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Inside HIGH FIDELITY
background and analysis by Scott Miller
At the climax of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a musical about the healing power of pop music, Hedwig sings ďMidnight Radio,Ē a reassuring power anthem about community and connection for those who love rock and roll. And the three central characters of High Fidelity, Rob, Dick, and Barry, are the guys Hedwig is singing to. To them, music is life. Unlike most musicals, this is not a love story; itís not about whether Rob and Laura will get back together. This is a story about one man, Rob, and his struggle to Grow Up, to learn to put others first. Rob is on a classic hero's quest to find his own best self, and the music is there to help him.
High Fidelity is a story about experiencing music autobiographically, about using music to connect to others, about how music makes your personal pain somehow transcendent, but also about how music cannot supplant real life. What better form in which to tell that story than a rock musical? In this case, the storytelling is as important as the story itself Ė that it is told in music, that it is told exclusively from Robís point of view, and that the narrator and hero are the same person, even though the hero has virtually no self-knowledge through most of the story.
And what better way to construct that score than in the musical vocabulary and language of these guysí lives? The showís creators, Tom Kitt (music), Amanda Green (lyrics), and David Lindsay-Abaire (book) avoided the mistake that too many movies-to-musicals make: they found a new form for this story that is organic to its narrative. Instead of just putting a movie up on stage and sticking some songs into it (as too many have done with The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Big, Legally Blonde, and others), this team created something original that has a life Ė and rules Ė of its own. As Stephen Sondheim is fond of saying, Content Dictates Form. This show traffics in genuine rock and roll, with a score that delivers dramatically but that is also peppered with musical references to some of the great rock and pop artists of our time, the muscular American rock sound of Bruce Springsteen, the raw rage of Guns N' Roses, the intellectual playfulness of Talking Heads, the fierce defiance of Aretha Franklin, the smoky groove of Percy Sledge, the naked emotion of Ben Folds, the driving cynicism of Billy Joel. But the use of music isnít always straight-forward; sometimes itís ironic, even snide. Since, weíre witnessing this story through the filter of Robís mind, the musical models for the various songs in the show even tell us how Rob feels about the people singing, through the voices and sounds his subconscious mind assigns to them. This score isnít just pastiche, a crazy quilt of past musical sounds; this is a show that uses music as carefully and cleverly as it uses dialogue to tell its story Ė comically, movingly, even sarcastically.
Though some will object to the label, the music of High Fidelity is the music of the so-called Slacker, Americaís new Lost Generation, those on the cusp between the Baby Boomers and Generation X, men (usually) for whom popular music forges a deep emotional connection in ways that most people would never understand, men who choose not to play by the majority rules, rejecting money, family, and career as life goals, in favor of an obsessive dedication to the music of their lives. In the novel, Rob says:
Itís not like collecting records is like collecting stamps, or beermats, or antique thimbles. Thereís a whole world in here, a nicer, dirtier, more violent, more peaceful, more colorful, sleazier, more dangerous, move loving world than the world I live in; there is history, and geography, and poetry, and countless other things I should have studied at school, including music.
But what is the cost of that obsession, of that "relentless triviality," as the novel puts it? Rob wonders if he listens to pop music because heís miserable or if heís miserable because he listens to pop music. Perhaps both are true Ė and not just for Rob, but for many Americans who came of age in the 1960s or later.
In Act I, Rob says, "People worry about kids playing with guns or watching violent videos, but nobody worries about kids listening to thousands Ė literally thousands Ė of songs about heartbreak, rejection, and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?" Before the 1960s, pop music was an accompaniment to life; but from that point forward, pop music was an integral, elemental part of life. This is a show that loves pop music fervently, but one that also recognizes its addictive dangers and its false promises. Is it enough to know that someone else is in pain, too, if they donít offer a roadmap out of that pain? As Pete Townshend says, "Music changes the way you live in the world. It changes the way you see it. But it doesnít change the world itself."
Page to Stage
Nick Hornbyís brilliant 1995 novel High Fidelity wowed the critics. The New York Times Book Review said, "Mr. Hornby captures the loneliness and childishness of adult life with such precision and wit that youíll find yourself nodding and smiling. High Fidelity fills you with the same sensation you get from hearing a debut record album that has more charm and verve and depth than anything you can recall." Londonís Guardian said, "Reading High Fidelity is like listening to a great single. You know it's wonderful from the minute it goes on, and as soon as it's over, you want to hear it again because it makes you feel young, and grown-up, and puts a stupid grin on your face all at the same time. If this book was a record, we would be calling it an instant classic. Because that's what it is." Salon.com wrote "High Fidelity, the popular first novel by British author Nick Hornby, is like reading from an old diary Ė at once hilarious and pathetic, the stories of romantic engagements and disengagements are often an embarrassing reminder of who you once were." A film version was released in 2000 starring John Cusack and Jack Black.
Rock composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Amanda Green (daughter of legendary Broadway and film lyricist Adolph Green) began working on a stage adaptation of the novel, and found a willing partner in up-and-coming New York playwright David Lindsay-Abaire (Fuddy Meers, Rabbit Hole). High Fidelity the musical became the new Company for a new generation and a new American culture, the story of a single man trying to make a human connection in an increasingly frenzied and digitized world. The musical ran for a month in Boston, then moved to Broadway, closing after only eighteen previews and fourteen regular performances, in a wildly overproduced physical production and with overly conventional musical comedy direction, chock full of frantic, almost farce-like speed, broad, shallow caricatures instead of real individuals, a gigantic trick set (the kind routinely designed to camouflage the flaws in a weak show), and a surprising lack of love for the music at the heart of the story. The achingly beautifully, underwritten script, full of heavy words often left unsaid, was bulldozed under, and raced through as if it were Dames at Sea. And though every number in the show is its own Rock Concert in Robís Head, the Broadway production staged the songs as if they were in Beauty and the Beast. Conventional, standard, not worthy of the fireworks of Aretha Franklin or Pat Benatar. The showís script and score love and respect The Music, but the Broadway production mocked the music.
