Warren Leight first published his Tony Award–winning play Side Man in 1998 in the United States. Inspired by his own autobiographical experiences in the music industry—his father was a jazz musician—the play also was inspired by the decline of the jazz industry itself. This memory play differs from similar works because the narrator, Clifford, "remembers" back to times before he was even born. Through these flashbacks, Clifford, who also talks directly to the audience members, drawing them into the action, chronicles the life and death of his parents' relationship, a dysfunctional pairing that has had disastrous effects on Clifford's own views of life. The narrative also makes uses of jarring time-and-place shifting effects, as Clifford's story takes the audience back and forth from 1953 to 1985 and to various points in between. These chaotic transitions help to highlight the chaos of Clifford's life and his parents' relationship, as well as their failed dreams and irresponsible behaviors. At the same time, this combined effect helps to underscore the decline and fall of jazz and big band music, beginning in the 1950s as it was replaced by rock and roll and other forms of popular music. Side Man was the work that made Leight famous on Broadway, but in 2003, Leight returned to similar material when he published Glimmer, Glimmer, and Shine, another play about the pitfalls of the jazz life. Side Man is available in a 1998 paperback edition from Grove Press.
Leight was born on January 15, 1957, in New York City. When he was sixteen, he began attending Stanford University, where he studied journalism. In interviews, Leight has noted that Side Man touches on issues that were relevant to his own childhood. So much so, in fact, that the author notes that it was a difficult play for him to write. However, Leight is quick to note that many of the specific situations in the play were invented for dramatic purposes and that the play is not totally autobiographical.
In his early twenties, Leight ran into a woman whom he had a crush on in high school and decided on a whim to follow her to China, where she was going to teach English. At this point, in the early 1980s, Leight was exposed to much of the paranoia in the late Cold War era, and everything about his life was monitored by the government, who feared the influence of foreigners. Leight, who smuggled a typewriter in so that he could write while he was in China, wrote a journal and many letters about everything he was experiencing, including his cultural confusion and the various fears of the common Chinese people. When he returned to New York, Leight showed his journal to an agent, but the agent told him that China was not a good topic for plays, so Leight boxed up his journals.
In the early 1980s, Leight became the creative director for a highly regarded group of female comics who were known as the High Heeled Women, which included actress Arleen Sorkin. Over the next two decades, he also wrote for various television dramas and films, including writing and directing the 1993 film, The Night We Never Met, which starred Matthew Broderick and Annabella Sciorra. But, it was 1998's Side Man that established Leight as a Broadway playwright. The play won the Antoinette Perry "Tony" Award in 1999 and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Leight's other plays include Stray Cats (1997) and Glimmer, Glimmer, and Shine (2003).
Side Man starts out in 1985, with the main character, Clifford, addressing the audience directly, a technique that he uses throughout the play. He notes that he has not seen his parents, and they have not seen each other, in a long time. The stage lights go down, and when they come up, Clifford is at his mother's apartment for an awkward reunion. This is the first of many times that the production uses the stage lights to shift the action to a different time or place. The scene shifts again, and Clifford is at the Melody Lounge, where his father, Gene, is playing trumpet onstage with his old friends and fellow musicians, Ziggy, Al, and Jonesy. Clifford runs into Patsy, another one of the old gang. As they are catching up, the lights come up on another part of the stage, revealing Clifford's mother in her apartment set, where she calls across the stage, asking Clifford a question. Clifford answers it, the lights go out at Terry's apartment, and the action resumes in the Melody Lounge. Leight uses these types of interruptions, which do not always observe the normal laws of space and time, throughout the play. In some cases, as with the next interruption, where Terry talks about the musicians' treating the unemployment office as a social event, Leight uses the interruptions to shift the narrative to another time.
The action shifts to 1977, when Clifford is twenty, and he receives his first unemployment check, an event that makes Gene proud. At a diner afterwards, the four musicians and Clifford eat and talk about the past. Jonesy, a former heroin addict, talks about the effects of addiction. Clifford talks about his scholarship to an out-of-state art school and notes to the audience that he cannot afford to take it. He has to remain in New York and help pay bills since Gene is content to work only long enough each year until he gets on unemployment. Instead, Clifford is going to work for an advertising firm in New York. Patsy comes by and offers to buy Clifford a drink for getting his first unemployment check. During the conversation, Gene spaces out, and Clifford notes to the audience that his dad is thinking back to 1953, before Clifford's birth.
The action shifts back to 1953, and as the stage notes indicate, Clifford remains onstage for the rest of the act, narrating the action as it happens, even though he is not born yet. When Gene meets Terry for the first time, it starts off badly, with his being a show-off on his trumpet while she is having trouble hitting the right notes on her flute, but it ends with Terry's agreeing to go listen to Gene play in a show. She is impressed by his playing and follows him and the other musicians to Charlie's Melody Lounge, the same place that Clifford walks into in 1985. Terry tells her story, saying that her husband left her with no money and that she cannot go back to her ultra-religious family or they will make her become a nun. They also discuss Patsy's many marriages, all of which have been with musicians—and the current affair that she is having with Al. That night, Terry stays with Gene. The next morning, they talk about moving in. The time shifts again to a little while later, when the guys are moving furniture into Terry's and Gene's new apartment.
