PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Story of My Life — Hey, Old Friend!

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Story of My Life — Hey, Old Friend!
The Story of My Life, which officially started unraveling Feb. 19 at the Booth, turns out slyly to be the story of two lives — best buds since first grade — overlapping and continuing through various ups and downs and all-arounds for the next 30 years.
Will Chase and Malcolm Gets with Neil Bartram, Brian Hill and Richard Maltby, Jr.
Will Chase and Malcolm Gets with Neil Bartram, Brian Hill and Richard Maltby, Jr. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Thomas Weaver (Will Chase) has come to praise his longtime pal, Alvin Kelby (Malcolm Gets), not to bury him, as the show begins. Being a much-honored writer, he is of course at a loss for words, so the ghost of the dearly departed materializes to prod him into a proper eulogy, and both their lives pass in review in 90 minutes flat.

The flashback-tracking takes the form of word-driven story-songs, written by one person (Neil Bartram). It all seems like a sung-through show, but there are bits of a book here and there (by Brian Hill) setting up or bridging numbers (18 are listed in the Playbill).

Richard Maltby Jr., a director with lyricist leanings (being one with composer David Shire), proves the perfect person to helm this show, having made a career of creating characters and relationships on lyrics alone (Ring of Fire, Ain't Misbehavin').

The combined efforts of these five men gamely go into ticklishly unchartered turf, exploring the boundaries (if, indeed, there are any) of male bonding. It is the first musical to address the question head-on — and, quite possibly, the first play to do so.

"It's a love story between two men," Maltby admitted outright at the Sardi's after-party. "Is there a gay component to it? Maybe. Maybe it's impossible for there not to be. It's certainly a love story, but how many friends don't have a love story? "With women, it's easy. There are lots of women-friends stories but no men's-friends stories. Maybe you tell a gay story or a jock-partner camaraderie one, but there are tons of stories in the middle. What's wonderful about the authors is they set out to do something no one had ever done — write a real story about friendship."

The thing that pleasures him most about this show is "that it makes people feel. People come out really, deeply moved and connected — and it's not because they're sad about the story. It's because of the connections through their own lives. People feel in touch with the things they have lost — friends that really, really mattered.

"We don't often look at our lives in full and realize that there are people who enter our life — not necessarily somebody we choose — who change our life totally and then just sorta drift away. And you want that emotion back, you want that friendship back, you want that feeling back, you want that connection back."

Book writer Hill, whose previous Broadway debut was as assistant director of The Little Mermaid, viewed the opening-night performance from the author's battle-station at the back of the house. "It was hard to tell the audience's reaction from the back of their heads, but the silence couldn't be more thrilling. They seemed to be listening."

He had especially high marks for his two stars, who, once they hit it, never leave the stage. "It's epic, 90 minutes form start to finish. They're absolutely incredible, and it's new and fresh every single time we see them do it. They're just amazing."

Bartram was equally dazzled by his Broadway bow. "Pretty thrilling," he conceded, "seeing your name on the marquee of a Broadway theatre, and that being the Booth which has such a great history, and Jonathan Tunick doing the orchestrations and Richard Maltby directing — it's all those amazing moments along the way."

[flipbook] Originally, he and Hill tried to tell of a man-and-woman friendship but kept slipping into a "When Harry Met Sally" sand trap. After shelving the project for several years, they took it up again as a mano a mano friendship — a gingerly tightrope walk where no man has gone before, carefully keeping the inherent intimacy in balance.

"It just sorta evolved into what felt right. We didn't really force it one way or the other. It is a love story between two guys. It's not romantic in the traditional sense. It's more complicated than that. It felt like, 'Well, let's sorta throw that up and see what happens.' It's also written within the framework of a story where one of the characters doesn't know all the answers, so the audience is kinda bringing it together with him. We get a lot of people with different connections to the story."

There's no rest for the weary, constantly-on actors, but there are stashes of replenishing water about the stage, hidden in Robert Brill's ghostly suggestion of a bookcase, like Ray Milland's booze bottles. "We asked Richard on the second day of rehearsal if we could have water on the set because we knew that our throats would be getting dry," said Gets. "At this time of year, they pump the heat into the auditorium because the stage gets really dry so we try to be subtle about it, but Richard also said, 'In times like this, let the audience see you drink the water.'"

Gets duly noted that he has put in as much sustained stage-time as this before — "The Mystery of Irma Vep, which was actually much more of a workout than this because I was constantly changing costumes — but this show is definitely a challenge."

Happily, he has an eccentric and winning character to keep him manically occupied. "I love how open he is. I love how resilient he is. I love that he gets knocked over, and he just bounces back up. I love that he's the complete glass-half-full person. For five years on television, I played a guy whose glass was half-empty all the time ["Caroline in the City"], so it's fun to play this because he's the complete antithesis of that character. I've learned so much about myself since I've been playing Alvin. It's easier for me, certainly in New York, to walk around and pretend to be cynical and talk out the side of my mouth — it's the easier, more protective way. It takes a lot of courage to live as openly as Alvin does so it's really gratifying to get to play him."

