I thought I'd post what could become an artifact of theater history: the lost souvenir program essay for the Broadway musical "High Fidelity." The show closes prematurely, after only 18 previews and 14 regular performances, and the souvenir program was never actually printed. I got the job because I wrote the book about "Avenue Q," which has the same producers as "High Fidelity." Note that this essay is a first draft that did not go through the revision process, so it was not approved by anyone involved with the show.
"High Fidelity" has no castles, chandeliers or helicopters. It has a bed in an apartment and a record store full of musty old albums. And it’s not about kings, phantoms, soldiers or revolutionaries. It's about a guy obsessed with music who gets dumped by his girlfriend.
Though most musicals take place in the past, in far-off lands or in fantasy worlds, "High Fidelity" is set in Brooklyn in 2006. It’s about people like you and me, with everyday problems and everyday obsessions. Their girlfriends and their boyfriends. Their apartments. Their jobs. Making money. Making love. Getting drunk.
The show owes this vision to the novel "High Fidelity," written by Nick Hornby, a master at articulating the angst and absurdities of contemporary life.
The musical is “very much the world that Nick Hornby had created,” says David Lindsay-Abaire, who adapted the novel into the book of the musical. “His prose is so full of irony, and so lacking in sentiment. He undercuts sentiment on every page of that book in a hilarious way.”
“I almost hate to say this but I’m going to: It feels to me like ‘'Seinfeld': The Musical,’” says Walter Bobbie, the director. “'Seinfeld' was a glorious celebration of just ordinary lives being lived.”
In many musicals, a man and a woman see each other and they are instantly in everlasting love. "High Fidelity," on the other hand, acknowledges the complexities of devoting oneself to another person. After Rob, the main character, gets dumped by his girlfriend Laura, he spends the rest of the show trying to win her back and figure out why his romantic relationships always go wrong.
“I’m married happily, but I spent a long time searching for love, and going down the wrong roads and being ridiculous about the whole thing,” says "High Fidelity"’s lyricist, Amanda Green. About Rob and Laura, she adds, “They aren’t effusive and they aren’t lovey-dovey, but I really feel the ache that he has for her and the ache that she has for him.”
“Some of my favorite love songs are the types of songs that don’t necessarily come out and say ‘I love you, you’re everything to me,’” says Tom Kitt, the show’s composer. “They talk about love in a very human way, a way that everybody experiences.”
Many of the songs in "High Fidelity" convey small, subtle feelings that many of us have felt but are rarely expressed. “Ready to Settle” rationalizes the benefits of a rebound one-night-stand. In “It’s No Problem” Rob’s anxiety-ridden friend Dick puzzles over how to tell their friend Barry that Rob and his girlfriend broke up. “I Slept With Someone,” in which Rob proclaims, “I slept with someone who slept with Lyle Lovett,” is a fresh take on celebrity worship.
While writing the songs, Kitt and Green drew on their own personal musical influences, including The Beatles, The Who, Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Carole King, Carly Simon, Joe Jackson, Elvis Costello, U2, Radiohead, Fountains of Wayne, Stephen Sondheim and, yes, Lyle Lovett. The characters express themselves through songs that evoke artists whose albums could be on their shelves, such as the Indigo Girls in “Ready to Settle,” Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre in the song “Conflict Resolution,” in which Rob fantasizes about beating up Laura’s new boyfriend, and Bruce Springsteen, who appears in Rob’s fantasy and sings with him on “Goodbye and Good Luck.”
“We were like ‘Well, if Rob wants his life to be like a Bruce Springsteen song, what would that song sound like?’” says Kitt.
Though Lindsay-Abaire is also married and lacks Rob’s loafer qualities, he connects to the character though the universal idea of obsession. “He’s obsessed with vinyl, he’s obsessed with these ex-girlfriends — he’s really great at the past and really awful at dealing with the present,” says Lindsay-Abaire. “I have a lot of friends who are slackers and stuck in arrested development, and are refusing to enter adulthood.”
For the book scenes in "High Fidelity," the creators wanted to bring a “theatrical anarchy” to musical comedy, says Bobbie. “We wanted to be able to smash time.” An example is the fantasy sequence in which Rob acts out three different versions of his confrontation with Ian, Laura’s new boyfriend.
"High Fidelity" sets its record shop in an unspecified, run-down area of Brooklyn. To create a sense of place, Lindsay-Abaire drew on his experience growing up in the working class neighborhood of South Boston and moving to the Carroll Gardens area of Brooklyn in 1992, when it was nothing but bodegas, cheap knickknack shops and Italian social clubs.
“I know where he is,” says Lindsay-Abaire of Rob. “I know the people who walk by those windows.”
Anna Louizos’s set design reflects the musical’s rough-around-the-edges quality. The middle of the stage opens up like a toy box and the backdrops shift back and forth like a Rubix Cube, underscoring the unpredictability of the characters’ lives. The set also reflects their gritty surroundings. Many musical sets are sleek abstractions of real life locations, with few props to get in the way. But Bobbie realized that since his characters had massive album collections and hung out in derelict neighborhoods, things had to look a bit messy.
“We had to fill the stage with the detritus of their lives,” says Bobbie.
Though it breaks from tradition in many ways, "High Fidelity" is the latest in a line of musicals about existential urban unease that includes landmark works such as "Avenue Q," "Rent" and "Company." "High Fidelity" also draws inspiration from older musicals about city life that were — when they were written in the mid-20th century — set in the present. These musicals include "Wonderful Town," "On the Town" and "Bells are Ringing," which were co-written, perhaps not coincidentally, by Green’s father, Adolph Green.
Ultimately, "High Fidelity" manages to capture its time and place while also tapping into timeless themes. It’s about Peter Pan growing up. It’s about pursuing true love. It’s about a man learning how to live with a woman and conform to the demands of adulthood without losing the part of him that makes him who he is. In fact, Rob is an apt metaphor for "High Fidelity" as a whole. The show gives you everything you expect in a Broadway musical comedy — funny characters, catchy songs, thrilling staging and a touching love story — while hanging on to the real-life, contemporary quality that makes it unique.