The director Walter Bobbie was quoted in an essay by Zachary Pincus-Roth for the (never printed) Broadway souvenir program, saying "I almost hate to say this but Iím going to: It feels to me like Seinfeld: The Musical. Seinfeld was a glorious celebration of just ordinary lives being lived." He couldnít have been more wrong. High Fidelity isnít about ordinariness and itís not glorious; itís about acute pain and loneliness, and the connective and destructive power of art. Is it possible that Bobbie didnít understand the show any more than the critics did? Did he fail at the most fundamental rule of musical theatre, that everyone always has to be doing the same show? Looking back, itís now clear that Bobbie was directing a completely different musical than Kitt, Green, and Lindsay-Abaire were writing. Bobbieís artistic influences were shows like Guys and Dolls and Footloose. The writersí artistic influences were Rent and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, along with Bruce Springsteen, Aretha Franklin, and The Who. Who thought this marriage would work? The producersí efforts at mainstreaming the show, at making it "palatable" to the tourists, were exactly what sunk it.
It seemed clear to many observers that had the show opened in a more intimate, modest production off Broadway and if it had been accepted for what it was, a dark but funny, rock concept musical, it probably would have enjoyed a more respectable run. But soon after closing, thanks in part to its cast album, theatres across America and abroad were clamoring for production rights.
David Kaufman wrote in the December 2006 Vanity Fair, "The last thing theater mavens need is another pop-rock musical based on a cult film. But with a book by the wily David Lindsay-Abaire, High Fidelity is apt to have the gnawing fascination of both the original Nick Hornby novel and the 2000 film starring John Cusack, concerning a record-store owner and troubled soul. Lindsay-Abaire defied categorization and stunned theatergoers last season with the searing Rabbit Hole, about a family coping with the death of a child. When the playwright first heard that a musical version of High Fidelity was in the works, he thought it sounded misguided. ĎI had read the book and seen the movie and I had loved them both immensely,í he said during the showís Boston tryout, prior to its December opening on Broadway. ĎFrankly, I was quite dubious about the idea of someone turning it into a musical.í He was converted, however, when he heard several of the songs written by Tom Kitt and Amanda Green. ĎThey were really ironic and soulful and very, very funny,í he added."
Varietysaid of the show in New York, "High Fidelity is a musical that celebrates the power of pop culture with wit, verve and a killer beat. . . It's really about growing up while still honoring one's self-defining music." Michael Kuchwara of the Associated Press said, "Its charms are considerable and don't be surprised if you fall under its spell." But most of the critics didnít understand the show, its cultural references, or its musical sources. They took the shallowness of its direction and design for shallowness in its writing. The showís most honest, most truthful elements were those most under attack from the mainstream critical establishment.
Will Chase, who played Rob in the original Broadway production, said about the show, "We told the story in a way that allowed the audience to breathe and have fun, and on some level, find joy in one manís journey from A to B. Not A to Z. Itís not that heavy. Yet Iím learning in Life that A to B is all there is. Today and later today. Not tomorrow." But thatís not how the old-fashioned Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals Ė or traditional musical comedy Ė works.
Several reviews of the Broadway production complained that the role of Laura was underwritten, that we don't spend enough time with her, that she mostly only appears inside songs. What none of them understood is that this isn't a story about Rob and Laura; it's a story about Rob. The original production tried too hard Ė in this regard but also in others Ė to make it a musical comedy and to make it a love story. It's not. And neither were the novel or film. Additionally, the audience is getting this story through the filter of Robís mind. If Laura can be two-dimensional at times, perhaps itís less Hornbyís latent sexism and more that Rob only understands her on a two-dimensional level (at least at the beginning). And arguably, we never actually meet Laura, just Robís obviously biased perception of who Laura is. The storytelling feels sexist and shallow because Rob is sexist and shallow. But with Robís emotional growth comes more complex storytelling. And since Rob is the sole conduit for information to us, we go through the same gradual awakening and understanding that Rob does.
When a musical operates the way High Fidelity does, when its opening number makes musical references to U2, REM, Lenny Kravitz, Talking Heads, The Who, Otis Redding, and Fountains of Wayne, how could anyone expect the aging critics of the Old Media to understand it? High Fidelity doesnít use music the way Rodgers and Hammerstein used it. In old-fashioned musicals, music was just a vehicle; here, it is the point. Here, the conventions and mechanics of theatre music are deconstructed. In a certain way, High Fidelity works very much like Hedwig and the Angry Inch, with stand-alone rock songs. In Hedwig, these presentational songs are justified because weíre at a rock concert. In High Fidelity, theyíre justified because weíre at the rock concert in Robís head. Pop music isnít just the voice of Rob; itís his soul, for better or worse.
The Heart of Rock & Roll
But a pop/rock score isnít all that makes High Fidelity special. After all, the early years of the new millennium brought the rock musical back to commercial prominence, even on staid, old-fashioned Broadway. After a brief period of mediocre revivals of Man of La Mancha, The Music Man, The Pajama Game, Bells Are Ringing, Brigadoon, and other (now creaky) classics, Broadway opened its arms again to rock musicals. It wasnít Rent or Hedwig that changed New York commercial theatre, but more likely the "new" Rents, Jersey Boys, Hairspray, Spring Awakening, Bare, Glory Days, In the Heights, Cry-Baby, and others.
What made High Fidelity special was the one thing its Broadway team seemed to miss entirely Ė its soul. This was a genuinely alternative show, one that avoided "show tunes," linear storytelling, and the fourth wall, one peppered with the word fuck, and one that offered up only a tentative happy ending. This was a show that followed Stephen Sondheimís prime directive that Content Dictates Form, a lesson the showís Broadway director and design team apparently never learned. These characters are people who live outside the confines of mainstream American life, outside the mainstream economic system, outside the mainstream culture. And so the creators of High Fidelity wrote a show that lives outside the conventions of mainstream musical theatre, a show that uses music as more than accompaniment, a show that screws around with structure in the way many recent American indie films have, a show that grapples head-on with real human pain. Everyone in this story is damaged. And though Rob is our hero, heís also a real jackass sometimes. Many musicals today can claim that they reject the Rodgers and Hammerstein model, but only a few can claim that they use music, lyrics, and book in genuinely new ways.
Tom Kitt and Amanda Green havenít just imitated Aretha Franklin in the song "She Goes;" instead theyíve actually written an Aretha Franklin song, a song Franklin might actually sing. Itís not a Broadway version of Franklinís style; it is that style. Likewise, they donít just imitate Al Green and Percy Sledge with the finale, "Turn the World Off;" theyíve actually written a new R&B anthem worthy of Green or Sledge. In a review of the first regional production in St. Louis, Paul Friswold wrote in The Riverfront Times, "The musicís homage to real-world rock songs achieves perfect pitch when Bruce Springsteen arrives to provide Rob guidance in the greatest Springsteen song Springsteen never wrote." Instead of just writing a score that references lots of pop/rock songs and artists for comic effect Ė or worse yet, as a commercial gimmick upon which the whole show has to stand or fall Ė we actually hear the world through Robís ears. We get inside Robís brain and think about how this pop music snob hears the world around him. The musical choices are dramatic choices, not entertainment choices. Just as Rob does in his conscious life, in his subconscious life (i.e., the show) he uses pop music to try and figure out the people and events around him. Music is how he makes sense of his world, although he eventually learns that his music doesnít hold all the answers. For that, he has to dig down into his own heart.
