflappable angel apprentice who earned his wings by bailing George Bailey out of a futility funk in Frank Capra's Christmas classic of 1946, "It's a Wonderful Life."
The song is "Mrs. Remington," a paean to a warm, nurturing first-grade school teacher, and Clarence was a favorite with the recently deceased mom of Alvin, one of her six-year-old charges. Truth to tell, Neil Bartram was writing about his fifth-grade teacher, "a large, embracing woman," recalls the tunesmith, "just the energy you'd want in a classroom. She treated the kids like her own. At that point, she was, like, my world."
There are, he says, other echoes of "It's a Wonderful Life" in his songs and Brian Hill's book for The Story of My Life. "It has some parallels to our story about a character who saves this whole town, much like George Bailey does. Our two lead characters bond over their love of that movie, and the point's made that each would've had quite different lives without the other."
This Story is set in small-town America (called in its first draft Angel Falls, which presumably would have been just down the road from Bedford Falls), and it spans almost three decades of a friendship that began on the first day of school. "It's one character looking back on the profound effect his friend had on his life," says Hill. From the same starting point — best friends — Thomas Weaver (Will Chase) troops off to the big city to become a best-selling author, and quirky Alvin Kelby (Malcolm Gets) remains in town to run his father's bookstore, but through the years their level of reentry remains intimate and familial. There's only the catch-up to do.
"There are relationships in your life that influence you without you really noticing it at the time, but, in retrospect, you can see how a certain person changed the course of your life," points out Bartram, who set sail with Hill on that notion with a man–woman friendship and wound up scuttled by the "When Harry Met Sally" undertow.
"We kept migrating into a love story," Hill notes. "In changing it to two men, there were suddenly more boundaries to break through. It made a more interesting play."
They evolved their story trying to miss the milestones. "It's the small moments that end up being the really big ones throughout your life," he insists, "so rather than it being 'Graduation! Marriage! Children!' — those things that you'd think are the big life-changing moments — we touch on seemingly insignificant moments that pay off."
Bartram translated these chapters of life into word-driven story songs. "The main character is a writer, so we imagined he stores away his memories as stories," the composer reasons. "We thought the audience would make their metaphoric leap with us. All the elements of the story, whether they're a scene or a scene that turns into a song, have their inherent beginning, middle and end so they're self-contained units unto themselves — but, when strung together, create a bigger picture. 'Mrs. Remington,' with its own little story arc, is self-contained, but it's relevant to the whole piece because there are tentacles of that which lead to other story elements. The whole piece is an amalgamation of stories, the stories of their lives together."
Bartram and Hill — both from small towns outside Toronto — met on stage, performing the Canadian premiere of Forever Plaid. Two years later this perfect blendship spread to words-and-music teamwork and drifted below the border to NYC, where they tinkered The Story of My Life back to life and got it on the road to Broadway with versions in Toronto and at Goodspeed Musicals in Connecticut.
If their labors (directed by Richard Maltby Jr.) work, you'll leave The Story of My Life wondering what was the name of your first-grade schoolteacher or how you can get a hold of old pals lost in the mist of the past.
Their Life lasts an hour and a half. "It's a one-act play," Hill says, "and we often say Act II is actually the drive home, with people talking about what they saw."