Number Five with a Bullet

I wrote in an earlier blog post about discovering High Fidelity. My love affair started with the songs of course. But as I've said before, a great score is necessary but not sufficient. What's even more important is a great script. When I finally got to read the High Fidelity script, it instantly spoke to me. I could immediately see it in my head. I really understood how it worked. The same was true with Love Kills and Cry-Baby, but that doesn't happen all the time.

Sometimes it happens later, as it did for me with both Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita. Sometimes I just have to stay on the road and the answers will come. But sometimes I have to scratch and claw my way to that understanding. Some shows are just tougher nuts to crack. But not High Fidelity. Not for me anyway.

So here are the Top Five Things I Love About the High Fidelity Script.

Number One. The characters in High Fidelity really talk the way people talk. I'm a big fan of stylized dialogue (when it's done well), but I also really love dialogue that sounds completely natural and spontaneous but is actually very carefully wrought. David Lindsay-Abaire does what he does in his play Rabbit Hole -- the dialogue is at once both poetic and naturalistic. Now that I think about it, the same was true of Love Kills. The Hi-Fi dialogue is funny in exactly the way that my friends are funny in real life. It's not about punch lines, but about pop culture and the social zeitgeist of the story. It's about shared experience. And the dialogue leaves so much unsaid -- again, just like real people do. I'm consistently amazed at how well crafted, how seriously funny, and how subtle this script is.

Number Two. I love the use of the narrator voice, and even better, that Rob as narrator steps in and out of scenes, sometimes within a line or two, both narrating and participating in the story, even commenting on his own words in real time. It changes the storytelling in a really interesting way for Rob to be such an obviously biased narrator -- we can't always know that his version of events is the truth. Rob even admits to exaggerating one of his flashbacks in Act I. What was so special about the novel -- its first person voice, and the confessional tone that voice lent to the storytelling -- Linsday-Abaire was smart enough to retain. Several of our reviews in 2008 mentioned that the show seems truer to Nick Hornby's novel than the movie did. And I think it's the intimacy of live theatre in a small space, and also the very dark, confessional first-person voice. It's so powerful to hear a real man standing in front of you admitting his darkest sins -- and demanding that you do the same. There's no distance here. No irony. Just a raw challenge. Because of its very live-ness, I think the show has balls in a way that the movie doesn't.

Number Three. The third thing I love about the script -- and what tripped up the Broadway creative staff -- is that Linsday-Abaire wrote a sad story with a lot of laughs in it, exactly as Hornby had. Lesser bookwriters would have tamed down the darkness, softened Rob's assholery, in a capitulation to commercial Broadway audiences. But Lindsay-Abaire gave us a story about pain -- lots of pain -- and bad choices, but he peppered it with so many laughs! Spoonful of sugar and all that. And yet every laugh delivers something else as well, information about character or situation or plot. This is a script written by a master craftsman, and also, unfortunately, a script too subtle and original for the Broadway director and designers to understand.

Number Four. The biggest mistake that musical adaptations make is putting a screenplay onstage and then just adding songs every few minutes. That's what a lot of screen-to-stage adaptations do. But High Fidelity is so different. Linsday-Abaire, Kitt, and Green found a musical theatre equivalent for Hornby's novelistic storytelling. They didn't just add songs and stage directions; they translated the story into musical theatre terms. They used devices a movie or novel can't use. The real genius of the show is the brilliant conceit of spending the whole show inside Rob's head and therefore writing every song in the show in the voice of Rob's rock gods. It's fun for the audience, but the choices also tell us so much. Of course Rob's nightmare of a sexually aggressive Laura sounds like Pat Benatar. Of course Rob sounds like Ben Folds when he finally opens his heart to Laura. Of course Rob imagines violence in the form of Guns N' Roses, The Beastie Boys, and Snoop Dogg. Every song provides us with subtextual and emotional information that involves us even more deeply in the emotion of the story. We want Rob to find his way to the light.

The reason it's so hard to write a good musical stage script is that singing words takes more time than speaking them, so that leaves much less room in a musical script than in a non-musical script. The dialogue has to be a model of economy. It has to accomplish so much in so few words. The music provides the emotion, but the script provides much of the necessary information. Because we New Liners believe musical theatre is first and foremost about storytelling, nothing matters more in choosing a show than a solid script. As we often remind ourselves, musical is an adjective, but theatre is the noun.

Number Five. With due credit to the source novel, the High Fidelity script never takes the easy way out and never lets the audience off the hook. The novel is uncompromising and so is the stage script. There's no attempt to mask the ugly, no desire to romanticize our hero. The Broadway staff didn't understand that this is not a love story, but a hero quest; but Linsday-Abaire knew it. Rob has to start out an asshole, has to have committed grave sins (the last line of Act I underlines this with a metaphorical Sharpie), in order for him to go on his journey toward growing up and being an adult. If Rob doesn't start in a very dark place (we hear the gory details of their very ugly break-up early in Act I), if he doesn't start out emotionally retarded and hopelessly childish, his eventual growing up would have lower stakes, less impact, less emotional heft. It would become less of a journey. (The same is true in Pippin, though most directors don't realize that.) The stakes have to be high and the journey has to seem impossible. Kudos to all three writers for not succumbing to the obvious temptation to turn the story into a love story just because that's what musicals are "supposed" to be. They resisted that impulse and instead they stayed remarkably true to Hornby's novel and created a truly adult musical.

We're all very lucky we get to work on material this strong and this artful. Some of us are lucky enough to get to work on it twice. Coming back to this rich script and score is such fun, as I get to find new and deeper moments all through the show, and find whole new areas to explore as different actors take on these fascinating roles. The adventure continues...

Long Live the Musical!