As most good musicals (and films and plays) do, High Fidelity follows Sondheimís Ten-Minute Rule: that writers can do anything they want Ė directly address the audience, establish a half-boy-half-bat or a post-op transsexual as the hero, fracture time, use four-letter words, introduce a man-eating plant or a town where you have to pay to pee, ignore the fourth wall, play scenes out in the audience, use rock music, really anything Ė as long as they establish the rules for the evening in the first ten minutes. And High Fidelity is a textbook example. The showís opening number accomplishes so much: it introduces the main characters and the central conflict, but it also introduces the way music will be used for the evening.
Where the Music Takes Us
"The Last Real Record Store on Earth" establishes the central conflict of the show, that Rob and his cohorts see themselves as more "real," more honest, more legitimate than the world around them, and that this warped self-image has led to exclusionary, sheltered, walled-off lives. The hyperbole of the songís title says it all. Itís not just a record store, itís the only record store left on the planet that is authentic, whose staff understands the value of great music. But here also is the over-arching metaphor for the entire story, these guysí obsessive deification of vinyl, a symbol of the past. Rob is still living in his childhood when vinyl was everything. While 8-tracks came and went, vinyl rules over all. But Rob must break with the past and join the rest of humanity in the present. Only in the end when Rob sells his 45s Ė breaking with at least part of his vinyl collection, the core of his collection Ė can he find emotional maturity and real human connection.
But this number doesnít just tell the audience how the show will use music; it also tells us a great deal about what music these guys like, which of course is one of the most important things to know in this world. Rob hears himself and his friends in the voices of a surprisingly varied array of voices. "Last Real Record Store" is built on so many real world models: "Where The Streets Have No Name" and "In Godís Country" (U2), "Drive" (REM), "Are You Gonna Go My Way" (Lenny Kravitz), "Wonít Get Fooled Again" (The Who), "Try A Little Tenderness" (Otis Redding), and "Bright Future In Sales" (Fountains of Wayne). Thereís even a short quote of "Life During Wartime" by Talking Heads, a song about the oppression of social and cultural expectations on young people. What other theatre song could ever incorporate such diverse sounds and yet still function as a satisfying theatre song, doing all the heavy lifting of establishing style, plot, and character? The High Fidelity writers are no tourists in this world. They live here with Rob, Dick, and Barry. But they also really know how to tell a story in the theatre.
In "Desert Island Top 5 Breakups," Rob sees himself as a real rock-and-roller in the classic sense, masculine, strong, as he channels The Who and Elvis Costello. But Robís best friend Liz is a ball-buster, so Rob hears her song "She Goes" as an aggressive Aretha Franklin anthem, in the tradition of "Think." Heís in control of the situation when heís channeling The Who, but he isnít when Liz is channeling Aretha. Robís rival, the faux-Eastern therapist Ian, sounds like the Eastern experiments of George Harrison and The Beatles, a group Rob mocks in the novel. (Barry thinks The Beatles belong on the list of Top Five Bands or Musicians Who Will Have to Be Shot Come the Musical Revolution.) The models for Ianís song are The Beatlesí Eastern experiments, "Within You Without You" and "Across The Universe," but also maybe a little Styx (what would Barry say about that?), and a passing reference to Michael Jackson.
When Rob feels defeated by Laura, her voice in his fantasies is the sexy, hard-rocking sound of Pat Benatar or Heart. And in "Number 5 with a Bullet," the Dream Laura is teasing Rob Ė in his own lingo Ė declaring that though she was lower on his chart before ("Desert Island Top 5 Breakups"), she has now risen up into his Top 5. For those who donít follow the Billboard pop charts, a bullet (a black dot, really) next to a song on the chart means the song is higher this week than last week. Perhaps this is language the real Laura would never use, and might not even know, but in Robís nightmare the Dream Laura knows all.
Marie La Salle, on the other hand, is far less intimidating, and enters Robís consciousness with a more mellow, more soulful Indigo Girls sound. Finally, as the first act draws to a close, and the boys see the possibility of some sort of individual successes, they became joyful and playful, evoking the pure pop sounds of Bow Wow Wow and Coldplay.
In Act II, Robís song "I Slept With Someone Who Slept with Lyle Lovett" becomes a Lyle Lovett song. Lauraís companion song, "I Slept With Someone Who Handled Kurt Cobainís Intervention" even quotes Nirvanaís "Smells Like Teen Spirit" at the end. Rob gets musical advice from both Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, both in fantasy and both singing songs youíd swear they had actually recorded. The fantasy Youngís "Exit Sign" could easily sit beside the real Youngís forlorn ballad "Heart of Gold," and youíd almost think the fantasy Springsteenís "Goodbye and Good Luck" might have been on an album alongside "Thunder Road," "Born to Run," and "The River" Ė except that it ever so gently mocks the Bossí blue collar persona. Robís cry of despair, "Cryiní in the Rain," evokes the sad/angry songs of Billy Joel and Rufus Wainwright. When Rob fantasizes about assaulting Ian, where the movie shows us three fantasy beatings, the show gives us three acts of musical violence, suggesting Guns Ní Roses, then the Beastie Boys, then Snoop Dog and Dr. Dre. These arenít Robís usual musical personas, but this is violence to Rob, musical violence. When Rob finally achieves the rumblings of nascent self-awareness, his apology to Laura for his emotional shortcomings comes in the form of a Ben Folds ballad. As the show draws to a close, Barry emerges as the pop star he always dreamed heíd be, first channeling some Jim Morrison (to shore up his pop music street cred), then the powerful, emotional, sexually charged R&B anthem, "Turn the World off (And Turn You On)," taking inspiration from Marvin Gaye, Al Green, and Percy Sledge. This is, after all, what pop does best Ė express deeply felt, soul-cracking emotion.