The scene shifts again, to the Melody Lounge, where Terry and Patsy talk about Patsy's many marriages and about the fact that her ex-husband is getting out of the music business because work is drying up. She assures Terry that she has never dated or married Gene and that Gene is the only one she knows who will never become a junkie, because he loves his music too much. The scene shifts to Terry's and Gene's apartment, where Terry is worried about Gene not having enough work in the future. Gene promises her that the first Saturday night he cannot line up a gig, he will quit the business.
As a stage note indicates, throughout the rest of the play, as Patsy and the others go through their relationships and breakups, Gene's and Terry's apartment slowly begins to fill up with the furniture that is discarded in these breakups. As the gang is over one night in the 1950s, they watch Elvis on television, on the Ed Sullivan show, and Jonesy predicts that Elvis and his new sound will be the end of trumpet players. Jonesy gets arrested that night and loses his eligibility to play in New York, so he moves to Las Vegas for a year. When Terry proposes that Gene should do the same thing, he refuses, thinking New York is his best bet. Gene and Ziggy write scripts for a popular comedy show, but they never send them in.
Time shifts forward to 1977, where Patsy buys Clifford his congratulatory drink for getting his first unemployment check. Although Clifford tries to justify his decision to turn down the grad school scholarship, Patsy notes that he is always putting his life on hold so that he can take care of his parents. She tells Clifford that he should just leave town. The time shifts back to when Terry first realizes that she is pregnant. Gene tries to talk her into getting an abortion, but she refuses, so he marries her instead. At the wedding reception, Jonesy goes out searching for a heroin fix and gets arrested. As they are waiting in the courtroom to bail him out, Terry hears that Gene's trumpet playing on a popular record was attributed to somebody else. She tells him to write the reviewer and make a correction, but Gene refuses. Jonesy is sent to prison for eight years. Terry tries again to get Gene to quit the music business, but he refuses. When he fails to line up a gig on a Saturday night, she reminds him of his promise to leave the business, but he refuses again. She has a fit, threatening to kill him and their baby.
Three months later, Clifford is born, on the night that Gene is going to take Terry to see Frank Sinatra. As Clifford notes, his mother never has forgiven him for that. The time shifts to ten years later, where Clifford, although still a boy, is clearly the one in charge of the household, doing everything from making sure his father gets up in time for work to preventing his mother from committing suicide. As all of this is happening at Terry's and Gene's apartment, the action keeps flipping back and forth to the club date where Gene is playing with Al, Jonesy, and Ziggy at a bad gig, the only one they can get. The guys are overjoyed, however, when Al pulls out a tape recording of Clifford Brown's last performance before he died.
The scene shifts again, and Gene arrives back at the apartment, where he and Clifford listen to Al's tape. The noise wakes up Terry, who is annoyed. She gets furious when she finds out that Gene bought her a fifth of sherry, a type of alcohol that she does not drink anymore, and tries in vain to use the sherry to burn down the apartment. Clifford notes that he has to call an ambulance that night to take his mother away to an institution and that even after she returned, this type of episode repeats itself all through Clifford's high school and college years. Although Clifford tries to get Gene to make a decision about what to do about Terry, Gene keeps asking Clifford to make the decision. Ultimately, Clifford does, telling Gene that his relationship with Terry is over and to get out of the apartment.
The action returns to 1985, and Clifford and Patsy listen to Gene playing trumpet, still impressed at his skill after all these years. The reunion between Clifford and Gene afterwards is awkward, and after his father has gone back on stage, Clifford reflects on the death of jazz, noting that, in the future, nobody will even remember jazz in its heyday; these guys—Gene and all of the others—are only playing for themselves and that they will leave no legacy.
Al is one of Gene's friends and fellow musicians, who is also married to Patsy for a short time. Al is a real ladies man, even trying to pick up Terry when he first meets her even though she is with Gene. At this point, in 1953, Al is already having an affair with Patsy while she is married. After their marriage breaks up and Patsy is dating Ziggy, Al gets jealous. On one of their gigs, Al plays a tape of Clifford Brown, the ill-fated trumpet player, for Gene and Ziggy, and they are all moved by the performance. By the end of the play, in 1985, Al has had a mini-stroke and has switched to playing drums, a less strenuous form of music playing.
Clifford is the play's protagonist and narrator, and he is also the son of Gene and Terry. The play begins in 1985, with Clifford about to see both of his parents, separately, for the first time in several years. He indicates that the meetings will not be fun, and, as he starts to explain why, he remembers back to the events that he's talking about—even events that take place before his birth. Clifford takes the audience back as far as 1953, when Gene and Terry first meet. As he chronicles the development of their relationship, he flashes back and forth in time and place. This shifting of time and place, which is accomplished on the stage through lighting techniques and other stage devices, helps to underscore the chaotic nature of Clifford's life. This episodic narration also helps to mimic the jazz music that he is talking about. In fact, as Clifford traces the decline and fall of his parents' relationship, he also discusses, by extension, the decline and fall of the jazz industry, as rock and roll and other forms of popular music replaced the need for orchestral musicians.
