Playbill Critics Circle: Your Views of The Life

News   Playbill Critics Circle: Your Views of The Life
Cy Coleman, composer of Sweet Charity, The Will Rogers Follies, City of Angels, Barnum and many other musicals is returning to Broadway with his latest project, The Life, currently in previews for an April 26 opening.

Cy Coleman, composer of Sweet Charity, The Will Rogers Follies, City of Angels, Barnum and many other musicals is returning to Broadway with his latest project, The Life, currently in previews for an April 26 opening.

If you have seen the show in previews, please let everyone know what the show looks, sounds and feels like. Be as specific and descriptive as possible. How well does the show express its themes? How well does it capture its milieu -- Times Square in 1980? How are the performances, the dancing, the design elements? How are the songs, and how do they compare to other Coleman works? Keep in mind that the show is currently in previews and you are the first people anywhere to see and write about this new show.

Write your comments -- long or short -- and e-mail them to Managing Editor Robert Viagas at Comments will be posted as they come in.

Please make sure to include your town and state, and please note whether you'd like us to include your full e-mail address so you can receive responses.

Playbill On-Line thanks those who took the time to write. This is optional, of course. Here are the results so far:

From NY (
Without a doubt, this one's going to win it all at the Tonys, and despite its dark themes, I imagine it will play on Broadway for a long, long time, especially as people grow nostalgic for the days before Disney on Times Square.
At the third preview performance, the beginning of Act One fell flat. I wasn't sure of the tone of the musical -- was this a flashy Broadway show, or more serious fare? The dazzling opening number "Check It Out," followed by the upbeat, infectious "Use What You Got" promised song-and-dance of mindless variety, despite the dramatic implications of the setting. These opening two numbers show off Martin Pakledinaz's colorful late 70's costumes and Robin Wagner's simple but highly effective set. The second two numbers introduce us to our protagonist Queen, a prostitute with hopes of a better life for her and her husband and struggling Vietnam vet pimp Fleetwood. Her "A Lovely Day To Be Out of Jail" and his "A Piece of the Action" are serious songs, not especially memorable, and fell a little to flat, as the first two numbers portend a different show.
Not till Lillias White, as an aging hooker, sings "The Oldest Profession" -- the best song of the show, and sure to become a standard -- do we understand that Cy Coleman wants it both ways. He wants to write a serious show in the style of an old time Broadway musical. Mostly, he succeeds.
The story is the weakest part of the show, a rather standard tale of backstabbing pimps and hookers with hearts of gold. The show soars in the middle of Act One, which explores the lives of the hookers and mostly avoids our protagonists. "You Can't Get To Heaven," "My Body," and "Why Don't They Leave Us Alone" are truly rousing song and dance numbers about hooking and pimping. I haven't felt so electrified by the energy on a stage since seeing "Rent" -- which is an infinitely inferior musical, and which also shares some similarities with Coleman's new show.
Act Two strains as well. The narrative is predictable. But the actors do bring it off, and the ending manages to truly move. You won't learn anything new here, but you will have a very, very good time, and you will laugh, dance in your seat, maybe even (yes) shed a tear. Lillias White will go home with a Tony, and as Queen, Pamela Isaacs brings an understated dignity to a tough role. Her work pays off in the end. Chuck Cooper truly chills as the badass pimp Memphis, and Kevin Ramsey's Fleetwood conveys his character's motivations well. Finally, Stephanie Michels' Mary turns the midwestern cliche character on its head deliciously.
The ensemble is excellent, and not too polished, like Rent's cast, which makes it all the more fun. Sam Harris is sharp as Jojo, our (and, in many instances, the other characters') narrator, but he doesn't quite have the dramatic weight the role might really benefit from.
Michael Blakemore's simple direction and clean, swift staging truly impresses, especially after the muddled disasters of the directorial work in "Steel Pier" and "Titanic." And finally, here's a musical with a good book! Coleman's music is mostly good, sometimes great, but he's clearly more comfortable with upbeat numbers than with ballads. Still, because of the performances, the climactic number "My Friend" truly affects. Lastly, the choreography by Joey McKneely is messy and fun and doesn't call distracting attention to itself.
This is the must-see on Broadway. I hope that by opening night the narrative kinks are worked out and the show is tightened up a little. If so, we could have a great American Musical on our hands, one of the best of the decade. (4/18/97)


From NY:
Putrid. Makes "The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public" look like "Porgy & Bess". One night. (4/18/97)