But the lyric of this song says more than it pretends. Barry, Dick, and Rob have all learned that other people matter, that a life of self-absorption is a life lived alone. They guys have always turned the world off, but only now do they understand the joy is turning someone else on. Dick has found Anna, Barry has found his audience, and Rob is ready to grow up and put Laura before himself. Itís not a happy ending, but itís a start.
Altogether, the score for High Fidelity is extremely well-wrought and easily passes the primary test of the strength of a theatre score: if the songs are removed, does the story still make sense? If the story makes sense without the songs, that means the songs arenít doing their share of storytelling and donít need to be there. With High Fidelity, as with most of the best musicals, a great deal of story and character is developed inside and through the songs. The opening number, "The Last Real Record Store on Earth," is equal in many ways to the great opening numbers in shows like Into the Woods, Ragtime, Company, Bat Boy, and A Chorus Line, establishing the main characters, the central situation, the tone of the show, the musical language of the show, and any rules that may be broken during the evening. It interweaves music and dialogue, it gives us important information about personalities, lands some solid punch lines, establishes its street cred in the rock and pop world, and establishes the energy and intensity for the rest of the show. The number also tells us straight out that Rob is the main character, not Rob and a girlfriend.
But music is also used as mood, as commentary, as joke. There is great care and intelligence behind the intentionally empty lyric to "Exit Sign," the cultural cluelessness of the fictional Springsteenís "Goodbye and Good Luck," and the grand flamboyance of the meek Dickís grand musical moments. But thereís also Marie LaSalleís two songs: "Ready to Settle" foretells her own future one-nighter with Rob (or is it more a commercial?), and her song "Terrible Things" starts as a black joke and becomes deadly serious as Rob tells us how everything got screwed up in the first place. And the music for that song becomes a musical theme throughout the show, always adding color to a moment when Rob starts to understand himself better. Itís a kind of self-knowledge theme that underlines the central story of whether Rob will finally start to grow up. Likewise itís the music that lends violence to Robís fantasy attacks on Ian, allowing a live stage show to be less realistic with the violence, since the violence of the music already increases the intensity Ė and the humor Ė of the moment. In the movie, Dick throws an air conditioner at Ian; in the stage show, they throw Axl Rose at him.
As the show progresses, Rob goes through the famous five stages of dying as he works his way through the emotions of losing Laura. We see him go through denial (in both "Top 5 Desert Island Breakups" and "9% Chance of Your Love"), then anger (in "Cryiní in the Rain"), then bargaining ("Good Bye and Good Luck"). Strangely, he goes through depression without a song, as each of his closest friends walk out on him late in Act II. And finally there is acceptance with "Laura, Laura."
Like the titles of Rent, Follies, Reefer Madness, and many other shows, the title of High Fidelity virtually swims in meaning. The phrase came into the American consciousness in the 1950s as a term that meant pure, authentic sound reproduction, after decades of AM radio and 78 RPM records. According to Wikipedia.com:
In the 1950s, the term high fidelity began to be used by audio manufacturers as a marketing term to describe records and equipment which were intended to provide faithful sound reproduction. While some consumers simply interpreted high fidelity as fancy and expensive equipment, many found the difference in quality between "hi-fi" and the then standard AM radios and 78 RPM records readily apparent and bought LPs, such as RCAís New Orthophonics and London's ffrrs.
In the 1950s, hi-fi became a generic term, to some extent displacing phonograph and record player. Rather than "playing a record on the phonograph," people would "play it on the hi-fi." In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the development of the Westrex single-groove stereophonic record led to the next wave of home-audio improvement, and in common parlance, stereo displaced hi-fi. Records were now played on a stereo. In the world of the audiophile, however, high fidelity continued and continues to refer to the goal of highly-accurate sound reproduction and to the technological resources available for approaching that goal.
But the technology of high fidelity sound reproduction is at its heart a cheat Ė the idea is to imitate the sound of a concert hall, to fake the reality of a live performance, to fool the human ear. Obviously there is great value in that for music lovers, but it isnít real; it just imitates reality. And perhaps in that fact lies yet another metaphor for the life Rob is living when our story begins.
Still, the title of the novel, film, and show goes much deeper than just technological considerations. To Rob and his cohorts, fidelity means more than faithfulness to sound quality; it means faithfulness to music as art, as spiritual experience, as religion, as life itself. They cling to the technology of LPs as many audiophiles still do today, believing that the sound is warmer and realer than the digital sound of CDs. Are they right, or is their position more emotional than factual?
Their fidelity to their LPs takes on even greater meaning, a kind of faux heroic outsider stance that fits nicely with the mindset of the true pop music snob. We can argue with them over the LP vs. CD issue, but now thereís an even newer form, as more and more young people turn to MP3 digital audio files to be played on the ubiquitous iPod (the sound quality of which is actually inferior to that of CDs but still arguably better than LPs). In that context, what does Robís fidelity to LPs mean? Does the LP stand in for his relationship to Laura Ė comfortable, familiar, though not really as good as it should be?
High Fidelity is the tale of thirty-something misfits, people who have stopped growing after adolescence, who value descriptions and interpretations of life over life itself. These are men who honestly believe you canít be a serious person if you own fewer than five hundred records. But this story uncovers the worth in these guys as they find it in themselves and then finally find some success in life, love, and music. Here, as in real life, pop music is a double-edged sword, a haven for those who feel misunderstood or ignored, a place where someone else understands what we feel, both at our highest and at our lowest; but also an emotional trap as powerful as your parentsí basement, a place to hide from the real world of real emotions too complicated for a pop lyric.
In the show, Rob can only win Laura after he sells his 45s (symbolically representing his vinyl collection as a whole) in order to pay her back the money he owes her. He must move from a world of self-gratification, exclusionary trivia, and obsessive list-making, into a world of self-sacrifice and the acceptance of the unknown and unsafe. And this happens at a funeral, marking the death of the Child-Rob, so that he can be reborn as the Man-Rob.
Part Time Stoner
Rob is a quirky leading man for a musical, not nearly as happy as most musical comedy leads (Nathan Detroit, J. Pierrepont Finch, Harold Hill), but also not as tragically Shakespearean as most musical drama leads (Billy Bigelow, Sweeney Todd, Gaylord Ravenal). In some ways, Rob is a kind of reinvention of the funny-cocky musical heroes of yesteryear, like Billy Crocker in Anything Goes or George M. Cohan in every one of his shows. But they werenít nearly as dark or as complicated as Rob. Heís closer kin to Chuck Baxter in Promises, Promises, the anti-hero who narrates his own story and on occasion even lies to us. And he also shares a lot with Bobby in Company, a leading man taking a mostly interior journey, making a choice at the end of the show, but an ambiguous one. Watching both Rob and Bobby we are compelled to ask: will his choice be the right one?, will he be happy?, will he stick with his decision?, will he finally commit to another person? All we see in these two shows are decisions at the final curtain, no real resolution, no guarantee of a happy ending. There are no happy endings in life; thereís always a morning after.