As his narration indicates, Clifford lives a hard life, in which, since his parents are selfish and out of touch with reality, he must shoulder much of the burden. From an early age, Clifford becomes the man of the house, forced to take care of his parents' needs, which includes everything from loaning them money and smoothing over marital fights to preventing his mother from committing suicide. This continues throughout Clifford's high school and college years, during which time Terry's mental state deteriorates to the point where she is institutionalized. When Gene fails to take action and asks Clifford to make a decision about Terry's welfare, Clifford does, telling his father to leave his mother's apartment and never come back. This life of heavy responsibility forces Clifford to turn down many opportunities, including a scholarship to a prestigious graduate art school. The strain of this burden also leads him to seek therapy, as he briefly mentions to Patsy, the only friend who can see that Clifford needs to get out of town and save himself. At the end of the play, Clifford decides to do just that, planning on going to the western United States, where he hopes to pursue his art career. But, as the play indicates, regardless of what he does, he will always deal with the consequences of his dysfunctional upbringing, which has caused him to consider whether he should even have his own children.
Gene is a trumpet player, as well as Clifford's father and Terry's husband. In the 1950s, Gene is a carefree musician, content to work only as much as he needs to so that he can collect his unemployment checks for the rest of the year. His first and only passion is his trumpet playing, and he is very good at it. He does not aspire to being anything more than a side man, a player that backs up bands. In 1953, he meets Terry, who is drawn to his talent. She encourages him to get an apartment with her, which he agrees to, but he still focuses mainly on his music, and not on her. Gene is known as the turtle to all of his fellow musicians, because his natural pace of life is very slow. Gene lives almost in another reality, unaware of his surroundings most of the time. The exception is when he is blowing his trumpet, at which point all of his senses are alive. Terry refuses to see that Gene only feels responsibility to his music, thinking that Gene can change. She encourages him to get out of the music business, but even when rock and roll becomes popular, he thinks there will always be a need for sidemen like him, so he refuses. He also refuses to leave New York. When Terry gets pregnant, he encourages her to get an abortion. When she refuses, he marries her.
The birth of Clifford is not that big of a deal for Gene, who continues to focus on his music. As a result, Gene leaves the responsibility of running the house largely to Clifford. Even as a boy, Gene relies on Clifford to wake him up for work, make him food, and even give him money. While Terry retreats into alcoholism, Gene continues to play his trumpet and hold onto the dream that he will be able to play for the rest of his life. He fails to see the end of the big band era. Whenever he is faced with an important life decision or somebody, such as Clifford, tries to get him to be an adult, Gene spaces out. Because of this, Gene defers to Clifford when they try to figure out how to handle Terry's increasingly violent and disturbing tantrums. As a result, it is Clifford who tells Gene to get out of the apartment and leave Terry. At the end of the play, when Gene meets Clifford again in 1985, their reunion is awkward, and Gene soon retreats into the comfort of his music.
Jonesy is one of Gene's friends and fellow musicians. During their heyday, Jonesy is a heroin addict. Despite this fact, however, he is one of the few people who can understand Terry's ramblings, and in fact treats her very gently. Jonesy gets arrested and loses his eligibility to play in New York, so he moves to Las Vegas for a year to play there. After he moves back to New York, he is arrested for heroin possession and is sent to prison for eight years. He also does a short stint in the military, where his addiction gets so bad that he eventually burns up all of his veins and starts shooting heroin into his eye. His resulting eye injury earns him a disability discharge and lifetime partial pay from the military. Like the other musicians, however, he still collects his umemployment checks, too. Unlike Gene, who plays only the trumpet throughout the play, Jonesy also plays the trombone, and then the piano.
Patsy is a career waitress who marries and divorces several musicians, including Al. When Terry first meets Patsy in 1953, Patsy has already been married a few times and is currently having an affair with Al. As she notes to Terry when they are working one night—in a waitressing job that Patsy helps Terry get—the divorces get easier after a while. Patsy is the only character in the play who encourages Clifford to get out of town and let his parents take care of themselves for once.
Terry is Clifford's mother and Gene's wife. Terry was married once before, and her husband left her for Terry's best friend. Rather than go back home, where her mother would make her join a convent, Terry comes to New York in 1953 and meets Gene. It is soon clear from her ramblings that she is not very street smart. Her ignorance and refusal to see things as they really are help her fall in love with Gene and not realize that he is never going to help her achieve her dreams of a stable life. Despite this fact, she pushes Gene into getting an apartment with her. When she gets pregnant with Clifford, Gene suggests an abortion, but she is against this idea, so the two get married instead. Since Clifford is born on the one night that Terry is supposed to see her idol, Frank Sinatra, in concert, she bears a lifelong grudge against her son. In fact, she is so angry that she lets Gene name their son Clifford, after Clifford Brown, the ill-fated jazz musician who died in a car accident in his twenties.
