That's how I opened my review in the Star-Ledger, the newspaper for which I review New Jersey theater, of the show I had seen on February 25, 1996 at the American Stage Company in Teaneck. I went on to write, "Almost every scene and turn-of-phrase was greeted with an enthusiastic burst of laughter or applause from the husbands and wives, boyfriends, and girlfriends. And why not? All could clearly see their lives portrayed in this revue about the highs and lows of falling in love."
I wasn't remotely through. I continued, "As good a compliment as a laugh is, there are two other accolades that a musical revue craves. The first should occur during the blackouts that follow each tune or scene -- that happy chattering between couples who just can't wait to turn to a partner and comment on what they've just witnessed. And the Teaneck crowd responded just that way. But an even bigger compliment can immediately follow when the lights come up on the next scene. If the audience quickly quiets itself so it won't miss a single syllable of the next song or sketch, the show's doing something right."
After writing the obligatory description of a few scenes from the show, I added: "In the lobby during intermission, the buzz was as loud as one you'd hear from a happy hive of honeybees. Each couple was sharing between itself or with others its favorite lines. For a few minutes, anyway. But everyone was in a hurry to get back." I went on and on, making the point that, "This morning, many in the audience will have to fit themselves for whiplash collars, because they were throwing their necks back from laughing so hard that they just had to injure themselves."
The next day, when the review came out, the phone rang. "Peter Filichia," I answered," after which I heard a low, ominous voice. "You didn't like it, did you?" I laughed a bit because I recognized the voice of Jim Vagias, the man who'd been telling me for months that he was producing a show he really believed in, a show called I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change.
"Not really," I said. "It wasn't for me. Couldn't relate to it at all. But I know it's for a certain audience, and I want to give that audience every chance to find this show and attend it." He responded, "I could tell, I could tell," then softened his voice quite a bit: "But thanks for being so nice about it. On the strength of that review, Jimmy Hammerstein is going to be able to get a lot of people out here." Jimmy, who was the son of the great lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, had already taken a financial interest in the show. Years later, he would tell me what Jim Vagias had said: Getting people to out-of-the-way Teaneck to see this show was substantially easier after a reviewer said that it was an audience-pleaser.
Today, I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change is celebrating its 10th anniversary in New York, complete with a stretch of West 43rd Street being renamed in its honor. It has also been produced in many other cities, both here and abroad. And if I'd been the type of critic who was more concerned with giving reasons why the show didn't please me, it's possible that the show might not have had the chance to go to go forward. But when I see a show, I don't care a whit if it doesn't do anything for me -- as long as I can see that it's doing something for its audience. I want each audience to find its right show, and I want both to live and be well. While I would never matchmake a man or woman with another man or woman -- I've seen Dinner With Friends, and I know the hazards of that -- I love to be what I call a theatrical matchmaker.
I admit that I didn't respond to the show all those years ago because it deals mostly with the problems people have with dating or being married. At the time, I'd been in a loving relationship with a woman for 18 years -- and our never getting married, having children, or even living together are among the reasons why we've now been a couple for 28 years. But just because I had nothing in common with Joe DiPietro's book and lyrics, should I have condemned them for that? I think a critic should remember that not everyone is like him or her in terms of age, race, sex, sexual orientation, and experience.
Moreover, I realized that a first-time theatergoer who attends a show like I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change may like the experience of seeing a musical revue and will be inclined to go see another, then another -- and his tastes will eventually change, and he'll be able to accept more challenging fare. I remember when I was 15 years old and read both Our Town and Three Sisters. I thought that one was more boring than the other, but now they're tied as my all-time favorite plays.
I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change has brought much pleasure to thousands upon thousands of people and introduced a new audience to live-on-stage musicals. I hope it's still around to celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2016, just as my girlfriend and I are celebrating 38 years of being together.
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