But Rob is an unusual character for another reason. Though he is the omniscient narrator, he actually loses control of the story sometimes (somewhat like the Leading Player at the end of Pippin). Not only are we watching Rob in this show trying to grow up and find a real relationship, trying to navigate his way back to Laura; but weíre also seeing Rob trying to navigate his own inner terrain. He is in charge here as narrator, but the characters he conjures up often do and say things Rob doesnít like. We see the first real cracks in his omniscient armor in the song "Number 5 with a Bullet," when his ex-girlfriend Jackie steps out of the number and refuses to go on. Rob tries to push her back into the line of his Top 5 Breakups, but she gives up her spot to Laura, despite Rob frantically screaming "Not-on-the-list, not-on-the-list, not-on-the-list!" Heís clearly neither omniscient nor omnipotent.
As the show progresses into Act II, more and more of the numbers get out of hand. The show sends the audience out to intermission with a palpable sense of hope. Maybe Robís going to be okay. But Act II takes it all back as we watch Rob fall victim to one humiliation after another. High Fidelity shares this structure Ė a happy Act I, and a dark Act II Ė with other shows like Into the Woods, Camelot, The Fantasticks, Hair, Rent, and many others.
As Act II of High Fidelity gets underway, Neil Young shows up to sing some nonsense about a toll booth and chipping his "olí tooth." Then Springsteen shows up and sings about plant closings and Veterans Day. The pop music is becoming less and less helpful and the story is becoming less and less controllable. But all this is in Robís head, so really itís Robís own mind that is becoming less helpful and less controllable.
As Rob is subjected to repeated humiliations, as he slides and skids his way to Rock Bottom, his music becomes less able to save him. But this is the process Rob has to go through. He has to hit bottom before he can be "reborn" in line with the great Hero Myths. Many of the great world religions and myths are built on the model of the Hero Myth, not incidentally including Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, Hair, other stories. Rob is Luke Skywalker. His beloved pop artists are his collective wise wizard, his Obi Wan Kenobi. His music is his magic amulet, his light saber. Barry and Dick are his companions, his C-3PO and R2-D2. Perhaps Ian is the evil wizard he must do battle with, or maybe itís Rob himself who is his own evil wizard (as in many hero myths). And like every good hero myth, when Rob accomplishes his task (restoring balance to his own Force), he returns to his "village" (his fellow music fans) to share his new wisdom with them Ė in the form of High Fidelity itself.
But maybe the surface message of the story Ė that the key to a real relationship is to value the other person more than yourself Ė is only part of this story. Maybe the other part is that sometimes two people love each other and they still donít belong together. Maybe itís a lesson Rob hasnít yet learned before we leave him. Itís important to remember that the novel actually takes the story one step further than the show and lets us see Rob and Laura back together for a while. Still, even though they may care about each other, do they really belong together? Late in the novel, Rob and Laura have a conversation that tells us pretty much all we need to understand about their relationship:
"You used to care more about things like Solomon Burke than you do now." I tell her. "When I first met you, and I made you that tape, you were really enthused. You said Ė and I quote Ė it was so good that it made you ashamed of your record collection."
"Shameless, wasnít I?"
"What does that mean?"
"Well, I fancied you. You were a DJ, and I thought you were groovy, and I didnít have a boyfriend, and I wanted one."
"So you werenít interested in the music at all?"
"Well, yes, a bit. And more so then than I am now. Thatís life, though, isnít it?"
"But you see . . . Thatís all there is of me. There isnít anything else. If youíve lost interest in that, youíve lost interest in everything. Whatís the point of us?"
"You really believe that?"
"Yes. Look at me. Look at the flat. What else has it got, apart from records and CDs and tapes?"
"And do you like it that way?"
I shrug. "Not really."
"Thatís the point of us. You have potential. Iím here to bring it out."
"Potential as what?"
"As a human being. You have all the basic ingredients. Youíre really very likeable, when you put your mind to it. You make people laugh, when you can be bothered, and youíre kind, and when you decide you like someone then that person feels as though sheís the center of the whole world, and thatís a very sexy feeling. Itís just that most of the time you canít be bothered."
"No," is all I can think of to say.
"You just . . you just donít do anything. You get lost in your head, and you sit around thinking instead of getting on with something, and most of the time you think rubbish. You always seem to miss whatís really happening."
But whatís really going on here? If the relationship was begun on false pretenses, and if their future happiness depends on Rob changing himself completely, then how strong is this relationship? At the end of the novel, Rob says, "Iím always going to feel miserable about Laura going. Thatís what Iíve learned. So I should be happy that sheís staying, right? Thatís how it should work, right? And thatís how it does work. Kind of. When I donít think about it too hard."
In Company, Bobby describes relationships this way:
Someone to hold you too close,
Itís the classic double-edged sword, and itís what makes High Fidelity not just a great novel but also a great work of musical theatre. After all, what separates musicals from plays is the abstract language of music itself, so powerful and so abstract that only it can express deep human emotions fully. Words alone can never express the love, longing, loss, or joy that music can, because those emotions are bigger and more complicated than mere words; it takes the primal language of music. And thatís why, all the cries of the music snobs notwithstanding, High Fidelity was always meant to be a musical. Not a Jerry Herman, happy-feet, musical comedy, but an honest, adult, complicated piece of musical theatre. And thatís exactly what it is.
The Mix Tape
Some pop music aficionados will tell you that the world is divided into two parts: those who understand the beauty and artistry of a great mix tape, and those who donít. Early in the High Fidelity script, Rob lays out some of the basic rules of making a mix tape:
This, in case you donít know, is called a cassette. And yes, they still exist. Iíve used them pretty much my whole life to make mix-tapes. Very old school, I know. This one happens to be for Laura. Iím sorta in the dog-house with her, soÖ But you donít really need to know about that. What you do need to know is that the making of a great mix tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. You gotta kick off with a killer song, to grab attention. Then you gotta take it up a notch. But you donít wanna blow your wad, so then you gotta cool it off a notch with something soulful. Also, you canít have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless youíve done the whole thing in pairs and . . . Anyway, there are a lot of rules. I still havenít mastered them all yet, butÖIíll figure it out eventually.
