Unlike life, The Life had a nine-year gestation period. “I think I was born with it,” sights Cy Coleman, the show’s composer, who, putting his money where his music is, co-produced the piece now at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre with Roger Berlind, Martin Richards, and Sam Crothers.
His wordsmith, Ira Gasman, still remembers when the idea for this show first came to him: “I was walking down 42nd Street one night – probably coming from Theatre Row – when suddenly a police car pulls over to the corner, two guys get arrested, a couple was arguing across the street. What theatre, I thought, right there in the street! It got me thinking about this show. Most of that is gone now—that 42nd Street has disappeared.”
It’s not a scene you lament or work up nostalgia for, but there is a play in it – and, by 1990, they had enough for a workshop at the Westbeth Theatre Center, directed and choreographed by the late Joe Layton. That, they’ll tell you, was another Life. In 1994 they brought in David Newman to help them rewrite their way back to their plateau.
“Whatever it was back when they did the workshop, it’s totally different now,” says Newman. “Cy asked me to come into this because a) we were friends, and b) he thought I had the right sensibilities for this material; and, boy, was he right! I responded instantly to it. I didn’t wallow in this world, but I wasn’t afraid to walk down 42nd Street. We’ve all stepped into a peek show, whether we admit it or not.”
Then last October, choreographer Joey McKneely made his entrance – via Smokey Joe’s Café – and the show began bumping and grinding its way to Broadway.
Artists, by definition, toil in a dark and lonely place, so there’s no telling if those working on The Life realized how much life was in their show. Had they known that they were laboring on something that would wind up with 12 Tony Award nominations, would this fact have jump-started the creative process and gotten the musical to Broadway any sooner?
Coleman avoids the hypothetical, “I’m glad that it has taken so long because everybody that’s with it now should be with it,” he says. “Besides, how do you judge how long it takes to get a show to Broadway? It’s hard to judge when you first start a project because many things get in the way. Shows need time to percolate.”
Relegated to the back burner, The Life maintained a heartbeat while Coleman took off on some highly distinguished detours. City of Angels led him to the Tony podium twice (Best Musical and Best Score) in 1990, as did The Will Rogers Follies the next year, and both projects contributed in a bit way to The Life: He recruited two producers from the latter (Richards and Crothers) and a director from the former (Michael Blakemore).
In a sense, this long-time-in-coming launching is understandable, given the show’s controversial subject matter. The Life is about lowlife that inhabited 42nd Street in the late seventies – a far cry from the Disneyland Midtown that the area now is. Like its hooker heroine, Queen (Tony nominee Pamela Isaacs), the show struggles to rise above its world. “Somebody asked me if the show is about sleaze, and I said, ‘No more than Hamlet is about Denmark,’” says Coleman. “We have a story to tell, and that’s our background.”
The story’s triumph over its setting lies in Queen’s efforts to free herself of “the life” – and the help she receives from a fellow sister-of-the-evening, Sonia (Lillias White, winner of this year’s Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical). Their climactic duet, “My Friend,” catches the essence of the show, Coleman contends. “What we’re saying is that no matter how rash the environment, something of spirit can come out of it. Our show is about spirit and heart.”
Its conflict is centrally located in the character of Jojo, a sleazeball of the first order. “I’m the Iago of the show,” beams its Tony-nominated interpreter, Sam Harris. “All the nasty things that happen are of my manipulation. I’m the survivor. The show begins in the present and I come out and say, ‘They’re cleaning up the neighborhood,’ and take the audience back to the late '70s.”
Michael Blakemore has steered the show along a tightrope, careful not to fall into the seediness below, toward a common humanity to which audiences can relate. “We got a touching letter from somebody who saw a preview. It said: ‘Never again will I walk down the street and pass a homeless person or a hooker and look at them in quite the same light again.’ We show the humanity of these people. They might have made a few mistakes in their life choices, but they’re much the same as you and I.
“What we are doing is not remotely salacious or raunchy because, of course, the sex industry is not actually about sex. It’s about money. I don’t think the show is provocative or erotic. There’s some love in it but very little explicit sexual content that is not removed by humor or objectified by humor. We show that world always from a slightly sardonic, detached point of view.”
Far from dated, Blakemore feels The Life is perfectly timed. “It’s apt because this is the moment when 42nd Street is being regenerated. Also, it’s about something that doesn’t go away. The sex industry’s always there. It just moves somewhere else. It’s a constant you live with, like warfare. There’s always a war somewhere, which is not to say that’s good—it’s just a reality of life.”