The estimable Paul Scott Goodman, who gave us the semi-autobiographical musical Rooms: A Rock Romance two years ago, is in town with his much-more-autobiographical Son of a Stand Up Comedian. Careful, Paul! Real life is incomparably messier than the tight narrative arc you crafted for Rooms,
and – at least for me – frequently boring. ( It would go Got into the Metro Station/I was plenty nervous/Then I saw with indignation/”This train is out of service.”)
Nonetheless: here is the Glasgow-born Goodman, on a nearly-bare stage (an excellent percussionist, Greg Holloway, is hidden in a forest of drums and percussive instruments; and there is a table which holds a carafe of iced tea), guitar strapped around his neck and looking for all the world like a folk-singing hero. He gives us a smile, rueful and mischievous both, bangs out a few chords on his ax, and begins a life in song.
He starts with the New York day that he met the woman who would eventually be his wife. She had just appeared in an Arthur Miller showcase called “A View From The Bridge With All My Sons The Price of The Crucible” and he was writing a musical based on Death of a Salesman called Willie!, or, alternately, Willie Exclamation Point. (Sample lyric: “Biff if/ You stole the pen/ Please don’t do it again.”) He falls in love with her immediately (thus enabling the show to clock in at seventy-five minutes) and the production – narrative alternating with song – follows them from first awkward conversation through the birth of their first child, whom they nickname “Tiny Dancer” because of her in utero reaction to the music of Sir Elton John. He continues to follow the dream of staging his improbable musical through failed careers as a caterer and as a jingle writer. (Sample jingle, for a kosher cat food: “Kitty Lox, Kitty Lox/ Keep your feline orthodox.”) He seeks consolation from his father, himself an amateur comedian (Rooms aficionados will be reminded of Monica Miller’s progenitor); dad advises him to return to Glasgow and help him in the shop. He looks to his mother-in-law for support. “You’re going to be a good father,” she assures him. “Just become a computer operator.” He has crazy adventures. He perseveres.
Goodman relates all of this fairly predictable stuff in periodically clever but generally familiar-sounding lyrics (“See that building/I shall bound it/Spread my wings/And fly around it” is fairly typical) set to simple, pleasing, but unmemorable music. He is an excellent musician – as befits someone who has performed with John Mellencamp and Joan Armatrading – but as for his vocals, well, he’s no Natascia Diaz. He hits about sixty percent of his notes – which, for a songwriter, is an acceptable ratio, as followers of the great John Prine know. Even with his burr, Goodman is easier to listen to and easier to understand than Bob Dylan is.
What makes Son of a Stand Up Comedian more than an evening of well-worn jokes and familiar (if somewhat absurd) stories is an incident which takes place about two-thirds of the way through the show. Goodman is still somewhat stoned from a drinkfest he shared with a Drama Guild poobah when he runs into his wife’s grandparents, aunt and uncles on the N train to visit his mother-in-law. This is a little more than coincidence, since they are all dead, killed at Treblinka. Nonetheless, they toast him, and congratulate him on his imminent fatherhood. He staggers out of the train, only to find himself dragged into a synagogue as the tenth Jewish adult necessary to permit prayer to begin. As he prays, his daughter is about to be born.
Goodman relates these astonishing events in the same gentle, rueful, homey style that he tells his other stories, both mundane and absurd. But it is inescapable: life has ceased to be a stand up comedy. All that is left of those murdered men and women is their DNA, which flows through Goodman’s wife into the Tiny Dancer, who will live the life denied to them. This is as real and earnest as it gets, and Goodman has the grace to allow it to touch him, and through him, to touch us.
And then it’s back to the nonsense, concluding with a cheerful ditty called The Ham Song, which summarizes Goodman’s most prominent personality characteristics. But the change has been noted: Goodman is not just the son of a stand up comedian any more, but is a father, and an agent of posterity.
Since Goodman skates so close to true autobiography, it is probably worthwhile to point out the differences. Neither Goodman nor anyone else has produced a musical version of Death of a Salesman, but Goodman did write a musical version of an equally unlikely text – Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. It was not well received initially, but the cast album was successfully released, and it sparked a new appreciation for Goodman’s work. I do not know if he ever worked as a caterer or jingle writer but I’ll bet he doesn’t now. Rooms has played in New York and is now opening in Philadelphia and Tampa. Goodman has won the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame Best New Songwriter Award, a Jonathan Larsen Foundation Award, and a Backstage Bistro Award. And the Tiny Dancer? She graduates from Sarah Lawrence this year.
Son of a Stand Up Comedian
Book by Paul Scott Goodman and Miriam Gordon
Music and Lyrics by Paul Scott Goodman
Directed by Michael Baron
Produced by MetroStage
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Son of a Stand Up Comedian plays through May 9, 2010.
SON OF A STAND UP COMEDIAN