But what does a mix tape really mean? To a guy, a mix tape is the most personal, most heartfelt gift imaginable. On the surface, the mix tape is a gift, meant for the recipientís enjoyment, but really itís also for the giver of the gift. The guy wants the girl to know and understand him, but he doesnít have enough self-knowledge, at least consciously, to just explain himself in words. So he makes a mix tape, an expression of himself, a kind of autobiography, an explanation of his joys and fears and yes, his most awkward, most embarrassing emotions, those that could not be expressed in any other form. Itís the most fully many men are ever able to reveal their innermost feelings, and in many ways, itís a very potent window into its maker. But also, because this music is a part of his very soul, he is giving her a piece of himself. Like a class ring, but better. At least thatís how the guys see it. At the end of the High Fidelity novel Rob realizes heíd like to make Laura a mix tape with songs she would like instead of only songs he likes. He had been trying to change her with his mix tapes, educate her, but the purpose of a mix tape should be to share and to reveal oneself. Rob finally understands that.
A mix tape is a lot like Meeting the Friends, that pivotal moment in many relationships. The guy introduces his new girlfriend to the music he likes to listen to, and he hopes that she likes it as much as he does Ė or that she is at least open to hearing more of it. If she really doesnít like his music, that may reveal incompatibilities that wouldnít otherwise be discernible.
But a mix tape is also an artistic expression, connecting the maker of the tape to his favorite artists, making him almost a collaborator with them. In the same way that hip-hop artists sample other peopleís art to make new art Ė and the way the makers of musicals and films sometimes take the art of novelists and make new art from it Ė so too does Rob make new art from the work of other artists by giving the existing art new context and new meaning.
In a way, High Fidelity the musical is a mix tape itself, with Robís record collection as its source material. We spend the evening listening to the voices of his Rock and Pop Gods, to their music and lyrics (in fictionalized form, obviously). For two hours, we hear the world through Robís ears. We hear a pissed off woman as Aretha Franklin. We hear a hot girlfriend as Pat Benatar. The score is Robís autobiographical mix tape, to share with us his love of music, and to reveal himself to us. Some audiences will love it; others wonít completely understand it. Which is one of the reasons it didnít have a successful commercial run on Broadway. This show has a target audience that isnít the same audience that goes to Broadway shows. The people who embrace High Fidelity (and Bat Boy, Assassins, Urinetown) are often the people who thought they didnít like musicals.
But like real mix tapes, High Fidelity the musical reveals Rob in ways he doesnít expect. In opening song, Rob sings, "I went where the music took me, and oh God, it took me here." The music didnít just take him to this physical place, running a used record store; it also took him to this emotional place, miserable and lonely, unable to connect to anyone except through music (and then only with fellow music lovers), full of too many romantic expectations, and most notably, a world entirely built on vinyl and cassettes, both outdated forms. He says in that same number that heís "sitting on a business that has zero growth potential." But at this point, his life itself also has zero growth potential. Just as his concrete life is centered on outdated forms of recording technology, so too is his inner life centered on outdated emotions and ideas about relationships that come from his high school days. He tells us late in the show that heís been listening to his gut since he was fourteen, and also that he hasnít been able to forget a girl since he was fourteen. That seems to be the age where he stuck emotionally Ė an incredibly turbulent, confusing age.
Itís significant that Rob sees his store as the last real record store. Everyone else has moved on Ė in life and in sound reproduction technology Ė but him. Early in the story, he has pride in that; later, he sees whatís wrong with it. Only at the end, when he sells his 45s to pay back Laura, when he finally lets go of his vinyl (symbolically at least), can he heal his relationship with Laura and start to grow up.
Itís a Problem
Once upon a time, Broadway welcomed complex, nuanced musical theatre, including shows like Company, Follies, Cabaret, Nine, Sunday in the Park with George, Big River, Grand Hotel, Assassins, Jellyís Last Jam, Hedwig and the Angry Inch. But in the early years of the new millennium, nuance is apparently not welcome on Broadway, certainly not by the critics and maybe not by audiences. High Fidelity is a prime example. And the song "Itís No Problem" is a perfect case study.
"Itís No Problem" is a song that operates almost entirely on a subtextual level, like many of the songs in Company, Follies, and other intelligent musicals. And yet some 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 you just listen to the lyric.
As the song begins, Rob has asked Dick to tell Barry that Laura broke up with him. Rob has just attacked Barry and he wants Dick to explain the extenuating circumstances to Barry, as a sort-of-apology. In Dickís mind, this is a real honor, an Important Assignment, to be Robís "ambassador" to Barry, to be a solution to a problem. Dick doesnít have a lot of human interaction outside the record store, so this new and complicated situation is not only dramatic, but sort of exciting for him as well. He takes this seriously:
Itís no problem,
No problem, Rob, youíre on.
Iíll tell him when I see him next:
"Rob says to tell you Lauraís gone."
My scheduleís pretty open,
So Iíve got some time today.
Plus Iíve got some other stuff to tell him anyway.
So Iíll tell him when I tell him all the other stuff,
Or I could even call.
So itís no problem,
No problem at all.
As the song continues, Dick considers the optimal time and place for telling Barry, though as he thinks through the logistics of his assignment out loud, he worries that he may have offended Rob, who he knows is still hurting from the break-up. He even takes time to reassure Rob that he and Barry on are on his side.
Part of the "joke" of the song is that Dickís 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 "Hiroshima of the Soul"), and that he is profoundly empathetic, which is what will later save his 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 Robís, Dickís, and Barryís lives are.
And later in Act II, the reprise of "Itís No Problem" goes even further in defining Dick, showing us how he has grown and changed, as any fully drawn character does. The reprise is Dickís Declaration of Independence from the "authority" of Barry. Long before either Rob or Barry learns the lessons they have to learn, Dick has learned his: "And Iím thinking itís not what you like that counts, but who you areÖ" Anna may like John Tesh Ė an unthinkable crime in this world Ė but sheís also smart, pretty, nice, the right height, she has a great laugh, and she really likes Dick. Surely all those things outweigh John Tesh. Dick has finally realized that when pop music defines the world, the world can be pretty narrow. He now knows that actual human connection is more important and more satisfying than just listening to songs about human connection. He rejects the safe, insular world of Championship Vinyl for the less predictable, harder-to-navigate, real world, and in the process he becomes a whole person. Rob wonít learn this lesson for two more scenes yet. Thereís even an argument to be made that Rob only learns his lesson by watching Dickís transformation. If Dick can suffer through John Tesh for Anna, maybe Rob can suffer through Art Garfunkel for Laura.