Clifford is exposed to this type of irresponsible behavior and emotional abuse from a young age, and Terry makes him do things such as take care of his father, refill her alcohol, and prevent her from committing suicide. As Gene pursues his musical dream at all costs, Terry sinks into alcoholism and often throws tantrums and hysterical fits. When one of these leads to her trying to burn down the apartment, she is sent to an institution, her first of many trips. When Clifford forces Gene to leave Terry, her condition gets even worse. She drinks herself into a coma and smokes herself into lung cancer, but she survives both. At the beginning of the play, which takes place in 1985—the chronological end of the story—Terry lives alone in her apartment, shunning society. When Clifford visits her, it is clear that, while she still holds a grudge against Gene, she cares about his welfare, too, as she shows when she makes him some lasagna and gives it to Clifford to give to Gene.
Ziggy is one of Gene's friends and fellow musicians. He speaks in a way that causes him to mangle certain speech sounds. The other characters make fun of this character trait, at Ziggy's expense. When the need for jazz players declines, Ziggy and Gene work together to write some scripts for a popular television comedy show, but they never send the scripts in. When Clifford kicks his dad out of his apartment, he drives him over to Ziggy's place. Ziggy cannot stand living with Gene and his spacey, irresponsible ways. Like the other musicians, Ziggy lives, in part, off his unemployment checks.
While the plot concerns the slow decline in popularity of jazz, the play's main theme is the chasing of dreams, and how this can affect people's lives. When they first meet, Gene and Terry both have dreams. But there is a difference in their aspirations. Gene's dream is to keep living life as he has. He wants nothing more than to just keep earning only as much money as he needs to survive, so that he can continue to play his trumpet. As Clifford notes of musicians like Gene at the end of the play: "They played not for fame, and certainly not for money. They played for each other. To swing. To blow. Night after night, they were just burning brass. Oblivious." But Terry's dream is different. Although she is attracted to Gene's talent when they first meet, to her, his music is nothing more than an occupation. And when she starts to see that Gene's occupation is in danger, she steps up her efforts to get him to quit the music business and do something else. Even when there are signs that the industry is in decline, however, such as when Terry and Gene see other trumpet players getting out of the business or hear about the lack of big jazz bands due to the effect of rock and roll, Gene refuses to believe that the dream is over.
Gene's refusal infuriates Terry, whose dream is to have a stable life. Although she is initially a musician, too, it is more a hobby for her than it is a passion like Gene's. Terry exhibits her dream of settling down when the couple gets their new apartment, and she starts nesting. Ziggy notes that the floors of the apartment look really good, and Terry says that she "did them by hand," hurting her fingers in the process. It is obviously very important to her to have a nice place. She also makes "curtains out of some tablecloths I stole from Charlie's." Although Terry wants to have a nice place, Gene's insistence on staying in the music business, even when it is not paying very well, means that Terry has to get a job and that they will never have any furniture other than hand-me-downs. In fact, even the furniture itself is inherited from the breakups of their friends. As Gene quips, "our apartment is furnished in Early American Divorce." While Gene says this in jest, it also underscores the heartbreak of the other characters, whose own dreams of happy relationships are dashed.
But Clifford is the one who suffers the most in the play, since he must constantly put his own dreams on hold. Because his father does not work a regular job and his mother spends much of her time drinking or throwing tantrums, Clifford is the one who has to pick up the slack. In the process, he has to give up several opportunities, such as the scholarship to the art graduate school. As Patsy notes, "Clifford, when you were about to go away to college, the same thing happened."
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Read another memory play from any era and compare the techniques used in that play to the techniques Leight uses in Side Man.
- Research the major events that led to the downfall of jazz and big band music from the 1950s to the 1980s. Plot the events on a timeline and include a short description for each major event.
- Research the various venues that jazz musicians play today. Discuss whether there are any niche locations where jazz is still in demand.
- Research the use of heroin among musicians and other artists in the twentieth century. Pick one musician or artist who died from heroin use and write a biography about this person. Be sure to include details about how the heroin addiction started and how this addiction affected the person's career.
- Choose one of the jazz greats from the 1950s and compare this person's life to Gene's life in the story.
Clifford is not even given the chance to dream about having a normal family, because he is forced into the role of caretaker as a little boy. Although throughout the play he hints at all of the things he has had to do, the beginning of the second act illustrates in detail the fact that Clifford is the only truly responsible one in the family. First, he wakes Gene up from his nap so that he does not miss his club date, refills Terry's glass of alcohol, and prepares dinner for Gene. When Gene says he does not have enough money to get Terry an entire fifth of booze from the store, she freaks out, and it is Clifford who smooths things out by loaning his father the five dollars he needs to buy the alcohol. When Terry has a tantrum because Gene is warming up for his performance while she is trying to watch television, Clifford cleans up the food mess that she creates. When Terry prepares to commit suicide by jumping out of the window, Clifford talks her back in. Later, after several similar tantrum scenes, which end with Terry being taken away to an institution, it is Clifford who makes the decision for Terry and Gene to break up.
