I think the critics' real problem was that they didn't understand the story's content. They didn't understand who Rob, Dick, and Barry are. They seemed not to understand an entire American generation. Several reviews complained that the show wasn't a very good love story, oblivious to the fact that High Fidelity is not a love story. Would they categorize Star Wars as a love story? Probably not, and yet Star Wars and High Fidelity are exactly the same story at their core -- a coming-of-age Hero Myth. Luke has The Force; Rob has his music. But as they've done with countless other under-rated musicals, the New York critics treated this complicated, nuanced -- and primal -- story like it was The Book of Mormon or [title of show].
Exhibit A. The song “It’s No Problem,” sung by Dick. (That's Aaron Lawson as Dick in New Line's 2008 production. Mike Dowdy plays the role this time...)
"It’s No Problem” is a song that operates almost entirely on a subtextual level, like many songs in serious musicals. And yet some New York critics used this song as an example of how High Fidelity is “about nothing.” In reality, the exact opposite is true. This song is about so much, if they'd just listen to the damn lyric...
It's early in Act I. Rob has just assaulted Barry. Dick asks if he's okay, and Rob replies, "Yeah. Look Dick, Laura and I broke up. She's gone. So if you ever see Barry again maybe you can tell him that." Rob's offhand remark becomes for Dick a genuine honor, an Important Assignment, to be Rob’s “ambassador” to Barry, to be a Solution to a Problem. Dick doesn’t have a lot of human interaction outside the record store, so this new and strangely complicated situation is not only dramatic, but exciting for him as well. He takes his new charge seriously. He sings:
It’s no problem,
No problem, Rob, you’re on.
I’ll tell him when I see him next:
“Rob says to tell you Laura’s gone.”
My schedule’s pretty open,
So I’ve got some time today.
Plus I’ve got some other stuff to tell him anyway.
So I’ll tell him when I tell him all the other stuff,
Or I could even call.
So it’s no problem,
No problem at all.
As the song continues, Dick considers the optimal time and place for telling Barry, thinks through the logistics of his assignment, etc. Part of the “joke” of the song is that Dick’s life is so empty (by mainstream standards) that this offhand request from Rob seems monumental. But it also reminds us that Dick simply feels too much (as evidenced earlier by his first solo, “Hiroshima of the Soul”), and that he is profoundly empathetic, which is what will later save his budding relationship with Anna. This song tells us a lot about Dick, about his relationships with Rob and Barry, about the qualities Anna will find attractive in him, and about how closely intertwined Rob’s, Dick’s, and Barry’s lives are. It's a hell of a good theatre song.
It's not "about nothing."
And later in Act II, the reprise of “It’s No Problem” goes even further in defining Dick, showing us how he has grown and changed, as any fully drawn character does. And as the best reprises do, this one doesn't just repeat the earlier lyric; it uses new lyrics against the resonance of the earlier song to show us the changes in Dick. In the previous scene between Dick and Anna, Dick is forced to choose between the guys and Anna, and poor Dick chooses the guys. But he later realizes his mistake and this reprise is Dick’s Declaration of Independence from the “authority” of Barry and the guys. It's the moment we know that Dick has grown up...
And that change manifests itself in a redefining of the song's title. In Act I, the words "It's No Problem" means you're not inconveniencing me because I have nothing else to do. In Act II, "It's No Problem" means I reject your narrow definition of what's acceptable and not acceptable. That's pretty different. In Act I, Dick is accommodating and in Act II, the same words are now about forging his own path. Dick is taking control of his life for the first time. Before either Rob or Barry learn the lessons they have to learn, Dick has learned his. He sings, “And I’m thinking it’s not what you like that counts, but who you are…”
None of the three of them has ever had this thought before.
But Rob won’t learn his lesson for another scene yet. There’s an argument to be made that Rob only learns his lesson by watching Dick’s transformation. If Dick can suffer through John Tesh for Anna, maybe Rob can suffer through Art Garfunkel for Laura. A sacrifice is required from both Rob and Dick before they can complete their journeys.
Without "It's No Problem" and its reprise, Dick’s character would be far less well drawn. But, as with the rest of the show, too many of the critics refused to see what’s going on under the surface, to recognize the complexity and honesty and truthfulness of the writing. Was this because the world of High Fidelity is just too foreign to the senior citizens who review most New York theatre? Was it because the production itself was so clueless? Or was it because Broadway is so dumbed down that critics are no longer accustomed to giving musicals the same thoughtfulness and respect that they routinely give to plays that lack music?
And is it any different in 2012 than it was in 2006?
Exhibit B. The show's opening song, "The Last Real Record Store on Earth," sung by Rob and the company.
Ben Brantley wrote in his New York Times review, “The seeming credo of this production at the Imperial Theater can be found early in its lyrics: ‘Nothin’s great, and nothin’s new, but nothin’ has its worth.’ This declaration is sung by the show’s hero, the romantically bereft Rob, as he describes his uneventful life as the owner of a vinyl record store in Brooklyn. . . And that’s a problem.” He goes on to say that the problem is that the whole show is "about nothing."
No, the problem is that Brantley can’t see that this lyric introduces the central conflict of the show. It’s not that Rob’s life is uneventful; it’s that his life is too self-involved and lacking in the joy that comes from a giving, two-way, adult relationship. The “nothing” of the lyric refers on the surface to Rob’s outer life, but also subtextually to his inner life. He is emotionally empty, running on the fumes of a once great (though immature) relationship. The “nothing” that his and Laura’s relationship has become has the comforts of familiarity and little effort, but it can’t sustain either of them. Rob doesn’t have enough self-knowledge at the beginning of the story to assess his own problem, so we have to read between the lines – as audiences do routinely with plays by Tennessee Williams, August Wilson, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, Lanford Wilson, Suzan-Lori Parks, Tracy Letts, etc.
Would Brantley have missed all this in a Williams play? Probably not.
That High Fidelity's opening number ends with everyone singing, “I wouldn’t change a thing” tells us exactly what the story's central conflict is and what this show is about: the stagnation of a generation. Could there be a more powerful or clearer metaphor for stagnation than a used record store in the mid-1990s? Rob’s story is the story of millions of people on the cusp between the Baby Boomers and Generation X, caught between cultural forces, the expectations of the previous generation, and world-shattering changes in technology.
This is not a show about nothing, and it’s not the Seinfeld of musical theatre, as its clueless director said in an interview. It’s a deeply felt, deeply authentic show about America (the UK in the novel) at the turn of the millennium. It's about us and it's about now.
And isn't that the whole point of theatre -- of storytelling?
Long Live the Musical!