From JAS:
I saw THE LIFE last night and, with all its faults, I think it's going to be the show to beat this year. Cy Coleman is one of our great underappreciated theatre composers and THE LIFE is one of his best scores. The hits come tumbling one after another and there are very few numbers that don't "work",with a lot of the score (especially in the first act) being throughsung.The book, however, is another matter. Simply put, it's a mess. Like several of the "concept" albums that became stage musicals (CHESS comes to mind), THE LIFE has a great score and a plot that wanders all over the place, sometimes twisting up like a pretzel to fit in the musical numbers. For example, in Act One there's a string of really solid songs ("You Can't Get to Heaven", "My Body" and "Why Don't They Leave Us Alone"--which is a highlight number), during which the plot completely grinds to a halt. The book, credited to three writers, Coleman included, is a strictly by the numbers, cliched movie-of-the-week scenario about "The Life" on 42nd Street, complete with hookers with hearts of gold and evil pimps. It's been done before--and better.
The cast, without exception, is glorious. Lillias White can dust off her mantle for the Tony she's going to win in June. She's a stupendous Sonja, whose "The Oldest Profession" number in Act one brings the house down. Pamela Isaacs' Queen gives the musical its heart. She rises above the script's weaknesses and delivers a moving performance, giving her all in her big ballads "He's No Good" and "We Had a Dream", and in her farewell duet with Sonja, "My Friend". Sam Harris, although underutilized, is electrifying, and Bellamy Young, Kevin Ramsey and Chuck Cooper bring great verve to their cliched roles.
The sets were fine, but not very evocative and seemed to place the action, via the posters on the wall at the start of Act Two, in the early eighties. The costumes were strictly middle seventies cartoon. Choreography was OK, but Bob Fosse is probably turning in his grave. I've heard of homage, but this came dangerously close to theft.
Problems? Too much plot, wrapped up almost arbitrarily in the second act. A good fifteen minutes could be cut to tighten things up and the framing device of Jojo and the "Check It Out" number (the weakest in the score) should be removed--it makes it seem as if Jojo is the central character, which he's not, and the number gets the play off to a lackluster start. As for a finale, they'd be better off with a reprise of "Use What You Got". Come to think of it, that would be a better opener,too!
Overall, a score that cannot be missed and a show that, flaws and all, is moving and exciting. <4/17/97)


From Bobmarks1:
In my opinion, "The Life" will join the ranks of "Carrie," "Big Deal," and "Legs Diamond." It is inept on so many levels: an unmemorable score which sounds like fragments of left over Coleman riffs, some of the ugliest sets in recent memory (including an "elevator" that looks like it was borrowed from a community theatre production of "Sweet Charity"), a ridiculous book, and lyrics that are reminiscent of a high school "Sing." (For example, a bunch of pimps getting a shoeshine after their girls have been arrested singing "How do they expect us to make a sale, When they put our merchandise in jail?" or "When I tell you to jump, I wanna hear the thump!")
And how about the character of Mary, a young "innocent" white girl who is led from Port Authority into "The Life," but gets into it so quickly that she's willing to do a threesome that very night? Yes, she alludes to not being as innocent as she seems, but then why does she sing "Easy Money" which states that it's such a surprise how easy topless dancing is? And they're all gearing up for "The Hooker's Ball?" Come on, a bunch of cats getting ready for the Jellicle Ball is more believable.
The cast is excellent -- but wasted. If jobs on Broadway weren't so difficult to find, I think they'd be out of there in a heartbeat. "The Life" was truly compelling for its ineptitude, and I think you should see it -- but certainly not at full price! It does make one understand why there are so many musical revivals of classic shows. Without Cy Colemanis good name, this show would have died eight years ago. And I believe that if "The Life" had an out-of-town tryout (the sets would fit in one truck!), it would never have seen the light of Broadway day. It's time to find the new writers that must be out there. (4/17/97)