In this way, the traditional parent-child roles are reversed. Clifford has to grow up at an early age, because his mother does not act like a responsible mother. In addition to putting much of the household burden on Clifford, Terry also burdens him mentally. From an early age, he is told that he is to blame for being born on the wrong night. "You know, it's because of you I never got to see Sinatra." During her tantrums, Terry also swears at Clifford, cries, and makes him console her. "You shouldn't have to do this," she tells Clifford after he coaxes her out of committing suicide. "It's OK, Ma." But in actuality, it is not. All of her outbursts and her repeated blaming of him ultimately make Clifford feel that he is a burden. "From what I understand, EVERYONE WAS HAPPY BEFORE I WAS BORN." When Patsy asks Clifford at the end of the play if he is happy, Clifford says "I'm always fine." He has gotten so used to being the parent, that, like parents sometimes do with their children, he has buried his own feelings so as not to burden them. Although Clifford made a joke about seeing a psychiatrist in the beginning of the play, it is clearly no joke. The dysfunctional relationship with his parents, in which he had to be the responsible one, has affected him deeply, to the point where, at the end of the play, he is indecisive about whether he will have his own children: "If I have kids …"
Gene also has an odd notion of responsibility. He only feels responsible for his music, and as a result, he treats his trumpet with better care than his son or wife. Leight's stage notes indicate this fact, after Terry throws Gene's trumpet on the floor: "Gene rushes to his horn as if it were his child." Because music is his first priority, Gene, like his fellow musicians, has no problems with living off unemployment. The scene in the unemployment office demonstrates this fact. When Gene and the others talk about the importance of getting in twenty weeks of time on a job, no more, no less, so that they are eligible the rest of the year for unemployment, Clifford explains that this is how jazz musicians think: "You're listening to jazzonomics. The theory that—" [ Gene finishes Clifford's sentence ] "You keep your nut small, you pay your dues, you get to blow your horn."
In fact, most of the characters in the play, except for Clifford, exhibit some degree of irresponsibility. For example, near the end of the play, at Gene's club date, he and the guys note that the jazz gigs have dried up so much that this is the only one they can get. Unfortunately, the club owner is so sadistic that he does not give them breaks in between sets. This is dangerous for a trumpet player, because the pressure from blowing the horn that much can lead to a stroke. The guys note several people to whom this has happened. Other examples of irresponsibility include Terry's first husband, who left her for her best friend, and a piano player who purposely hooks himself on heroin to try to avoid the military draft.
Side Man is an example of a memory play. In this type of drama, the action is directed by the memories of one character. As the character has flashbacks to his or her past, the play dramatizes these memories, bringing them to life for the audience. Side Man is different than the typical memory play, however. While most plays of this type dramatize only what a character can remember, Clifford remembers back to events that happen before his birth. Drawing on things that he has heard from his parents and others, Clifford reconstructs this past, going back as far as 1953, the year that his parents meet and just before the rock explosion that began with Elvis Presley in the mid-1950s. In order to keep Clifford, who is technically unborn in the 1950s, part of the action, Leight indicates the following in the stage directions: "Throughout the rest of the first act Clifford, when narrating, also stage manages, or plays caretaker to his parents and theirfriends … He is engaged and in motion throughout." Although Leight does not want to break all rules of reality by having Clifford actually take part in the memories of times before he was born, he does not want the audience to lose sight of Clifford, so he turns him into a stage manager, keeping him close to the action at all times.
At times, through this unusual style of narration, Leight does bend reality. For example, although Clifford is largely silent to his parents during his flashbacks to the 1950s, he speaks directly to the audience. This is a common dramatic technique that is used to increase the sense of realism in a dramatic work. In some dramas, the audience members act as outside observers, merely witnessing the story of the play. When plays speak directly to the audience, however, acknowledging their presence, it brings the audience deeper into the story, and the audience members essentially become part of the cast. In the case of Side Man, the audience takes on the role of confidant for Clifford, who, through his narration, shares the pain that he has experienced growing up in such a dysfunctional family. For example, in the beginning of the play, he notes to the audience, "I'm late. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the fact that I'm seeing my parents tonight." From this first comment, as Clifford starts to get into the "complicated" details of his past and the past of Gene and Terry, it is almost as if the audience becomes Clifford's therapist. As with modern therapy, which puts emphasis on letting the client discuss his or her feelings as a way of working through issues, the audience becomes Clifford's sounding board.
At times, all of these realities—Clifford, audience, other characters—collide. At the end of the play, for example, Terry is complaining to Clifford about Gene's booking a club date on their anniversary. Clifford notes to the audience, "She has a point." Terry hears him, and asks, "WHO are you talking to?" Clifford responds, "It's just me, Ma." While the audience serves as a therapeutic sounding board for Clifford, the same is not true for the other characters, because they do not have the same insight as Clifford, and cannot talk through their problems. So, while Terry can hear Clifford talking to the audience, she can never interact with it directly, as Clifford can. This reinforces the idea that Terry and the other major characters are mentally stuck in their respective past experiences, from which they will probably never emerge.
