Creating "Bright Lights Big City," Being Panned, and Living With It
"I will not accept what the press has written about me. People are packing in. They're laughing; they're moved. So when the critics say there's no wit in my lyrics or it's an uninvolving show, I don't believe it because there's living proof to the contrary. We have audience members coming back six or seven times."
The speaker is composer-lyricist-book writer Paul Scott Goodman, whose new musical "Bright Lights Big City" was treated unkindly‹in some instances with downright hostility‹by most of the critics around town. Based on Jay McInerney's best-selling 1984 novel, the rock 'n' roll-inspired musical, oftentimes evoking a pop concert, opened Off-Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW), Feb. 24.
It tells the story of Jamie, a young writer in New York, psychologically disintegrating as he contends with the death of his mother, the loss of his wife, and the club scene of the 1980s, awash in coke. Goodman's work doesn't end with the writing; he's onstage too. Goodman plays himself‹well, sort of‹in the ill-fated production: a Glasgow-born narrator-musician who has come to New York and encountered the characters in the play. Throughout he offers running commentary in his marked Scottish accent. He also performs with an electric guitar, sometimes solo, sometimes with the other musicians. In that guise, Goodman is every bit the assaultive punk rocker. Sporting a slightly shiny green suit, and plaid thick-soled sneakers, he shouts and jumps and smashes about. Responding to Goodman's onstage gig the reviewers were, for the most part, puzzled by both concept and performance.
"Look, the wounds are fresh so I'm lashing out," Goodman says. "I don't want to sound like sour grapes, but I do feel when you get an avalanche of bad reviews something weird is going on. I'm pushing buttons in a strange way, not unlike Johnny Rotten [lead singer of the Sex Pistols, ur-punk rockers] when he appeared on TV. He was brash, bold, and turned off a lot of people."
Goodman presents an unexpected amalgam. He admits Johnny Rotten is an esthetic influence, if that's the right term. "I like his aggressive take-no-prisoners attitude." But then Elton John and Stephen Sondheim have shaped Goodman's vision as well, he points out. And so has Al Jolsen. "I'm trying to get away from what audiences expect in musicals. I blend word, song, poetry, and monologue. I f‹k with form."
Indeed, he says, his previous shows, most notably "Tiny Dancers" and "Domestica," performed in cabarets, partake of that eclectic character. And as in "Bright Lights," the city plays a role, becoming a palpable figure, pulsating and vigorous. Still, there's a gentleness in those earlier pieces‹autobiographical one-person shows, dealing with family life.
The 39-year-old Goodman is, in fact, a family man; he is married and the father of three children. He is also a practicing Jew, lights Shabbes candles, and goes to shul. His soft offstage style‹despite the anger and pain‹is in stark contrast to his onstage cavortings. We meet in a NYTW dressing room before a performance and are joined by his uncle who has flown in from London to see the show.
This is not an easy time for Goodman, as he grapples with what went wrong‹why "Rent," with which "Bright Lights" has been compared, was a hit, while this piece was panned. Both, launched by the NYTW, look at privileged youth on uppers/downers, and celebrate a loud in-your-face rock sensibility.
Goodman maintains that "Bright Lights" has more universal appeal, but suspects backlash was at play. "The critics latched onto the idea that we were all trying to make a big fortune [like "Rent']. And although they blamed the lyrics, the fact is they didn't like the subject matter. What bothers them is just how up front, for example, this piece is about drugs and sex and swearing."
Despite the lambasting, it should be noted that Goodman was the first recipient of the Songwriter's Hall of Fame Award for outstanding new songwriter, and last year received the Gilman & Gonzales-Falla Award and the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation Award. "Bright Lights Big City" is the first major production of his work.
Goodman grew up on the fringes of show business. His father was a stand-up comedian before he (Goodman Senior) married, and while he subsequently made his living as a manufacturer's agent in the clothing business, he was an ongoing member of the "Avrom Greenbaum Players," a Jewish Scottish amateur theatrical troupe. Goodman junior was a participant as well.
He says there hasn't been much of a theatre scene in Scotland, short of touring shows that come through. "Limited finances may be to blame, although that's changing." Goodman is hopeful that his new show, "Rooms," set in Glasgow, will be part of the transformation. "It's a two-person piece about a boy and a girl who meet in Glasgow in the late '70s and become a music-writing team."
His sights set on a performing-creating career from the outset‹he always played the electric guitar and wrote music‹Goodman earned his degree in English Literature and Drama at the University of Glasgow. A five-year stint on the club circuit in and around London followed, where he served as an opening act for various rockers, like John Cougar Mellencamp and Joan Armatrading.
When Goodman arrived in the States in 1984, he admits frankly, he had dreams of having a show on Broadway. "My motto was "Have Guitar Will Do Musical.' " His first stop was L.A., where he honed his writing-performing skills in cabarets: "I did a wee bit of a routine." Still, the experience did not fully prepare him for forging a book-musical.
The central challenge in transforming "Bright Lights" into the musical, was "keeping the poetry of the book intact and enhancing it with some of my own. Not much had to be done with the narrative or structure or characters. The novel has a lead character who goes on an inner journey, for want of a better clich . And that structure works for a musical. So does the scene‹the clubs and parties of the '80s". He comments that the movie "sucked the poetry out the work. The film was a reverse role model."
Goodman's actual penning was inspired by "key lines in the novel which I underlined. Right from the beginning I knew it would be a sung-through piece without dialogue. The goal was to keep the story moving and interesting in song. Using the novel as the springboard and my guitar to compose the music, I wrote the first draft quickly. I can't separate music and lyrics. They come together."
Goodman stresses he never had any intention of playing a part in the production; indeed, he defines himself essentially as a writer-composer and, at best, experiences a "wee urge to perform." His role grew out of NYTW Artistic Director Jim Nicola's impulse. Nicola liked Goodman's onstage presence and felt a gap when Goodman, who originally read the stage directions, stopped. So the character of the narrator was conceived for Goodman as an afterthought. "I knew going in that it would be dicey for me to appear in the piece. But I was willing to take that chance. No one forced me."
Still, the questions remain, what role does the narrator play? And how is the viewer to reconcile a Scottish-born narrator in a fundamentally American story about an American protagonist? Goodman suggests that as a Scotsman, a foreigner, he highlights Jamie's sense of himself as an outsider. "My role is to serve as his alter-ego, to comfort him, have fun with him, and share his pain."
Goodman will not be featured in his next musical, he emphasizes, and it (unlike "Bright Lights") will probably have dialogue. Yet the piece will share certain elements with this one, "like reflecting the musical sensibility of those of us who grew up on rock 'n' roll of the '70s and by incorporating the vernacular. And the subject matter will dramatize experiences that relate to today."
He pauses. "I'm not unhappy. The reviews I've gotten seem unjust. But I won't sink into some stupid corner. In time the critics will eat their words." q