Remembering The Life
A musical that seems to have those who remember it divided, with some people having enjoyed it and others just absolutely disgusted by it, was the 1997 Broadway production of The Life. With music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Ira Gasman, and a book by Coleman, Gasman, and David Newman, The Life took a look at the underworld of New York City’s Times Square circa the 1980s. The seedy and unsavory world may have been hard for some people to get excited about, considering the show was populated with pimps and hookers, hustlers and drug dealers. Others easily connected to the piece, understanding that these characters were the product of a harsh world, runaways and forgotten people and that this was their way of making ends meet and to escape living on the streets.
What is interesting about The Life is that it first had a life Off-Broadway in 1990 before being revamped and refocused seven years later for its 1997 Broadway berth. Playing the Westbeth Theatre in the summer of 1990, the musical was directed and choreographed by Joe Layton. This incarnation came before David Newman was brought on board. The show had moments that worked, but critics felt it was lacking cohesion. Of course, this Off-Broadway run did include Lillias White and Chuck Cooper who would both go on to appear in the Broadway production years later, both winning Tony Awards for their efforts. In the interim between Off-Broadway and Broadway, Newman entered the circle by Coleman and Gasman’s request to help better structure the book and the explore places for character development. As The Life moved toward Broadway, celebrated director Michael Blakemore also joined the creative team, as did choreographer Joey McKneely, both furthering the quest to restructure and refine the show.
The plot for The Life concerned a handful of characters each trying to simply survive in the harsh world of the streets in and around Times Square. The street hustler Jojo serves as our tour guide, oozing charm and scamming people left and right along the way. Fleetwood is a Vietnam veteran with drug habit who is supported by his woman Queen who is working the streets to support them both. Queen is good friends with the very experienced hooker Sonja, one of a host of professional women trapped in a system run by pimps, including the menacing Memphis. Arriving new to the scene is the naïve Mary, fresh off the bus from Minnesota, whom Fleetwood and Jojo try to sucker into their world of debauchery. The Life, in many ways, was a sad and cautionary tale, demonstrating a world where once you enter, it is almost impossible to leave. Even with many moments of humor, the show spoke to a darkness and palpable desperation.
The score for the life had some standouts. Jojo and the denizens of Times Square huckster us almost immediately with the seductive “Use What You Got.” Sonja practically stops the show with the tragically hilarious “The Oldest Profession” where the kindly hooker begins to do the math to add up the number of Johns she has slept with over the years. The chorus line of prostitutes sing “My Body”, challenging anyone to judge them for they choose to do with their own body. The pimp Memphis’ “My Way Or The Highway” is a spooky character song, revealing just how much he expects everyone to follow his rules. The peppy “Mr. Greed” (also led by Jojo) is a celebration of humanity’s attraction to making a quick buck.
Among those joining White and Cooper in the Broadway production were Pamela Isaacs, Bellamy Young, Sam Harris, Felicia Finley, Sharon Wilkins, Gordon Joseph Weiss, Lynn Sterling, Kevin Ramsey, and as a swing, Tracy Nicole Chapman. The Life opened at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre on April 26, 1997. Critics generally gave it mixed reviews, with a few offering scathing assessments of the show. It did receive 12 Tony nominations including Best Musical, but just won the two aforementioned statues for Cooper and White. It did, however, win the Drama Desk Award that season for Outstanding New Musical. That, however, did little to contribute to its longevity and The Life folded after 466 performances.