The play begins in 1985, long after rock and roll and other popular music had replaced the big orchestral bands of the early-to-mid twentieth century. As Stefan Kanfer notes in his review of the play for The New Leader, by the 1980s, this type of music, which relied on the brassy sound of trumpets, trombones, and other orchestral sounds, was largely "rendered obsolete by a combination of technology and lowered public taste." The play, through Clifford's musings, takes the audience back to 1953, when this revolution in music, which started with rock and roll, is beginning to happen. Rock and roll had its roots in country music and rhythm and blues, and its first practitioners were African American vocal groups who incorporated gospel-style harmonies. However, in such a racially segregated culture, most large record companies, owned and operated by whites, initially shunned rock and roll as an African American fad. This changed with the immense popularity of Elvis Presley, a white singer from Tupelo, Mississippi. Presley's energetic voice, use of many vocal styles, and overt sexuality quickly won over repressed white teens—much to the chagrin of parents' groups, religious groups, and government organizations. Since Presley's voice had an African American quality to it, white fans also started to buy more records by African American rock-and-roll musicians, and the racial lines of music began to blur. As Charles Isherwood notes in his review of Side Man for Variety, "The advent of Elvis—whom the gang watches with grim, grudging admiration on "Ed Sullivan"—gradually leads to the demise of the big band circuit that was bread and butter to horn players."
Yet, while Presley's hits, beginning with 1956's "Heartbreak Hotel," are widely credited with kicking off this music revolution, he was only the first of many to undercut the need for orchestra players. The late 1950s and early 1960s also witnessed the rise of a popular music known as doo-wop. Doowop songs featured a lead singer with a group of backup singers, who made the sounds that gave the music its name. In addition, the lyrics themselves often featured a detailed narrative, telling a story that generally had to do with love. Since doo-wop songs placed the emphasis on vocal harmony, they required little or no instrumental accompaniment. Terry hears about this fact and lets Gene know, worried that he will not be able to find work: "Patsy says these doo-wop groups don't even use horns." This time period also witnessed the development of the Motown Sound, which was named after Motown Records, a production company founded in a Detroit basement by Berry Gordy Jr, a professional boxer turned record-store owner. The Motown sound, like doo-wop, generally consisted of a lead singer with a harmonizing backup group. Unlike doo-wop, Motown music generally featured a full orchestral accompaniment, which gave some hope to horn players.
This hope was dashed in 1964, however, when the Beatles, a group of four rock musicians from Liverpool, England, made their debut in the United States with eleven hit songs—six of which reached number one on the charts—and a film, A Hard Day's Night. The Beatles's music borrowed from the conventions of rhythm and blues to create a unique style of positive, catchy rock and roll. The Beatles's extreme popularity, known as Beatlemania, led the way for other British bands, including the Rolling Stones, in a cultural phenomenon known as the British Invasion. The play takes place through all of these monumental developments in music. As Robert Brustein notes in his review of the play for The New Republic, Gene and the other horn players try to find work and engage their creative passion "at a time when Presley and the Beatles are beginning to revolutionize the nature of popular music."
COMPARE & CONTRAST
1950s: Elvis's unique style of music and sexually suggestive gestures and dance techniques send shockwaves through mainstream America, and many repressed teens rush to emulate him.
1980s: Michael Jackson, one of the members of the childhood Motown group, the Jackson Five, achieves superstardom for his innovative musical stylings and dance techniques. At the same time, a singer who goes by the name of Madonna becomes popular, in part due to her sexually suggestive singing and music videos.
Today: The popular music scene is one of crossovers. Rock bands borrow from country, alternative, or rap stylings, and vice versa. Regardless of genre, most types of music recognize the sales power of sex, and generally feature some sexually suggestive stars.
1950s: The popularity of and need for horn players in night clubs slowly declines.
1980s: Horn players are a novelty, and some of their old venues, such as nightclubs and special events such as weddings, are typically covered by live rock bands or even by a disc jockey who plays recorded music.
Today: Although orchestral music comes back into favor briefly through the swing revival in popular music, it is a niche market and does not lead to a widespread need for horn players.
1950s: Some pregnant women choose to have abortions done illegally by private abortion doctors, some of whom have no actual medical credentials. Some women die or are permanently rendered sterile from these illegal operations.
1980s: As a result of the 1973 Supreme Court decision, Roe vs. Wade, abortion is made legal, a move that leads to a strong antiabortion movement.
Today: Recent legislation attempts to ban partial-birth abortions.
When Side Man first opened in 1998, it received glowing reviews. Isherwood calls this "comic and melancholy memory play … an affecting, vividly drawn picture of the domestic tragedies that were the ripple effects of a dying business that also happened to be an art form." Likewise, in her review of the play for Down Beat, Yvonne C. Ervin calls the play "a heartbreaking, yet funny, semi-autobiographical Broadway play." Critics particularly liked the play's realistic rendering of the unique aspects of the jazz world in its heyday. As Isherwood notes, "Leight's play gives us funny and piquant snapshots of the jazz milieu, a world whose denizens lived proudly outside the bounds of 9-to-5 respectability." Likewise, Ervin says that the play "transcribes the jazz parlance with poignant accuracy." In addition to the semi-autobiographical connection to Leight, whose father was a side man, critics also cite the connection to Clifford Brown, the tragic young jazz great who was killed in a car accident. As Kanfer notes, "Brown is the unseen presence in Side Man, a compelling recollection of the bygone epoch (c. 1953–1985) when live jazz could be heard in hundreds of night clubs around the country."