Mark C. Tafoya ( New York, NY:
"The Life" has much going for it: Foremost among which is a dedicated and talented cast. Lillias White is superb, and worth the price of the ticket. Pamela Isaacs as Queen is also superb.
The score by Cy Coleman has many strong points. Standout numbers include "The Oldest Profession", "My Friend", "Use What You Got", and "The Hooker's Ball".
This show has the potential to be one of the best shows in many years, but there are some problems with the book. I feel that we aren't given much foundation for the relationship between Queen and Fleetwood. For this reason, I have a hard time empathizing with him. Also, Jojo appears at the beginning as a sort of narrator/commentator, but this convention is not maintained fully throughout. This character could be much more effective, (a la Che in Evita). I felt that the sequence "My Body", and "Why Don't They Leave us Alone?" was very strong, both scenically and musically, and should have been the opening number. It sets up very quickly and with great energy the particular problems these characters face on a day to day basis. However, we don't see the other denizens of the Deuce: Johns, bums, etc., who are just as important to this bygone age before the invasion of the MOUSE.
The choreography is at times inspired, particularly "The Hooker's Ball" (which sports some delightful costumes), and "My Body", however the rest of the choreography is very uneven. "Mr. Greed" looks under-rehearsed and amateurish. Perhaps it's a brand-new number, but I don't think that more rehearsal will bring this number up to the level of some of the other numbers.
The supporting hookers are delightful as well, particularly Sharon Wilkins as ChiChi. She stops the show several times with her antics. In other shows, her over-the-top reading would be out of place, but here she's entirely believable as a street girl who has no shame. I've seen many like her walking 8th Ave...
"Someday is for Suckers" is a well-written and well-performed number which gives each of the hookers a chance to shine, and also shows us, without judgement, how these people become casualties of the street. All in all, "The Life" is probably the most unusual and unapologetic new musical of the season. With some changes and refinements, I'm sure that the book will improve and help to tell the story of some very compelling characters. Certainly, this extremely talented cast is one of the best currently on Broadway. (4/16/97)


In a recent column here, Ken Mandelbaum took new musical theatre writers to task for not producing accessible, melodic, theatrical, audience-friendly scores. In "The Life" Cy Coleman offers another example of just that sort of score to join the others he has produced for over thirty five years.
The show is set in an uncleaned-up, pre-Disneyfied Times Square in the early 80's. We are introduced to a community of hookers, pimps, and hustlers who can be sassy and lovable but also tougher than nails. The show has something of a similar split personality.
The major plotline involves a young couple -- he's an addict, she's a "working girl", and they are saving all they can to get out of "the life." They become entangled with the nasty kingpin of all pimps. The treatment of this story in both book and score aims high, dramatically speaking, almost for the operatic, and achieves some very effective moments, as well as some unsteady ones. The three performers, Pamela Isaacs, Kevin Ramsey, and especially the powerful Chuck Cooper work very hard to pull it off.
The show's creators approach the milieu of the story and the supporting characters differently, and that material can feel as if it's from a different show altogether. They choose to accent those aformentioned sassy and lovable qualities to surround the gritty main story. Mr. Coleman's tunes are catchy, to be sure, but the lyrics and dialogue assigned to these characters are most often shallow, crass, tasteless, and vulgar, if, admittedly, occasionally funny. They suffer greatly in believability, too, compared to the more serious stuff. Mr. Coleman's infectious songs don't carry irony or make a comment the way a Kander and Ebb song can in "Cabaret," "Chicago" or "Kiss of the Spider Woman". It is hard to assess who contributed what from Mr. Coleman and his collaborators Ira Gasman (lyrics and book) and David Newman (book), but these contrasting elements just don't cohere into a solid show.
I commend the designers' work, Martin Pakledinaz's entirely appropriate costumes, Richard Pilbrow's moody lighting, and Robin Wagner's, as usual, very fine set design. (A great touch -- the eighties' bills plastered on walls for things like Calvin Klein jeans and long gone Broadway shows.)
Of the cast, I would single out the wonderful Lilias White, who brings down the house with a lament about being too old for "The Oldest Profession", and Sam Harris, who is charsimatic and uncompromising as a a slick and sleazy operator.
"The Life" is hardly a wholly successful piece, but if you're adventurous, give it a try. And hurry -- I think there's a strong possibility the critics will kill "The Life" fast. (4/16/97)


Itis difficult to enjoy a musical about such lowlife characters as those that inhabitThe Life. How can we laugh and scream for more from characters that we are told will eventually succumb to AIDS, to homicide, to drug overdose?
Though there are bright spots (Lilias White as Sonja singing "The Oldest Profession" for one), I had difficulty enjoying an entertainment about such destructive behaviors. I'm certainly no prude, but found it difficult to laugh at the foibles of these characters.
The song alluded to by another reviewer here, "He's No Good," was the ultimate "woman as victim and I can't do anything to about it" BS that has no place on a public stage. It was played almost like "Bill" in Showboat, but the difference was that with "Bill," the man in question is lovable despite his absence of normal attractive characteristics. In "He's No Good," the man is loved in spite of the fact that he beats and mistreats the woman singing the song. This is a grave difference. I realize that battered women frequently can not see the way out of their situation, but in just a few scenes, Queenie has seen the light and has no trouble in leaving. The two scenes just don't go together.
I think this musical will appeal to many. If I were either Black or a woman, I'd be embarrassed by the stereotypical characters presented. As a human being, I am embarrassed that we seem to enjoy laughing at and applauding characters that represent our basest instincts. (4/15/97)


