Let Me Tell You a Story About Alvin

The Story of My Life has been a genuine pleasure to work on, for several reasons. First, it's just great to work on smart, interesting, original shows like this. We New Liners are very lucky because we get to do that all the time. Second, the response from the audience and critics has been so wonderful. People are really moved by it. They love the characters, the songs, the whole premise of the show. Third, my favorite thing in the world is introducing musical theatre lovers to shows they don't know. Again, we New Liners get to do that a lot.

Despite the unfortunately widespread belief that audiences only like the familiar, we know the truth, that audiences like what's good. Whether or not they've heard of it before.

A fourth reason we love this show so much is that we find new treasure in it every night. Just last night, our sixth performance, I realized the short musical fragments at the end of the show are quoting the "Saying Goodbye" songs. A few nights ago, I realized that writer's block is keeping Tom from getting where he needs to get emotionally, etc., and the bookstore The Writer's Block is a big part of what keeps Alvin from the same. I also noticed that Tom is constantly stealing Alvin's words and passing them off as his own.

Since we first started work on the show, our actors Jeff and Chris, and I knew that this was a deep, nuanced, subtle, complex piece of theatre. And the more we live with it, the deeper we can see into it. And one of the things that has become so clear to us is that this Story about Storytelling is also about the nature of memory and narrative -- or in other words, our perception of reality.

The first level of reality is our Real World -- Jeff, Chris, Rob's set, Ken's lighting, me and my keyboard, in our blackbox theatre. No one in our audience ever forgets that they are in a theatre in St. Louis watching actors tell a story.

But the audience also accepts a second level of reality, the reality of the show, the world in which Tom and Alvin live. And they accept that this reality operates differently -- we jump around in time, and we ask the audience to imagine the bookstore, the bridge, the funeral chapel, the restaurant. They accept all this because the show establishes immediately that we're inside Tom's head, so the audience agrees to accept unusual rules about storytelling here. For instance, Alvin isn't the real Alvin (who also isn't real); he's the Alvin in Tom's head, Tom's memory/construction of Alvin, and the audience understands that very early on.

But then there's another level of reality when we enter into the stories of their past relationship. Tom becomes Young Tom and Alvin becomes Young Alvin. And again, the audience accepts it because they've been prepared for it. 

Often in the flashbacks, Tom steps out of the past to share a bit of information with us, and in doing that, acknowledges that first level of reality, the presence of the audience in the theatre. When Tom steps out of the story to talk to us, he's straddling several layers of reality at once -- his childhood past, his adult present, his role as a fictional character in a musical and his role as writer/narrator.

And if you want to go even deeper -- you might want a smoke a bowl before reading this -- one of the flashback stories that make up The Story of My Life is called "A Neat Career," about how Tom wrote a short story for his college application. And within "A Neat Career," Tom reads/narrates/performs the story his younger self wrote, "The Butterfly," which contains it's own deeper level of reality, in which a butterfly and a river can have a life-changing conversation about physics.

And all of this exists inside what is essentially a lecture-demonstration about storytelling, skillfully disguised as an entertaining, emotional journey through a lifelong friendship. As we go on Tom's journey with him, we're also learning how storytelling works, its creation, its inspiration, its difficulty, its complexity, its impact.

And kind of over on the side of this crazy reality flowchart, there's one other level of reality -- the one inside It's a Wonderful Life -- which permeates the show. Interestingly, our two fictional characters are both linked to great works of fiction. Tom is connected to Tom Sawyer and Mark Twain's preface about storytelling. Alvin is connected to director Frank Capra's iconic film It's a Wonderful Life. At the end of the show, Tom refers to their story as "mixed with Capra and Twain." Tom is Twain, shrewdly ironic; and Alvin is Capra, hopeful and sentimental.

The last line of the show ties a bow on the intricate construction of the script and score. Tom says to the folks at Alvin's funeral -- and to us -- "Let me tell you a story about Alvin." And lights fade to black over one final chord.

And at that moment the audience realizes, he just did that for the last ninety minutes! The Story of My Life has become the thing Tom has been seeking, an understanding and summing up of who Alvin is, of what a friendship means. This musical is the eulogy, and when the musical is done, the eulogy will be done. Those relentless phrases "Write what you know, Tom" and "This is it, Tom" change meaning and context over and over, but ultimately, this show is the proof that those phrases are right -- Tom has told us only what he knows, after all, but we've gotten an incredibly full picture of Alvin and Tom both.

What Tom already knows is enough. Write what you know, Tom.

When "This Is It" finally becomes its own full song near the end, it's because Tom is finally approaching understanding. Now the phrase means two things at once -- both that there is no more to find here, but also that the "story" Tom has fashioned for us is the right one. When Alvin asks Tom if he's finished the eulogy, Tom says he hasn't -- because the show is that eulogy, and it's not yet finished.

Tom has to learn finally that a bunch of stories -- without a neat, tidy, dramatic summing up -- is enough. And since we're talking about levels of reality, let's take note of this double lesson, first that a person's life can't be summed up by a single statement, that a life is more like a mosaic than a straight line, that a bunch of stories is enough. And also that a musical doesn't have to have a summing-up at the end either, that this kind of mosaic of snapshots is also satisfying storytelling, that there isn't only way to tell a story.

In this case, our story is more like a jigsaw puzzle than a long straight stretch of highway. Joseph Campbell teaches us that it's not about the destination, or the answer; it's about the journey. Campbell also teaches us that humans need storytelling.

The real magic from songwriter Neil Bartram and bookwriter Brian Hill is that despite the substantial, interlocking complexity of The Story of My Life, and all its themes and ideas, the audience never gets lost. They are entertained throughout, completely engaged in these two characters, and they walk out deeply moved every night. It may not be a "commercial" show, but it's brilliant theatre.

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Long Live the Musical!

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