On my recent New York jaunt, I was lucky enough to catch the York Theatre Company’s revival of the 1989 Off-Broadway hit, “Closer Than Ever.” The show is a musical review of songs by lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr. and composer David Shire. Like “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” (songs by Brel) or “A Grand Night for Singing” (songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein), the show has no dialogue or plot. Rather, each song becomes its own “mini-drama” performed by a talented cast of men and women, working singly or in various combinations.
I had seen the show in the early 1990s – I think in D.C. – but I had forgotten the depth and complexity of these songs. Having heard (and seen) them performed again recently, I would almost call them “art songs” written in the Broadway idiom. Lyricist Maltby, who also directed the current New York revival, wrote in the program that “’Closer Than Ever’ began as a file of observations about people David and I knew, stories friends and acquaintances told us about themselves, perceptions we had about our own lives, which over time developed into songs. It was only when we put the songs together in a show that we realized there was a unity to these stories, a series of portraits of adults idiosyncratically coping with the complexities and anomalies of grown-up life.”
Well said. And precisely because of their vivid evocation of real adult life and relationships, with all their complexity and beauty, the songs take on a spiritual depth which can provoke identification, reflection, and self-examination. Furthermore, while the collection certainly has its wry and ironic moments, there is a refreshing hopefulness and generosity of spirit which predominate overall. The subjects of these songs are people with whom we can at least empathize; and in many cases, they are true “heroes of the ordinary” whom we can genuinely admire. All of that makes for a show which is inspiring and uplifting.
To illustrate, consider a song called “One of the Good Guys.” I can’t share the musical setting with you here, of course. Nor can I convey the cumulative power which results from the marriage between music and lyrics. Nevertheless, Maltby’s words alone capture much of the song’s beauty. It begins:
Right here you see one of the good guys –
One of the nice ones, with sensible drives.
What else could I be? I’m one of the good guys
Who play with their children, and dote on and pamper their wives.
But then the mood (and the music) shift as the same “good guy” reminisces, building steadily in passion and volume:
But there was a night in Hawaii on a business trip
That my mind has suffused with a mystic glow…
She was someone’s friend and she had this smile…
We were on a beach and we walked a while…
And I watched the wind billow in her hair;
And I knew we knew there was more to share.
I could feel the ground start to go like volcanoes starting to blow!
And the waves were loud, we were all alone,
We had left the crowd, not a soul would ever have known…
Finally – and herein lies the genius, as well as the moving authenticity – we get the surprise: namely, the unexpected exercise of freedom, the unanticipated choice for virtue:
But I stopped and said no!
‘Cause that isn’t me! I’m one of the good guys,
One of the smart ones, who’s virtue survives.
Firm as a tree, one of the good guys:
Who trades a flash of heat to build a warmer fire,
Denies himself a treat to shoot for something higher!
And that’s the part that’s sweet, that only the good guys know…
We all know “good guys” – I daresay this parish is full of them. Usually, they are unsung heroes, quiet soul warriors whose inner victories go unnoticed and uncelebrated. How refreshing, in a popular entertainment, to literally hear their praises sung for a change!
And this song is not the exception. The diverse struggles and small triumphs of ordinary women and men are given voice again and again in the songs of this review. Watch for it locally, or listen to the recording. I’m pretty sure it will do your heart good…
Truth is, my friend, just between good guys:
It’s not which road you take, which life you choose to live in;
It’s not the choice you make, the longing is a given…
And that’s what brings the ache that only the good guys know…
©2012 Fr. Daniel M. Ruff, S.J.