In his review of the play for The New Republic, Robert Brustein cites the play's almost overwhelming feelings of "melancholy and loss." As many critics note, however, while the play is deeply sad, it also has its funny moments. Ervin says that "despite the grave issues confronted, humor abounds, especially in Act I" and cites such examples as the "theory of 'jazzenomics."' One of the most tragic aspects of the play that critics discuss is the failed marriage between Gene and Terry. As Kanfer notes, "The uneasy relationship comes to reflect the state of jazz itself, declining from a brief, sunny period to excesses of abuse and, ultimately, to poverty and despair." In fact, the melancholy aspects have caused some critics to compare the play to other notable tragedies, such as Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie and Eugene O'Neill's A Long Day's Journey into Night. For example, Brustein says that Leight's play "resonates with echoes of The Glass Menagerie, particularly in the way young Clifford addresses the audience about himself and his family." Brustein also believes that "the tortured marriage of Gene and Terry bears a certain resemblance to that of James and Mary Tyrone in A Long Day's Journey into Night. "
Still, critics do find some faults with the play. Isherwood notes that "The play's jokey comedy sometimes lends an outlandishness that gives a melodramatic edge to later, more tragic developments," which he believes "ultimately may detract from its emotional appeal." He also says that "Gene's wife and cohorts also have cartoonish aspects that sometimes give short shrift to their humanity." Still, Isherwood admits that, "cartoonish or not, these figures do linger in the memory." And Brustein says that while the play "doesn't successfully achieve all its goals … all of its goals are worth achieving."
Ryan D. Poquette
Poquette has a bachelor's degree in English and specializes in writing about literature. In the following essay, Poquette discusses Leight's use of setting and time to underscore the mood in the play.
Side Man is a vivid play that takes its readers and audience members on an emotional rollercoaster as it chronicles the rise and fall of a relationship, which is, in itself, a reflection of the death of an industry. As Stefan Kanfer notes in his review of Side Man for The New Leader, "The uneasy relationship comes to reflect the state of jazz itself, declining from a brief, sunny period to excesses of abuse and, ultimately, to poverty and despair." But the play's juxtaposition of these two breakups—the relationship and the industry—is not accidental. As critics note, the type of situations faced by Gene and Terry are representative of the realities of life for many musicians and their families during this time period. As Charles Isherwood notes in his review of the play for Variety, "Leight's comic and melancholy memory play … is an affecting, vividly drawn picture of the domestic tragedies that were the ripple effects of a dying business." While chronicling the grim realities of the dying jazz business gives the play a dark feel, Leight amplifies this negative mood through his use of shifting time.
Leight's play is set in New York City, and at its earliest chronological point, 1953, New York is the mecca for jazz and big band players. It is a time when, as Clifford notes, side men like Gene were "like ballplayers. On the road, written up in the papers, endorsing trumpets in Down Beat." While Gene and others do go on the road for shows, New York is their home, and they always return there, and never have to worry about finding a club where they can play. But Leight does not start his play out in this heady time. Instead, he begins it in 1985, long after the death knell for jazz and big band players has been sounded. When Clifford walks into the Melody Lounge, he observes his dad, Ziggy, Al, and Jonesy. He says that the musicians "keep time so well that it's kind of stood still for them, at least when they're playing. They were all horn players in the legendary, completely forgotten Claude Thornhill big band." While the physical location, New York, never changes throughout the play, the emotional quality of the setting does, as this scene in the Melody Lounge indicates. From playing in a legendary band, these old musicians now cater to an audience that consists mainly of "two drunks from Jersey."
This emphasis on time passing, on before and after depictions of people's lives, ultimately sets the stage for the first of Clifford's many flashbacks. Yet, here again, instead of going right back to 1953 to start showing how it was, Leight chooses to go back nine years, to a very telling scene where Clifford gets his first unemployment check. For musicians, as Clifford notes, unemployment is a regular form of income. By following "jazzonomics," as Clifford calls it, these musicians can avoid working more than they have to, so that they can play their instruments as much as they want. When Clifford gets his first check, he notes that Gene is, "at that moment, prouder of me than I have ever seen him: Today, I am a man." Normally, society equates responsibility and adulthood with earning a paycheck, not purposely milking the system to get as much unemployment as possible. But Leight, and the musicians whom he is writing about, turned that dynamic on its head. That is why this scene is so important to the rest of the play. Without educating the audience on the type of lifestyles that these men have led, the events from the 1950s do not make as much sense, or have as much emotional impact.
At this point in the play, during the 1970s scene at the unemployment office and then at the diner, Leight has observed a roughly straightforward pattern of time. Clifford flashes back, but within these first scenes, everything happens at a normal speed. When the play travels back to 1953, however, Leight tells his story in episodes; this episodic time gets increasingly more unstable as the play progresses. For example, when Clifford first flashes back, Leight shows the first meeting of Gene and Terry, which takes place in normal time. Even the transition to the next scene, at Gene's concert later that night, is clearly defined. As Terry notes, "He couldn't get a ticket, so he met me at the stage door. He told me to stay in the basement … but I snuck upstairs and watched from the wings." Time is progressing very clearly in these two scenes, and continues to do so in the next scenes, as Terry explains to Clifford (and by extension, the audience), that she went to the band room after the show to tell Gene how much she loved his playing. This pattern continues through the next scenes at the diner and at Gene's apartment, where, just as in the beginning of the play, Leight indicates the passing of time by turning down the stage lights and then bringing them back up.
