I suppose it was inevitable. Spider-Man got one. Elle Woods got one. It was only a matter of time till Rob Gordon got one as well. From Urban Cowboy to Young Frankenstein, Hollywood properties have been showing up on Broadway with increasing frequency, and between Championship Vinyl’s proto-hipsters and the Rob and Laura “romance,” it is no surprise that High Fidelity the musical exists.
I have gotten my hands on the original cast recording, and while I have not seen the show on stage (perhaps miracles occur between songs), High Fidelity the musical sounds to be a wretched mess. In this case, the music came before the misery.
The majority of Nick Hornby’s novel takes place within Rob Fleming’s head. This makes adaptation problematic. Constant fourth wall breaks were the movie’s solution, but what would you do on stage? Give every song to the actor playing Rob? That’s not going to fly. If one man shows sold, I’d be able to find a copy of Give ‘em Hell, Harry! on DVD. Large structural changes were needed. So, to make the square peg of High Fidelity fit into the round hole of musical theatre, some corners needed to be cut off. The corners, in this case, being everything except the Championship Vinyl, Laura, and Marie LaSalle scenes. This means no more than passing references to Rob’s past girlfriends. A shame, since Rob’s hangups about them were the core of the book and the movie.
In a musical, everyone is happy, even when they’re depressed!
The watered-down plot can be summed up as follows: Rob, who lives an idyllic existence running “the last real record store on earth” is broken up with by his girlfriend Laura. Rob bemoans this fact, backed up by a chorus of ex-girlfriends. Laura is soothed by Ian, while Rob has an angsty hook-up with Marie LaSalle. Rob, Dick, and Barry sing an impassioned song about how excited they are to get Laura back/date Anna/form a band, and we crescendo into an act break. Neither Rob nor Laura are very happy. Rob tries to get Laura back. Ian confronts Rob. Inspired by the spirit of Bruce Springsteen, Rob calls all of his exes in one big montage, and he finally realizes why he loved Laura in the first place. Barry plays his big gig as love triumphs bring Dick & Anna and Rob & Laura together for the big finale. And they all live happily ever after.
Mild angst has been overcome. Hooray!
JUMP INTO THE AIR!
But wait? Aren’t there bigger problems with Rob and Laura’s relationship than mild angst? Isn’t Rob a frightening stalker? Doesn’t he lack any sense of ambition? Doesn’t he try to run off with every cute girl he sees? No. All dark and unpleasant undercurrents have been excised for the purposes of the play. There is no room here for reflections into the darker corners of life. This is Broadway. The theatre is where we go to watch the guy get the girl, and hear people sing ABBA covers. At least we got a bunch of fun songs from this, right?
You don’t want to listen to these songs. I’m serious. Passages from the book and the movie (yes, both) have been strip-mined for material. The wry tone has been replaced by Avenue Q optimism, and each sentence has been injected with cringe-worthy puns and weak punchlines. But while, nine times out of ten, the humor falls flat, some of the songs are mildly catchy. A deadly combination. Here’s a taste from the opening number:
I’ve got my daily crossword, and there’s coffee in the pot.
I’ve got cable and a girlfriend who is pissed off, but she’s hot.
I’ve got records that it’s taken me a lifetime to amass,
And I play them on a system that will kick your system’s ass!
And if my life’s not perfect,
If I’m anxious, bored, or sad,
Well, today may be less shitty–
With whole chunks of not so bad!
And I wouldn’t change a thing about it;
No, I wouldn’t want to change a thing.
In a world that’s unreliable,
These are rocks on which to cling.
Nothing’s great and nothing’s new–
But “nothing” has its worth.
Meet the real go-getter
With the thrift store sweater
And the last real record store on earth!
Sure, the words describe a lifestyle similar to the one Rob Gordon/Fleming lives, but can you imagine those words ever coming out of his mouth? The skeleton of High Fidelity is present, but all of the meat has been replaced by cheese and schmaltz. When it comes to character development, it is all telling and no showing. Rather than introducing Dick in a way which demonstrates his traits, they just have him come out and say, “I’m too weird and shy, I guess I’ll die alone.” Painful.
The rest of the songs follow suit, taking a line or scene from the book or the movie and using it as the frame for a number of weak half-jokes hinging on nauseating rhymes. (“Number Five with a bullet – a sharp and throbbing pain – lodged there like a bullet in your brain.”) It doesn’t help that in this recording Rob (played by Will Chase) sounds a lot like “Weird Al” Yankovic. In fact, everyone’s voices sound a bit cartoonish, as if they’re playing Muppets.
To give credit where it’s due, in the few instances where an original scene is created, there are some fun moments. Ian’s introductory song (“Ian’s Here”) is genuinely fun. You can tell that the musical’s creators had a good time playing in territory which hadn’t already been established by the book or the movie. Sadly, this is the exception, not the norm.
WHAT HAPPENED HERE?:
So, why does this train wreck exist? I can’t tell you definitively. I wasn’t there. But, I have an educated guess. In 2003 Avenue Q made waves with its adult puppets and themes of post-graduation uncertainty. In its wake, others were certain to try capturing that lightning in a bottle for themselves. As a recognizable property dealing with mildly similar themes, High Fidelity (and by association High Fidelity) was ripe for the picking.
If you are trying to create an Avenue Q-esque adaptation of a preexisting brand, you will want to do two things:
1. Insert the tone and musical feel of Avenue Q into your adaptation. This explains the Muppet-like voices, the focus on the unsuccessful record store, and the unwarranted optimism. Both open in a run-down but lovable location (Avenue Q/an abnormally cheery Championship Vinyl). The sensitive main character strikes out with the intelligent girl of his dreams. Mix tapes. It’s a wonder Ian wasn’t renamed Hippie Monster.
2. Cram in every possible recognizable element from previous High Fidelity incarnations. This is not a book adaptation. It isn’t even a movie adaptation. It is officially “Based on the novel ‘High Fidelity’ [sic] by Nick Hornby and the Touchstone Pictures Film.” That’s right, Nick Hornby gets equal billing with Touchstone Pictures. Everyone knows that John Cusack gets rained on all the time. Better include a song titled “Cryin’ in the Rain.” Don’t forget to mention the Cosby sweater. Bruce Springsteen didn’t show up to give Rob advice in the novel, but he sure did in the movie. Give him his own song!
To my taste, the end result just comes across as a joyless mess. But I’m probably beating a dead horse here. The musical opened in December of 2006, and closed just two weeks later. I don’t think anyone is claiming it as a pinnacle of musical adaptation. Even Nick Hornby, though he officially endorses the musical, is aware that his original work has morphed into something very different, saying in the liner notes to the cast album, “I had a wonderful time, and came out wishing I’d written a book that joyful and life-affirming.” If we wanted a life-affirming High Fidelity, we’d go see the insipid Empire Records. High Fidelity the musical died back in 2006, so if a local theatre group has the hubris to try and raise its zombie corpse, I don’t advise seeking it out.