In journalism, getting the story is good, but getting the story behind the story is better. In the new musical, The Story of My Life, now at Broadway’s Booth Theatre, composer-lyricist Neil Bartram and librettist Brian Hill have come up with something good, but had they also supplied the story crouching behind the story, they could have produced an ultimately more satisfying piece of theater.
Over the course of this lean and smart-looking 90-minute show, which has been directed smartly by Richard Maltby Jr., Alvin Kelby (Malcolm Gets) and Thomas Weaver (Will Chase) examine a close friendship that began when they were brought together by their facially hirsute but psychologically astute first-grade teacher Mrs. Remington and has ended, at least in the physical sense, with Alvin’s untimely and mysterious death. Tom, who is now a best-selling short story writer — albeit one facing a serious case of writer’s block — has come back to the hometown Alvin never left to deliver his just-deceased friend’s eulogy, but is unable to find words for the melancholy task. Prompted by the materialized Kelby, the pair revisit their growing up and growing apart, a journey that’s already served as the basis for Weaver’s prize-winning tales.
If this plotline contains echoes of the film It’s a Wonderful Life, that’s completely intentional. Kelby and Weaver talk repeatedly about their love of Frank Capra’s 1947 holiday classic. Indeed, the debt owed to the James Stewart holiday perennial is so strong that Thomas dresses as the angel Clarence for the first-grade Halloween party, and the pair’s friendship is further cemented when Alvin plucks a copy of Tom Sawyer from his father’s bookstore (which serves as the show’s only set, designed by Robert Brill) as a birthday gift for Thomas.
Gets and Chase remain kinetically appealing through their characters’ recollections and fraternal contentiousness. They sing with robust conviction even when too much of the score begins to sound like one extended number composed with Stephen Sondheim as a Clarence-like guiding angel. (The nine-piece orchestra plays Jonathan Tunick’s arrangements, which could also be enhancing the Sondheimian echoes.) Yet, there are several shining musical moments. Gets’ song about Mrs. Remington is a valentine to every influential teacher who ever stirred a grade-schooler’s mind and heart; it’s got as much charm as a song could hope to have and will surely start listeners reminiscing about their own childhood mentors. Chase delivers a rousing musical fable entitled “The Butterfly” that’s yet another Kelby-triggered anecdote.
But if much of The Story of My Life is engaging, the whole is never as affecting as it might be because Bartram and Hill have been coy about what really transpired between Kelby — who never married and who never mentions a girlfriend — and Weaver, who gracelessly backs out of a wedding to someone named Ann and thereafter seemingly remains single. That the two men love each other is clear. That they are in love with each other is only hinted at but never directly confronted. While the authors clearly want their characters’ relationship to be ambiguous, here ambiguity ends up being synonymous with cop-out, depriving theatergoers of the full story of these men’s lives.