Let's Get It On? No, Let's Leave the Show

'High Fidelity' disgraces the novel and movie that share its name

“Carrie”—the 1988 Broadway musical adaptation of Stephen King’s horror novel and the 1972 Brian de Palma film of the same title—is widely considered one of the greatest flops in theater history. Instead of Sissy Spacek’s face covered in pig’s blood, the theater audience was treated to Betty Buckley (“Cats”) in red paint, which New York Times reviewer Frank Rich ’71 compared to “strawberry ice-cream topping.” Rich, who is also a Crimson editor, warned theatergoers against attending this “typical musical-theater botch,” and they listened—the play closed after only five performances and 16 previews.

Let me now be so presumptuous to assume the position of this venerable critic and condemn the newest attempt at a book-to-film-to-stage adaptation—“High Fidelity” is the most egregious insult to popular culture ever to grace a modern theatre and anyone who sees it betrays his entire generation.

Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity” started as an extremely popular British book about a thirtysomething record storeowner, Rob Gordon, who understands his love of music more than his love life before being adapted into a perhaps better loved film, set in Chicago. The movie improved upon Hornby’s dry wit, obsession with pop music, and musings on romance with the talent of John Cusack, Jack Black, and Tim Robbins, and a soundtrack ranging from indie pop to Motown soul.

Thus, the play’s creators set out with an unenviable task: create a musical about the best novel about music, find an actor to match the classic lovable jerk who is Cusack’s trademark, and craft scenes that evoke such pathos as Black’s finale performance of “Let’s Get it On.” The play’s book, written by David Lindsay-Abaire, abridges and bastardizes Hornby’s work; the cast, directed by Walter Bobbie, lacks any semblance of vocal or acting talent; and the original score by Tom Kitt channels Meatloaf more than Marvin Gaye. Calling “High Fidelity” a disaster would be giving too generous an appellation to the two-and-a-half-hour train wreck that opened in Boston on Oct. 5.

Will Chase once played Mark in “Rent,” which he and the creative talent make a poor effort to emulate here: Rob is whiny and angsty and lives in Brooklyn; he might as well have AIDS. Chase’s voice and stage presence is entirely generic, but the writers render him impotent by lobbing off Rob’s most important lines. Never once does Rob utter the underlying philosophy of Hornby’s work: “Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”

Most appalling of all is that the second half of the book and movie’s plot—Rob’s revisiting of his top five, all-time, desert island breakups—is condensed into one weak scene and approximately 30 seconds of musical interlude, during a song sung by the apparition of Bruce Springsteen. Hornby meditates on the nature of male self-centeredness and inability to grow up; Kitt and lyricist Amanda Green’s score simply lulls the audience into a bored stupor. (Quite literally, my date for the evening fell asleep before intermission.)

I might have overlooked these glaring circumcisions from Hornby’s work if there had been a single memorable tune in the show. Instead, each song in the score regurgitates the same chord progression and is littered with irredeemably bad lyrics. Rob and his girlfriend, Laura, portrayed by the bland Jenn Colella, sleep with new people shortly after breaking up and concurrently sing about it—he, “I slept with someone who slept with Lyle Lovett” and she, “I slept with someone who handled Kurt Cobain’s intervention.” Besides lacking rhythm or aesthetic sensibility, the lyrics have no comic timing. Before the song even reaches its bridge, the jokes have been killed deader than the ballad’s titular grunge rock star.

“I Slept With Someone” is by no means the worst offender in the score. The lyricist rhymes “them” with “them” within the first 20 seconds of the first song. During Laura’s supposedly poignant breakup ballad, “The Things We Could Have Been,” she compares her and Rob’s problems to “an elephant that won’t leave the room.” These songs will fall flat for both fans of Rob’s style of music and those who think—incorrectly—that the band Belle and Sebastian is just two fortuitously named singers.

“High Fidelity” might have worked as a jukebox musical, like “Smokey Joe’s Café” or “Footloose,” in which popular tunes from the movie were sung by actors on stage. It might even have worked with a heavy dash of irony, in the vein of “Urinetown” or “Avenue Q,” self-conscious about the ridiculousness of musical theater. But instead, the minds behind “High Fidelity” attempt to make Hornby’s decidedly shiftless and self-centered protagonist sing enthused anthems about slackerdom and genuine ballads about his (poor) treatment of women.

“High Fidelity” will open on Broadway next month if it receives enough acclaim from the Boston audience. One can only hope that Generation Yers who lost their indie music (or actual) virginity because of the movie, as well as anyone with an ear for musical theater, will protest this horrible wrong.

—Reviewer Kristina M. Moore can be reached at moore2@fas.harvard.edu.