Press and Media

July 5, 2012


Last Updated: 11:33 AM, July 6, 2012
Posted: 10:18 PM, July 5, 2012

It's polished, witty, tuneful and, if you've hit middle age, unsettling.

In the 23 years since it debuted at off-Broadway's Cherry Lane Theatre, "Closer Than Ever," Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire's revue about adulthood and its baggage, has become a pocket-size classic of the American musical theater.

At least 30 productions are performed around the country every year, the original 1990 cast recording is always being discovered by new generations of musical theater buffs and the songbook, which is about an inch thick, remains a regular seller for the Hal Leonard Music Publishing Co.

The show has been revived, to rave reviews, at the York Theater with a fine cast of singers - Jenn Colella, Christiane Noll, George Dvorsky and Sal Viviano (whose coif matches his name). It runs until July 14, but there's talk of moving it to another off-Broadway theater later this year.

I'm happy to report that "Closer Than Ever" doesn't show its age at all. I saw the original production when I was fresh out of college and writing about theater for a small magazine. I loved Shire's bright (and deceptively simple) melodies and Maltby's sophisticated lyrics.

What I missed was the sadness beneath the polish.

But what 21-year-old is going to be unsettled by a batch of songs about hitting middle age and realizing you're not going to live forever?

Now that I'm � well, you can do the math � "Closer Than Ever" is, for me, deeper than ever.

Maltby, who directed this revival, gets a big kick out of that.

"You're not alone," he says. "The album was hugely popular with college kids in the early '90s. Everybody memorized it. And now all those kids, who are now adults, are coming to the show and telling us, 'Oh, that's what those songs are about.'

"You can tell a 20-year-old what they're going to feel when they've lived another 20 years, but they haven't a clue. How can anybody understand the delicious contradictions of being a grown-up until you are one?"

The songs in "Closer Than Ever," many of which seem like one-act plays, deal with regret, anxiety and disappointment, both in love and career � and the persistent knowledge that, when you hit your 40s, half the sand of your life is at the bottom of the hourglass.

"Life Story," the most celebrated song from the show, is performed by a "feisty freelance writer" and divorced single parent who, reflecting on her life, wonders if she should have stayed with her husband.

Like most of the songs, it was drawn from real life.

"An old girlfriend of David's from Yale came up to see me about something one day," Maltby recalls. "And as she was going out the door, I said, 'So how have things been with you?' And she basically delivered the entire song, including the line, 'I'm not complaining.' As soon as she left, I wrote it up. I used someone else's sex life, a writer friend of mine, but when this woman saw the show, she said, 'That was my sex life, too!'"

"Closer Than Ever" got off to a rocky start back in 1989. There was a new critic at the The Times, a woman who dismissed it as "a gallery of contemporary people . . . only too willing to share their dreams and woes, however banal."

A few days later, Maltby was at a dinner party with another Times theater critic, the late Mel Gussow.

"He told me, 'You know, I would have written a rave.' Well, thanks a lot!"

What turned things around was a review of the show's cast album by the paper's cabaret critic, Stephen Holden. He called it "one of the half-dozen finest American theater scores of the last decade."

The critic who panned the show, incidentally, was gone from the Times within six months.

One reason for this revival, Maltby says with a laugh, "is that I wanted to expunge her review from 20 years ago, and give everybody a chance to say something nice."