The first order of business with any show is figuring out what it's about. But that's not always as easy as it sounds. I'm not talking about what happens in the story; I'm talking about the central theme. For instance, Fiddler on the Roof isn't about Jews losing their homes in czarist Russia -- that's just what happens. What that show is about is the difficulty of hanging on to beloved traditions in a changing world. Cabaret isn't about people's lives falling apart in Weimar Germany; it's about the profound price of doing nothing in the face of evil. The Wild Party is about how if all you care about is winning, you'll end up alone and lost. High Fidelity is about how you have to grow up yourself before you can have an adult relationship. Yeah, I know, easier said than done...
All this is important because if a musical is well written, all you have to do is find that central, over-arching idea and then make sure every second of the show supports and/or reveals that idea. And I really mean every second. If you do that, you get a strong, unified show and clear storytelling. Who could ask for anything more?
In the case of I Love My Wife, I thought the show was about the end of the Sexual Revolution, but that's not right. That's only the context of the story, not its point. There has to be a VERB involved. So my co-director Alison and I have been trying to figure out exactly what the central theme of the show is. We realized it can't just be about the Sexual Revolution because the opening and closing numbers aren't about sex. In any well crafted show, the opening number announces the central theme of the show, and the closing number summarizes it. (Think about the opening and closing numbers in Company.) Sometimes, this is very subtle, very subtextual; sometimes it's right there on the surface.
So we realized the theme of I Love My Wife has to be something about the intersection between the Sexual Revolution and these friendships. And I think we finally figured it out tonight.
I think this show is about how these people are going to survive the rough cultural terrain of the 1970s -- specifically, the Sexual Revolution -- because they have these strong friendships that are based on lots of shared experience. The opening number, "We're Still Friends," is all about how different these seven people are, how unlikely it is that they would all end up being friends, but that they've had all these shared experiences, in college and in the years since then, which has made them "tied by links that can't be denied, bound by years of palling around, glued by all the memories [i.e., shared experiences] accrued," to quote the opening. And then it tells us, "in other words," that shared experience is what defines friendship. That's what the opening -- and the whole show -- is about.
And then the show proceeds to tell this story about this wild, crazy shared experience. We know that, in the end, these friendships will survive this fucked up experience because they're just that strong. That's not to say the final little mini-scenes aren't full of tension and unease and regret, but both the women and the men make plans for tomorrow. No matter how fucked up this has been, no matter how strained things may seem for a while now, these people will remain friends -- which is why Stanley and Quentin sing a quote from the opening number during the finale.
In facrt, the title of the opening number tells us how our story will end: "We're Still Friends."
Related to all of that, the Act II opener, "Hey There, Good Times," was giving me some conceptual trouble too, but now I see that it's just a more generalized version of this same idea. The two couples have the shared experience of their sexual adventure, but the three Greek chorus guys have a less specific shared experience of just living through the fucked up 70s -- the energy crisis, recession, cultural upheaval, etc. -- and they will survive it because they have these solid friendships. These guys' shared experience provides the context for the two couples' shared experience.
And now I look through the score and see that every song in the show is about shared experience, in one way or another...
Long Live the Musical!