Stephen Frears' cult millennial classic about vinyl and unrequited love gets the musical treatment
It was a successful Nick Hornby novel, so much so that it became a critically-acclaimed Stephen Frears film (starring John Cusack). But when it was turned into a Broadway musical, High Fidelity closed just ten days after its opening night in December 2006.
Watching Neil Gooding’s generous, talent-packed production at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre, it’s immediately clear that the musical’s abrupt closure is fair but ruthless; the show is lacking the requisite, uncomfortable edge of the novel and the emerging nerd-cool chic of the film to help elevate its relatively unimaginative rom-com beats, but it’s certainly not the worst Broadway flop ever written.
The story is all Rob (Toby Francis). He owns a failing, dusty record store in Brooklyn – he calls it “the last real record store on earth” – and works with a couple of obsessive sidekicks (Dash Kruck and Joe Kosky) who would rather be at the store, surrounded by vinyl, than living their lives.
Rob has just broken up with his girlfriend Laura (Tegan Wouters) and is drowning in self-pity. He’s always left, he moans. Women are constantly breaking his heart. In fact his ex-girlfriends (Jenni Little, Erin Clare, Madison Hegarty, Denise Devlin and Bronte Florian) appear to him as ghosts of relationships past, mocking him and providing supporting vocals for his top-billed angst.
Over the course of the show the truth comes out about Rob: his transgressions against Laura were worse than he would at first admit (and since he’s our fourth-wall breaking narrator, this nicely suggests we re-think our sympathy for him). Could he be wrong about his relationships with women more broadly, too? Is he really the victim here?
Rob isn’t necessarily a misogynist and he’s not a predator; his tendency to cast women as incomprehensible pseudo-villains is more about his own avoidance and martyrdom than it is abuse or harassment, and he grows to consider that the women in his life also have a valuable perspective to offer. But Rob still reaches for patriarchal power structures to absolve himself of being unable to commit – he blames women for his own actions, and has trouble reconciling their sexuality and power with his own selfish need to be centre of their attention.
What grates more than Rob’s behaviour is how the musical’s book, by David Lindsay-Abaire (The Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright of Rabbit Hole and Good People), casually – and probably unconsciously – reinforces those patriarchal structures. The female characters in this show are deliberately secondary to the men; not even Laura is granted the agency or insight as Rob and his friends, and she’s arguably the second lead. Her scenes are driven largely by reaction; she responds to ridiculous men, rather than having the agency to move her own scenes forward. This passivity rankles.
Still it’s clear that Gooding and the cast are working to mitigate that passivity with woman-led staging, and allowing an across-the-board confidence usually denied women, especially in times of stress or sorrow, to propel performances. Anna (Little again), a character who has a crush on Kruck’s shy record store employee, doesn’t wilt when he fumblingly, reluctantly hurts her; she straightens her spine, meets his eyes, and responds. It doesn’t fix the book, but moments like this go a long way.
Indeed, Wouters is an essential ingredient for this show’s success. Just as Francis’ superlative tenor voice and unsquashable charm help us root for Rob, Wouters brings cool, confidence and self-possession with great reserves of warmth to the part. And she’s never sounded better; in ‘Number Five with a Bullet’ she sings the house down with fuck-you glory.
There isn’t a weak link in the cast, and the ensemble performs with easy comedy, sharp timing (Cameron Mitchell’s gag-packed choreography depends on it) and vocal precision. Erin Clare is throaty-chic as singer-songwriter Marie LaSalle, to whom Rob is instantly drawn. Kruck and Kosky provide oddball support and each surprise with gratifyingly song-driven moments of growth. Nick Christo’s Ian – master of cultural appropriation, bad ponytails, and straight up weird seduction techniques – brings in plenty of laughs as he tries to win Laura’s heart, and Zoe Gertz is all power as Liz, a friend of Rob’s who finds herself stuck in the middle of his breakup, dropping tough love in an Aretha-style solo.
Andrew Worboys’ band is tight and responsive, bringing life into a rock-led score that’s more generic than it is incendiary. It also looks great – Lauren Peters’ set and costumes effortlessly conjure the world of basement vinyl fans, and Alex Berlage’s lighting transforms the shop into a rock concert in all the right moments.
High Fidelity might not fully satiate your rock musical hunger, and its same-old story about an immature man (perhaps with an endearing dash of the Large Adult Son). But it’s entertaining, energetic, and fundamentally about men seeing the error of their ways – so there’s still enjoyment to be had.