Lightning does not strike twice. Paul Scott Goodman’s Bright Lights Big City, produced by the wonderful folk who gave us Rent, is no worse than that show in many respects. Its rock score is just as musically constricted (though the lyrics are rather better), its sets and costumes just as generic and even anachronistic. It is based just as much on a popular novel by a one-shot author, and it is directed with the same well-worn tricks by the same overrated director (Michael Greif), who here has the additional hubris of choreographing, about which he manifestly knows nothing. It also has a similarly unprepossessing and largely undistinguished cast.
But unlike Rent, it does not come first with its tale of drugs and the downtown scene, and, more important, its struggling author did not drop dead the night before the opening. Instead, he has written the supererogatory part of the Writer into the show, and performs it himself, somewhat amateurishly and with his own distracting Scottish accent. And when all is said and done, Henry Murger’s novel, on which Rent is remotely based, may hold up better than Jay McInerney’s, even though Paul Scott Goodman follows his model more closely – or perhaps because of it. Goodman, though, will be around to do better.
In my view, rock, despite a few exceptions, is not really suited for storytelling and not especially congenial to the subtler kind of lyric. There is, however, one successful number, “I Hate the French,” in which the hero, a fact checker for The New Yorker (here called Gotham), goofs up with an article by one Depardieu, and gets sacked, as Jay McInerney (here called Jamie) did.
But the main plotline misfires. Jamie is eating his heart out for Amanda, the fashion-model wife who ditched him, and whom he still keeps pursuing until he warms to a blind date, Vicky, a philosophy student with whom he may start afresh. These important parts should not be played by members of the ensemble but by individualized, charismatic actresses. Similarly, the roles of Jamie’s mother and of Megan, a much older colleague at Gotham, require mature performers rather than very young women, making the show look more like a charade. Moreover, a black Amanda, as here, would have required, in 1984, some comment in the text.
And apropos text, Goodman, with his through-composed score, suffers from lack of a book. Thus minor characters and incidents are given extended song treatment, which their peripheral nature cannot sustain. This, along with the routine performing, contributes to creating a blur, from which only the Jamie of Patrick Wilson – who can act, sing, and exude personality – stands out. He, alas, is the only bright light in Bright Lights Big City.