Without this song and its reprise, Dickís character would be far less well drawn; but, as with the rest of the show, too many of the critics refused to see whatís 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? Or was it because Broadway has been so dumbed down in recent years that the critics are no longer accustomed to giving musicals the same thoughtfulness and respect that they routinely give to plays that lack music?
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: ĎNothinís great, and nothinís new, but nothiní has its worth.í This declaration is sung by the showís hero, the romantically bereft Rob, as he describes his uneventful life as the owner of a vinyl record store in Brooklyn. . . And thatís a problem."
No, the problem is that Brantley canít see that that lyric reveals the central conflict of the show. Itís not that Robís life is uneventful; itís 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 Robís 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 Lauraís relationship has become has the comforts of familiarity and little effort, but it canít sustain either of them. Rob doesnít have enough self-knowledge at the beginning of the story to assess his own problem, so we have to read between the lines Ė as audiences do routinely with plays by Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, and Lanford Wilson.
That the opening number ends with all the guys singing, "I wouldnít change a thing" tells us exactly 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? Robís 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-shaking changes in technology. This is not a show about nothing, as some critics charged, and itís not the Seinfeld of musical theatre. Itís a deeply felt, deeply authentic show about America (the UK in the novel) at the turn of the millennium.
Messing With Your Mind
One of the most interesting aspects of High Fidelity on stage is that the entire story takes place inside Robís head. He is telling us his story, functioning as hero, narrator, even God figure now and then as he actually manipulates the people and circumstances he presents to us. Though the original Broadway production somehow missed this central device, the script and score make it quite explicit.
So how do we know that weíre actually spending the evening inside Robís head, as opposed to Rob simply being a narrator? The answer is that Rob does things throughout the show that narrators arenít able to do, and unlike most narrators, Rob frequently takes us off on tangents as his mind races through the emotions and associations that the story conjures up in his mind. And though most narrators are there to fill in the gaps in the narrative, to establish time and place, to add important information, in contrast to that, Rob shares his deepest, most closely held feelings, his fears and insecurities, and much more. Rob goes way beyond the normal job description for a narrator.
In the opening number, Rob not only tells us where we are and who the other characters are, but he also tells us how he feels about it all. He compares his stereo to our stereos. We learn in this opening that we will not be told a story this evening; we will have a conversation. We become Robís friends, his confessors. We are immediately involved. Like Shakespeare (and many of the great musicals), these characters frequently tell us directly what theyíre thinking. Itís interesting how often the word you and its variants are used in the opening number. The audience is neither invisible nor passive in this show; they are a part of the proceedings (another thing the Broadway production didnít understand).
In the second scene, in which Laura walks out on Rob, he continues to talk directly to the audience. With tremendous humor and skill, Lindsay-Abaire places Rob into two competing conversations, one with us and one with Laura. He even interrupts his conversation at one point because he realizes he needs to talk to Laura before she leaves. Throughout the scene, Rob bounces back and forth between these two conversations, something no ordinary narrator ever does. On occasion he even comments to us on what heís just said (or about to say) to Laura. Heís both in the scene and outside of it at the same time.
In the middle of the scene, as the song "Desert Island Top 5 Breakups" reaches its climax, Laura re-enters, interrupting the song. We watch in silence as she crosses the room, disappears into another part of the apartment to retrieve the toiletry bag she left behind, and then returns to a pleading Rob. The ex-girlfriends, now Greek Chorus and back-up singers, have to wait for Rob and Laura to play out their scene before the song can finish. On Broadway, the director sent the exes off stage so that the story could return to The Real World, but that defeats the purpose and the joke of Lauraís interrupting of the song. Rob has been fantasizing about telling Laura off, and that fantasy is interrupted by Lauraís return. But even then, weíre still not in the real world Ė Robís in the middle of a song, after all Ė weíre still in Robís head. Significantly, the script does not call for the exes to leave the stage at this point.
The next scene returns us to the record store, but weíre still not in the real world. Several times, Rob turns to us to comment on the action, and the story simply stops and waits for him. This doesnít make sense unless weíre still in the nonreality of Robís mind. He even steps out of the scene to deliver one of his philosophical treatises, this time on the psychic dangers of listening to too much pop music. Lizís big song in this scene, "She Goes," is the first time weíre introduced to the device that informs most of the show, that each of the people in Robís life sounds to him like one of his Pop Gods. Liz and Rob are actually having a conversation, but in his mind, heís talking and sheís belting out an R&B number. Liz the Ballbuster lectures Rob on his romantic incompetence but in his mind he hears her scolding as one of those Aretha Franklin, girl-power anthems (not surprisingly influences by Arethaís "R-E-S-P-E-C-T." Not only "She Goes" a show-stopper, but it also tells us a lot about Rob: to him, an angry, defiant woman sounds like Aretha Franklin and he sees his ex-girlfriends as mere accompaniment to his life story, easy to manipulate. But that will soon change.
When we meet Ian, Robís rival, we are even patched in to Robís memories of Ianís sex noises when he used to live above Rob and Lauraís apartment. Rob doesnít just tell us about Ianís noise, we actually hear it just as Rob does. And for the first time, now only half-way through Act I, Robís fantasy numbers start to become uncontrollable. In "Number Five with a Bullet," Rob finds himself unable to manipulate the proceedings anymore. Laura and the exes are taunting him. One of the exes, Jackie, even takes herself out of the song against Robís wishes and gives up her spot to Laura. Ian enters and begins an Eastern-flavored orgy with Laura and the exes, driving Rob crazy. The horror escalates until Rob turns off the song (interrupting it just as Laura interrupted "Desert Island"), by screaming, "Stop! Show me no more!" Rob is certainly no ordinary narrator here; he has literally lost control of the storytelling. The exes, who had been on Robís side in "Desert Island," are now on Lauraís side.
