In My Life
nytheatre.com review by Matt Schicker
October 26, 2005
In My Life, the new musical with book, music, lyrics, and direction by Joseph Brooks, features a gigantic lemon on stage during its finale. In a very superstitious industry, using a lemon as your parting image and logo seems like a death wish, but I remember thinking that naming a Broadway-bound musical Titanic seemed like a very bad idea. Of course, Titanic went on to win five Tony Awards; the fates won’t be so kind to In My Life.
Brooks is a 1977 Oscar-winner for his song “You Light Up My Life” from the film of the same name (which he also wrote, directed, and produced). But he's a newcomer to Broadway, and the combination of strange material and his own directorial inexperience dooms the musical.
The plot of In My Life is difficult to follow and harder to synopsize. Jenny, a personal ads editor for the Village Voice, seeks out J.T., a pop singer/songwriter whose songs Jenny heard on the radio. The two immediately are attracted to each other, but after they have sex J.T. confesses that he has Tourette's Syndrome; he has various facial tics and on occasion he uncontrollably shouts out curse words mid-conversation. Jenny is undeterred by this and soon they’re living together.
Meanwhile, in heaven, a wisecracking angel with a British accent named Winston decides to make Jenny and J.T. the unknowing protagonists of his tragic “reality opera”, which he is directing. When J.T. is diagnosed with a brain tumor, Winston is delighted; it’s a perfect turn of plot for his opera. Back on earth, J.T. decides not to have the risky surgery to remove the tumor in spite of the fact that without the surgery he will go blind and worse. Through some divine intervention on the part of Al, a kind of heavenly regular joe-type in a baseball cap who, unbeknownst even to the denizens of heaven, is God, J.T. survives the surgery. Winston isn’t happy about this, as his opera project now is dead, but Al/God makes it up to Winston by allowing him to apply his creative skills to planning J.T. and Jenny’s wedding, which takes place in the presence of their friends and family, alive and dead.
If the above synopsis seems confusing, it’s because I was confused watching it. To even remember these details of the story, I had to call on friends who also had seen it, so I could piece together its bizarre events in a coherent manner. And I haven’t even mentioned yet J.T.’s dead mother and child sister, the former of whom appears as both a memory and as a ghost. And a dead man named Nick who while living was the driver who killed J.T.’s mother and sister in a car crash. And Nick happens to be the late boyfriend of Jenny’s friend Liz. To say that the plot is hard to follow is an understatement; I found it incomprehensible.
Brooks’s main idea seems to be that life should be lived fearlessly and in the now, because the fates are not in our control. A nice enough sentiment, but the handling of it is by turns simplistic and overly complex, and most of it is uninteresting. The same can be said of Brooks’s book, music, and lyrics. Some of the songs have memorable pop "hooks," but the endless repetition of the same trite catchphrase (“Life is just a ride on the wheel,” “Life turns on a dime,” etc.) leaves the audience numb. The synthesizer-and-guitar sound palette of many of the songs also makes them all start to sound the same. In a very odd stroke of self-aggrandizement, Brooks pays tribute to his own success as a jingle writer by having Al/God sing Brooks’s own Dr. Pepper and Volkswagen jingles. What this has to do with the story, I’m not at all sure. The songs for Winston are at least fun and theatrical; they’re a relief from the painful earnestness of most of the other numbers. But, again, they’re unnervingly irrelevant to the plot: at the mere mention of the word pirate, voila!, we have a full-fledged pirate song.
In My Life seems to value quirkiness above all else, and that extends beyond kooky characters and into the presentation of the piece itself. The set by Allen Moyer alternates between the detailed super-realism of Jenny’s apartment and the surreal towering file cabinets of heaven. The musical staging by Richard Stafford is workmanlike, but even he can’t save the shockingly strange dance number with Winston and a skeleton.
Christopher J. Hanke and Jessica Boevers are as appealing as possible in the lead roles; they manage to get a few convincing moments out of some pretty unconvincing material. David Turner should be having a field day as the flamboyantly wicked Winston, but his naughty ad-libbing, which usually mocks or apologizes for the shortcomings of Brooks’s production, loses steam and teeth by the end of the evening. As the child-ghost Vera, Chiara Navarra has confidence and volume but lacks subtlety.
There’s a moment in the show that I think gives us a glimpse of unexplored directions that might have made In My Life more interesting. In one scene, Winston looks on to Jenny and J.T.’s domestic interactions from the ceiling of their apartment, directing the scene and, as a result, their lives. The scene as it stands is primarily played for laughs, but more of this kind of direct interaction between the protagonists and the outside spiritual forces that guide their lives could have given some richness and texture to a piece that now is as two-dimensional as that giant lemon that is flown in as the backdrop to the wedding finale.
As you gaze in awe at this inexplicable spectacle, you can only wonder at the guts—or is it foolishness?—it took to produce such a weak show on Broadway.