‘High Fidelity:’ Now a Musical

When the public-relations man says of a Broadway-bound musical, “The third time’s the charm,” it suggests nightmarish memories of past—and possibly even epic—failures.

But the challenge facing the new musical “High Fidelity,” now in previews in Boston and scheduled to open on Broadway Nov. 20, is quite the opposite, though perhaps equally daunting: how to follow a book and a movie that were both awash in charm, and, if not megahits, at the very least cult classics.

The original book was a deft comic turn by pop bard Nick Hornby, a meditation about loves lost, and lost again, by the commitmentphobic proprietor of a record store—vinyl, not remotely CD—in a dreary London suburb. In the movie, the store was moved to a seedy neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side where John Cusack was at his Cusackian best as the “I won’t grow up” narrator, Rob. It also featured Jack Black in his breakout role as Barry, the manic, resident bully and self-proclaimed arbiter of rock-and-roll taste.

“I loved the book so I admit that my first thought when I heard the idea [of a play] was ‘Oh no, really',” said David Lindsay-Abaire, the Tony-nominated author of last season’s hit “Rabbit Hole” who adapted “High Fidelity” for the stage. He changed his mind though, swayed, he says, by the songs from the composing team of Tom Kitt (music) and Amanda Green (lyrics). “It’s real music, songs you would hear on the radio,” says Lindsay-Abaire. “There’s not a moment when the music becomes cheeky or sends anything up.” Green says Hornby’s characters lend themselves beautifully to song. “They are people with small lives,” she says, “but big emotions.”

Still, the score may be the thorniest problem faced by the creative team. While the denizens of the record store may have gaping holes in their lives, music isn’t one of them. The characters are decidedly hip about music—and snobbish about it to boot. Broadway musicals and “hip” seldom show up in the same sentence. Kitt, who plays keyboards in his own band and whose taste runs to Radiohead and Keane, says his primary theatrical obligation was to engage the audience with melodies. So it wasn’t possible to aspire to “an ‘indie’ rock album” he says—but he insists, “it does feel like a rock-and-roll concept album.” The score is filled with referential riffs to the Beatles, the Who and Yes that plays like an insider’s game. (“High Fidelity” fanatics may want to compile their own list.) And while the movie gave Rob a Bruce Springsteen muse, the play goes further, giving him and his muse a Springsteen tribute duet.

The creators concede that Barry would have been reflexively contemptuous of the play’s score, just as he was in the movie of the customer who wanted to buy Stevie Wonder for his daughter. But no less an authority than Hornby says Rob would have been open to the music because Hornby himself is—and likes what he’s heard. (He won’t actually see the play until it reaches New York.) “They sent me a song and it had a couple of lines right out the book,” says Hornby. “My first reaction was, ‘Great. I’m a lyricist now. I have natural rhythm in my prose'.” Joking aside, Hornby takes issue with the premise that Broadway can’t be hip. “I have an album—Ella Fitzgerald sings Rogers & Hart—that to me is very hip.”

Hornby says he has never prized, well, fidelity to his book as long as the playwrights keep it entertaining in their medium. He gave the Broadway team the same advice he gave the filmmakers: “Make it your own.” That is, of course, how Hornby’s “Fever Pitch,” a somewhat dark tale of his obsession with London’s Arsenal soccer team, became a romantic romp surrounding the Boston Red Sox championship season. “High Fidelity” fared much better on the big screen. And now the Broadway production has given the record store another transplant—this time to Brooklyn. But they were smart enough not to tinker with the record-store family; the clerks, Barry and Dick, appear to have been cloned from the film.

The major change is that the back story—Rob tracking down his past relationships in a desperate attempt to understand his life of romantic failures—is reduced pretty much to a single song. The play is the love story, focusing almost entirely on Rob and Laura’s relationship. “With the love story front and center, we have to tell the audience why they should pull for them to get back together,” says Green. Rob, who is played by Will Chase, a Broadway veteran of “Rent,” “Lennon,” “Miss Saigon,” “Aida” and “The Fully Monty,” gets plenty of time to plead his case. He is center stage for pretty much the duration, as his life unfolds in past and present, reality and fantasy. His character is quintessential Hornby, a writer with a unique ability, as Lindsay-Abaire puts it, “to take deeply flawed and potentially unlikable characters and make them very likeable.”

But to make the love story work, Laura needs to be, if not an equal, at the very least much more than just the latest woman to walk out on him. “We want to keep this Rob’s story, but to move the women’s perspective in,” says Green. “It was essential to imbue Laura with her own story and her own distinct character. She is very sharp-tongued and funny in her own right. We want the audience to care about them both.” That challenge falls to actress Jenn Colella, who was the love interest in “Urban Cowboy” on Broadway. And she has to make it happen with far less face time than her guy. “When Jenn is on the stage, you have to be drawn to her immediately,” said Lindsay-Abaire. “And she’s great at making a few sentences go a long way.”

Boston audiences are getting the first chance to be the judge of that. But while they are responding with standing ovations, The Boston Globe gave the play a lukewarm review last Friday, offering no higher praise than "genial" and "mildly witty and amusing." The city has not hosted a musical’s pre-Broadway run since “Seussical” back in 2000. But the producers, who won best-musical Tony Awards for “Rent” and “Avenue Q,” wanted to reward Boston for its support of previous traveling productions. The creative team was delighted; it puts them to the test in a sophisticated city with a huge student population, one likely to have residual affection for the movie version. Director Walter Bobbie, a three-time Tony nominee and winner for “Chicago,” was particularly delighted to return to Boston’s century-old Colonial Theatre. Bobbie said he took one glance at all the elegance—marble walls, golden wraparound balconies, red velvet—and enthused to the cast “We’re going to trash this place. It’s rock and roll!"

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