As for his character's sexual orientation: "If he is gay, I don't think he ever acts on it. I think Alvin goes to his grave with never having been with anybody. I think Alvin just loves. I think he loves his father, and I think he loves Thomas. I'm a gay man, and I don't think that Alvin loves in the way most modern men think of gay love. I think that it's slightly ambiguous, though it's there. I'm glad that they did not spell it out.

"Neil and Brian said originally they thought about writing a piece about a friendship between a man and a woman, but it entirely became romantic. And then we talked a lot about how we didn't want it to be just like it's about a gay man who's in love with a straight man. That makes the story much smaller as opposed to love between two men — gay, straight or otherwise — which is a more complicated piece."

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The Chase-and-Gets give-and-take is physically exhausting for both actors. "I'm brain-fried by the end of the show," admitted Chase, "but I'm so fulfilled as well. Where do you get to do an hour-and-a-half-long scene? Ever? The thing is that you don't really go off stage and think about your next scene. You don't think at all this. It's just you do. Everything you ever signed up to do as an actor, I get to do in this show. I mean, literally. I get to play a kid, I get to play an adult, I get to sing. "And talk about a full-circle journey he gets to go on! I love that Alvin gets to open up Thomas' heart. He's so closed off. I love that I get to go on that kind of journey. I don't know of another character who gets to go that far. I love doing it — especially in a musical. I also love the talking-to-the-audience thing. I've done that a lot lately in my last several shows, and I love having a direct dialogue with the audience."

Thomas, in a certain pastel way, reprises the arc that Chase made last summer as Valentin to Hunter Foster's Molina in Signature revival of Kiss of the Spider Woman.

"You know what that show did? It opened my eyes. I used to pigeon-hole myself like actors like to do — 'I'm the leading man,' blah, blah, blah, blah — and Spider Woman allowed me to feel I'm a character actor, which means we all are. We're all character actors, but we get these labels. What it did was make me realize I could do lots of other things. It got me to think outside the box, which every actor should be doing."

The two stars and their understudies (Bradley Dean and Jim Stanek) are depicted in the Playbill with their first-grade class pictures, just to remind you where the show is coming from. All four wear smiles that say, "Broadway, here we come."

"So far, I haven't geeked out to Richard," said Stanek, who'll soon understudy both roles. "I'm a huge fan. When my wife and I first started dating, I was trying to bring her into the musical-theatre world so I was singing Maltby-Shire all the time." Strengthening the Sondheim style of the songs here are the orchestrations of Tunick, who was recently presented for induction into the Theatre Hall of Fame by Sondheim himself. The orchestrator returned the favor by making public what must be the best anagram ever made out of the composer's name: "He opens the minds."

Given his harmonious history with word-driven songs, Tunick was a natural for this show. "It approaches an aspect of the human condition that hasn't been explored very much in musical theatre," he said. "Friendship has always been very elusive."

After 40 years of Sondheim and one show by Bartram, Tunick next turns his attention to Johann Strauss (1825-99), whom he actually played — at director Harold Prince's urging — in a fleeting longshot at the end of the 1978 movie version of A Little Night Music. "I was hoping for a Best Supporting Actor nod," he joshed.

The Strauss show in question is called Paradise Found, with music by Strauss (Tunick), lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh and book by Richard Nelson. Prince has been working on it "about four years," according to Kate Baldwin, a Story of My Life first-nighter who has been part of its developmental readings. A regional theatre launch is expected. Shuler Hensley, Mandy Patinkin, Judy Kaye, John Cullum and Emily Skinner have also been connected to Paradise Found in the past.

Charles Strouse, the Broadway Strauss, was also at the opening, fresh from a heady production meeting about where on Broadway to put Minsky's next season. It could arrive as early as summer. He was gently ragging his Annie book-writer, Thomas Meehan, about how people in the Sardi's main-floor dining area have told him they have projects going with Meehan. In point of fact, Roundabout will be doing a reading in April of Meehan's show with Maury Yeston, Death Takes a Holiday.

Also in attendance, testing the celebratory ambiance, were stars about to bounce from Off-Broadway to Broadway: Tovah Feldshuh, the Irena of Irena's Vow, arriving March 29 at the Walter Kerr, and Constantine Maroulis, high from his first day of Rock of Ages rehearsals with two new recruits, Saturday Night Fever's James Carpinello and Kiss Me Kate's Amy Spanger. "We start previewing on St. Patrick's Day," relayed Maroulis, "and we will open April 7 at the Brooks Atkinson."

Other first-nighters: Pat Schoenfeld, Bernadette Peters, Phyllis Newman, Joan Rivers (back from L.A. pushing her two new books: "Murder at the Academy Awards" and "Men Are Stupid . . . and They Like Big Boobs"), Rue McClanahan, conductor-arranger John McDaniel, producer Eric Krebs, critic Howard Kissel with Louise Kerz Hirschfeld, Charlotte St. Martin and Claudia Shear.

Numbering among the Bartram and Hill supporters were director Susan H. Schulman (who will helm their next show, Clara's Piano, about the love triangle formed by Johannes Brahms and Robert and Clara Schumann) and Lynn Ahrens, a BMI alum who served as Bartram's mentor. The latter was beaming like a mother hen when she said, "It's so sad. This is the next generation rising up to destroy us!"

Malcolm Gets and Will Chase take their opening night bow.
Malcolm Gets and Will Chase take their opening night bow.
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