At some point, you may have picked up Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, a deserved classic of Manhattan lit about a low-level fact checker at a New Yorker-like magazine who struggles with a recent break-up, substance abuse, and his middling career. Or you might have seen the film adaptation with Michael J. Fox. But chances are you’ve never discovered the musical adaptation, which debuted at the New York Theater Workshop on February 24, 1999 (in a production directed by Michael Greif, who also directed Rent, which also opened at the NYTW). Happy 13th anniversary, Bright Lights, Big City: The Musical! A fittingly unlucky anniversary to celebrate, since the show was not received particularly well, especially because of unfavorable comparisons to Rent, and has since fallen off the cultural radar.
But that’s too bad—the music, by Paul Scott Goodman (reworked some for the cast recording), on occasion topples into a kind of genius born of unabashed immoderation; three songs are each reprised twice. A blues about Wednesday—cuz doesn’t Wednesday just give ya the blues?—includes the rhyme “Drano for the brain-o”; the missing girl on the milk carton has her own song, which she sings twice. (Did I mention it’s written in an Irish folk idiom? And was apparently sung on stage by a woman dressed in blood-soaked panties?) At its best, the show is like one of The Simpsons‘ brilliant musical parodies from the earlier seasons. The fact that Goodman’s show is not a parody, and isn’t kidding, doesn’t make it any less amazing. A young Patrick Wilson starred as Jamie, while Jesse L. Martin (who had been in Rent), played his conspirator Allagash.
I’m having a hard time getting over how amazing this song is. Overall, it’s a pretty typical example of the show’s mash-up of rock and pop styles, but rises to another level mid-way, when the cast starts doing coke and gets horny, at which point it becomes an epic rock-ode to club fucking. The song’s chorus? “I-ay-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi/Wanna have sex tonight!” Two women of different sexual orientations brag about who they’ve bed, alternating “did him/did her” until it sounds like do wah ditty nonsense—diddum, ditter, diddum, ditter. Then, behind this folderol, the chorus starts chanting, “can you make me come? can you make me come?” Eventually, they plead: “make me forget my whole life sucks/and a million fucks won’t make that right/but yet/I wanna have sex tonight.” It’s just, wow, an amazing and expressionistic representation of a particular breed of bygone New York debauchery. Alone, it should earn the show a place in theater history.
2. Coma Baby
One of the clumsiest devices from McInerney’s novel is the hero’s obsession with a tabloid sensation, Coma Baby. It’s silly, and Goodman takes it to the silliest place he can: he gives the Coma Baby its own rock anthem. If you thought the kid on the milk carton thing sounded like a bit much, you ain’t heard nothing yet.
3. Sunday Morning, 6 AM
Still, the milk-carton thing is pretty crazy. This track encompasses all of the show’s battiness, and variegated musical styles, in one five-minute span: a melodramatic opening, the first appearance of the milk-carton girl, a Latin-tinged melody for Jamie’s ex-wife, and a melancholy duet for them both. (It also revisits the show’s opening for over a minute at the end, even though this is only the third track on the album, a representative example of the show’s habit of quoting itself.) It also includes perhaps the quintessential example of the show’s bonkers rhyme-style (when Goodman feels like writing in rhyme): “wasn’t that a beautiful Sunday?/In that darling little hovel/before you became a model/and you threw away your novel/my great American novel/at the end of chapter four/my typer isn’t hyper anymore.”
4. Bright Lights, Big City
You can’t have a musical called Bright Lights, Big City that doesn’t open with a song called “Bright Lights, Big City,” can you? The opening lines: “Are you ready to roll?” “Where are we rolling?” “Into the heart of the night!” You quickly learn everything you’re getting into here. The style, the gloss—it’s that kind of show. But McInerney’s novel, and thus the musical, deals with a kind of garish New York excess, so couldn’t you argue it’s a fair match of form to content? Wait for the track-ending duet about how awesome drugs are.
5. Are You Still Holding My Hand?
Jamie’s mother’s big death scene—in flashback, coming right after an earlier flashback built around the phrase “mummies at the Met just like mommy used to take us”—is actually just kind of moving, thanks to Ann Marie Milazzo’s masterful balance between her singing talent and her acting talent—her belting and the vulnerability in her voice.
One of the best examples of the show’s frequent disregard for rhyme schemes and its Sondheim-like rhythms, which together try to accommodate bits of McInerney’s prose. “Well, it was my father really/indirectly speaking/daddy never read philosophy/but he lived by a strict philosophical code” or “I thought about what daddy said/I thought about the thoughts in my head/At 12, I found this book by Jung/Considering Thoughts by Modern Man.” (That’s right, I said Sondheim.)
7. I Hate the French/I Hate the French (reprise)
Meant to be a standout number, since they do it twice. The accordion instrumentation clues you in to the fact that the song is about the French. I’ll let the lyrics speak for the song: “His spelling’s completely atrocious/His turn of phrase absurd/He thinks he’s pretty precocious/But his shit is full of merde!/I hate the French/I hate them all/From Toulouse Fucking Lautrec to Charles DeGaulle.” Mid-song, it turns into a duet with Richard Kind. Random!
8. Camera Wall
A darkly funky pop song, which subverts the earlier, cheerier cha cha song about modeling, that’s set at an MTV runway show at Rockefeller Center. It climaxes with Jamie screaming at his ex-wife, “WHY DID YOU LEAVE ME?,” after she broods awhile over the modeling profession. Jamie is so sad.