In the club scene with Marie LaSalle, Rob again ducks in and out of the scene, talking to us, taking us into flashback, even admitting that heís altering what Liz said to Laura ("Liz may not have used those exact words, but itís what I like to imagine she said."). For the first time, we realize that Rob may not always be telling us the truth. Rob even replays one moment in the scene, after he has explained it to us. But before he explains it, he asks something of the audience, that we think about some terrible thing we did to our partner, so that we will forgive Rob the transgression heís about to reveal to us. What narrator would do that? When the scene ends, Rob delivers a long monologue telling us in detail what led to the fight the night before our story started. Here, late in Act I, Rob finally reveals the answer weíve been wondering about since the show opened: what happened "last night" that led to Laura leaving Rob? Now we know. Maybe the whole show is just Rob sitting in his apartment replaying the events of the last few months, trying to make sense of it, trying to figure out where he went wrong and how he can fix things. Maybe, as with Bobby in Company, Rob reviews the mess that is his life in the briefest of moments before he decides to take action.
The last scene of Act I contains most of the devices the showís creators have been using throughout the act. There is the self-revealing monologue, a reprise of the opening song interrupted mid-stream by both Rob and Laura this time. There is direct to the audience throughout the song, "Nine Percent Chance of Your Love." There are the musical references to Bow Wow Wow and Coldplay. There is significant plot advancement Ė Rob finds out he hasnít totally lost Laura yet, Barry gets a chance to sing with a band, and Dick finally formally meets Anna. And even though the song is largely about Rob getting Laura back, he ends the song (and the act) by telling us that he goes out and sleeps with Marie LaSalle. Rob still hasnít grown up. Heís still a jerk. Heís still emotionally stunted. In most musicals, the audience goes out to intermission, hoping that the Two Lovers will get part Their Misunderstanding and eventually Find True Love. But this isnít that kind of story. In this show, the audience goes out to intermission wondering if these three idiots will ever grow up Ė and knowing that weíve all got some Rob, Dick, and Barry in us deep down.
How Did the Deed Go Down?
Act II starts with twin soliloquies, Rob and Lauraís two "I Slept WithÖ" songs, followed by a duet reprise. The duet accomplishes a lot. It tells us that both of them are having the same experience, jumping into a rebound relationship that they quickly regret. Both Ian and Marie are crazy and they are unsatisfactory partners for Rob and Laura. Things are out of balance here (and itís mostly Robís fault), and getting Robís world back into balance is the agenda of Act II. Although now, Rob has lost most of his control over the story and its songs. After these three opening songs, Rob delivers another monologue, this time a list of the Top 5 Things He Misses About Laura. But as usual, things get our of hand, and he ends up breaking his own rules of list-making, ending up with ten items on his Top 5 List. Not only does the show not follow Robís rules; he canít even manage it himself.
Neil Young enters to sing "Exit Sign," a song Rob admits that he hates, a song that offers him no worthwhile advice or sympathy, a song in fact whose lyric is virtual nonsense. Neil is no help to Rob, but in spite of himself, the song does help us. The songís central metaphor Ė "Iím still a-lookiní for the exit signÖ" Ė tells us a lot. Rob knows heís on the wrong path. He knows heís not heading where he wants to be heading. Heís looking for a metaphorical off-ramp from this highway of emotional horror. But heís trapped on that highway right now, there are no exit signs, and thatís because heís still not looking in the right place. Heís still trying to figure out how to change the road heís on; eventually heíll figure out he has to change himself if he wants to get onto a different road. Earlier in the show, Rob asks the audience, "Do I listen to pop music because Iím miserable or am I miserable because I listen to pop music?" Here, reality and the clichťs of pop music collide as every single story he tells about his Top 5 Breakups involves rain, the most overused metaphor in the history of pop music. He loses Alison on a "rainy day;" he loses Penny on a "drizzly day;" he loses Charlie "in a downpour;" and he loses Sarah at "a rainy outdoor concert." Heís living his pop music and he doesnít much like it. Before he knows it, heís standing outside Lauraís apartment Ė in the rain Ė screaming at her, Billy Joel-style, in "Cryiní in the Rain," a song as much about Rob as it is about Robís music.
In the next scene, as Springsteen himself appears, Robís music becomes even less helpful. Springsteen throws around Springsteen clichťs like confetti:
Why donít you call them like the ghosts
That roam the Main Street of the Steel Town
Where the Plantís been closed
Since Veteranís Day.
But Rob doesnít live in a steel town, there is no plant nearby, and itís not Veteranís Day. Rob has begun to realize that his depressing pop songs donít really help as much as he thought they did. Neil Young was no help, and now neither is Springsteen. Rob is on his own from now on. But he has learned one lesson here Ė itís time to move on down the road, to stop standing still, to take action. Trouble is, Rob still doesnít know what action to take.
To Robís embarrassment, both Dick and Barry are chasing their dreams now and they leave Rob to his lonely stagnation. By the end of the scene TMPMITW is offering Rob his sympathy and declaring that he and Rob are kindred spirits. This disturbs Rob to his core, but perhaps he sees the truth in it. In some ways, Rob, Dick, and Barry dislike TMPMITW because they see themselves in him Ė lonely, socially awkward, musically obsessed, and unable to fit comfortably into the Real World. Left alone in his record store, Rob finally sees the truth and he knows what to do Ė not to win Laura back, but to grow the hell up. Rob finally sees that this journey was not about Laura; it was about him. Like many heroes in many hero myths before him, Rob finally confronts his own demons and faces them down.
In the climactic song, "Laura, Laura," a dead-on Ben Folds invocation, Rob tells Laura how he feels in the simplest, most unadorned, most honest, most unguarded, most self-aware moment heís ever had. He doesnít ask her to come back; he merely asks her forgiveness. And that was the lesson he had to learn, not to get his girlfriend back but to try to become a better person. In the final scene, we see that Rob has turned his life around and he just might be okay in the end. There are no promises of a happy ending here, merely a new beginning under better circumstances. In the last few scenes of the show there is far less direct narration because Rob is getting closer and closer to the truth, and he needs less and less to complain to us. We have been his therapist for two hours and now heís ready to end his therapy session.
The finale tells us a lot about how Robís worldview has changed. At last, Rob is not the center of attention. Barry has taken center stage musically because Rob is now ready to change his focus from his own happiness to Lauraís. Robís lines near the end say it all: "Iíve started to make a tape in my head for Laura. Full of stuff sheíd like. Full of stuff thatíd make her happy. For the first time, I can sorta see how thatís done." Music can still be central to his life, but if he wants to share a life with Laura, he has to share her music too Ė both literally and figuratively.
Copyright 2008. From Scott Miller's book, Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musical Theatre. All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre, Deconstructing Harold Hill, Rebels with Applause, Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR, and From Assassins to West Side Story.