From Mark Huber
Without a doubt, THE LIFE was one of the grossest, tackiest and weirdest musicals I've ever seen. It was like watching one of those black exploitation flicks set to bouncy Cy Coleman music. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. The show starts well with a high flying opening number that seems to set a goofy tone, but suddenly it gets wildly dark and serious, with one annoying ballad after another. The poor lead singer keeps getting straddled with songs that sound like they were cut from City of Angels, and she has to sing them while sobbing about her man -- a pimp who wants her to have more sex so he can support her habit. Oy Vay!
The show veers from ridiculousness (The Hookers Ball) to bizarre (after having sex with a john, the barbie hooker is convinced to go to L.A. to be a porn star and she and the john sing of how they will be on the cover of "People" magazine. You should have heard the giggles during that one!) to trying to be Porgy and Bess by Cy Coleman.
Only Lilias White survives the debacle. She has one great number, and it's the only thing that works dramatically. Otherwise, the show is unbelievable. It would be a camp classic if it didn't feel like a bunch shriners got together to write a show about hookers! See it now, because it ain't going to be around long! (4/15/97)


From Girodet:
"The Life" will be accepting the Tony for Best New Musical this year. I‘ve seen all other contenders in this category and after witnessing the catastrophes and borderline hits that Broadway has offered this season, I can confidently say that "The Life" is the finest of the crop. Someone had suggested to me the theory that one musical might eclipse the others simply because the others are not all that good. This is definitely not the case at all as "The Life" even outshines some of the most successful musicals held over from seasons passed. I saw this production in only its sixth day of previews and was amazed at just how well this show had its act together. "The Life" crept onto Broadway (even though its been in development for many years), and I have heard people ask “What is The Life? “ when it comes up in conversation. I can guarantee that within three weeks, this production is all that will be discussed.
It is by far, the best new score in town. It is difficult to pick out favorites as there is an entire slew of scrumptious pieces that are destined to become standards. Though the concept album is good, the songs are offered in a jazz variation and it relies on celebrity names who really don‘t provide great renditions of these pieces (aside from the incomparable Jennifer Holliday). To hear these same songs sung by genuine legit voices is a real treat. I can promise you we‘ll be hearing “He‘s No Good “ sung by many different women over the next twenty years.
The cast is top rate. Pamela Issacs' portrayal of Queen is convincing as the prostitute who “just wants to get out of there “ and what a lovely voice to accompany her plight. Chuck Cooper as the evil Memphis has a rich voice of pure seduction and prompts the inner conflict of loving the vocalist for his talent and the yearning to kick his character’s butt for being so cruel. Bellamy Young was terrific in the “good-turned-bad-or-was-she-bad-all along?” role of Mary. The outstanding performance definitely goes to Lilias White as Sonja with two show stoppers, “The Oldest Profession “ and “My Friend “. I found “My Friend “ to be the weakest of the songs as it seemed eager to please, but judging from the audience reaction, I guess I stood alone. Ms. White‘s performance did not call for that standard lackluster applause given to just any performer who can hold a note, it demanded the audience to offer a frenzied roar of approval, and they did. She will take home the Tony for Best Supporting Actress.
The book is equally as impressive, though I must admit is needs a bit of work in the second act. I admired that the authors casually offer the fate of Sonja without making it the focus of the show. There are far too many other shows that focus on this fate, but the simplicity of having the audience determine her future as early as Act I and leaving them with no resolution was the perfect, subtle theatrical twist. If they could work that same magic into the second act instead of giving the audience what they expect, it could prove beneficial. (Though I wish to elaborate, I couldn‘t do so without giving away the ending and that wouldn‘t be right).
There is conflict between the scenic design and the costumes as the costumes seem to lean more toward the severity of the mid-seventies while the set reflects the early eighties. But the scenic design is well executed and the standout cleverness of an elevator ride made the audience murmur with delight.
My one gripe here is that I cannot determine if Joey McKneely‘s choreography is paying homage to Bob Fosse or a mere rip-off of Bob Fosse. Here this young talent had the terrific opportunity to invent himself and instead he reduces the production to a revival of "Sweet Charity". One Broadway show paying tribute to the great Fosse is enough this season and at least they can admit it. Get original.
Overall, this show is fabulous. If you see one production this season, make sure its "The Life". You won‘t be disappointed. But keep in mind, it is rated R, with adult content, brief nudity (very brief) and adult language. It is most definately not a family show to take the kids to and the older generation might find it offensive. (4/14/97)

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