It is here, after Gene's and Terry's first night together, that time begins to become more chaotic, more indefinite. The time-sensitive clues that Leight has been providing to his audience so far, such as stage lights and direct statements from Clifford or others explaining the action, go away as time speeds up. Terry proposes that she and Gene get a place together. Gene is reluctant, and says "No—it's out of the—" Between this short, truncated comment from Gene and Terry's next comment "We're in here," there is only the sound of a doorbell to show that time has leaped forward from their first night together to their move-in date. Like Gene, who as the stage notes indicate is "in shock," and who tries and fails to "move quickly after her," the audience may be a little disoriented by this time shift.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- In the play, Clifford gives details about the chaotic, abusive lives of his father and several other jazz musicians. In Miles (1989), jazz great Miles Davis gives a candid, no-holds-barred discussion of his own experiences in the music industry, including his views on drugs, sex, women, and other aspects of a musician's life. Like Jonesy, Davis was a heroin addict who eventually overcame his addiction.
- In But Beautiful: A Book about Jazz (1992), Geoff Dyer offers several essays about jazz greats such as Lester Young, Thelonius Monk, and Duke Ellington. While he discusses drug addiction and other negative aspects of their lives, Dyer also explores the situations that led many of these musicians into self-destructive behavior, including the negative racial atmosphere.
- In The Best Damn Trumpet Player: Memories of the Big Band Era and Beyond (1996), Richard Grudens collects several interviews that he conducted from 1980 to 1993 with many musical greats, including Harry James, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Teddy Wilson, Frankie Laine, Tony Bennett, and Lionel Hampton. Each interview is accompanied by a photograph.
- In Glimmer, Glimmer, and Shine (2003), Leight returned to the jazz world material of Side Man. This play explores the lives of a trio of jazzmen during the big band era, which is slowly torn apart by the self-destructive influences of drugs, women, and alcohol. As with Side Man, this new play incorporates a modern-day character, a daughter of one of the former band mates, who, along with the son of another one of the band mates, uncovers the group's past.
- Like Side Man, Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night (1940) is a highly personal tale about the author's family. Yet, in O'Neill's case, the playwright was so concerned about the stark depictions of his dysfunctional family that he originally intended it to be published twenty-five years after his death (he died in 1953). However, since the members of the O'Neill family implicated in the play had already died, O'Neill's widow authorized the publication of the play three years later, in 1956. This harrowing play features one day in the life of the Tyrone family. The youngest son, Edmond, suffers from tuberculosis and hates his father, the mother is addicted to drugs, and the older son is an alcoholic.
- In I Remember Jazz: Six Decades among the Great Jazzmen (1987), Al Rose recalls his life among many of the most influential jazz men and women of the twentieth century. The book also features rare photographs of the author with many of the musicians discussed in the book.
From this point on, Leight increases this sense of disorientation by manipulating time even more, leaping forward in time and changing settings from the apartment to the Melody Lounge or elsewhere with only the slightest of visual clues. At times, the action of the play begins to resemble time lapse photography. The audience watches as weeks or months pass in a few moments. A good example is when Patsy announces that she and Al are engaged. "I've been in love with him since Leon and I were engaged," Patsy tells Terry. In the next scene, at Gene's and Terry's apartment, the stage directions indicate that "Patsy and Al neck—for a moment. Then she stops. Slaps him." That one moment encapsulates Patsy's and Al's relationship, which ends "six months after they got married."
The effect of this style of depicting events is profound. Because time passes so quickly, the audience only glimpses the happy portions of Patsy's and Al's relationship, before it is swiftly shattered. By keeping these happy moments to a minimum, Leight increases the sense of despair in the play. Time marches on, relentlessly, he seems to indicate, and even though there are happy moments, they never last. This emotional effect reinforces the ultimate demise of Gene's and Terry's own relationship, which becomes cluttered, just as their apartment goes from "bare to full to cluttered to cramped" throughout the play, as Leight's stage directions indicate. As Isherwood notes, "newlywed Terry and Gene's apartment gradually comes to be decorated in 'early American divorce,' as the marriages of everyone else in their circle disintegrate almost instantly."
In fact, Terry's and Gene's relationship is the only one that lasts, but as it does, it gets more and more depressing as every hope and dream is crushed by grim reality. One of the best examples is when Terry starts waitressing. She and Gene have a conversation, in which they are sitting down, and he assures her that "you won't ever have to work at all." The stage direction after this statement indicates one of Leight's most subtle time transitions: "Terry stands." In this moment of going from sitting down with Gene to standing, time jumps forward an indeterminate amount of time, and Terry yells: "BLT please, whiskey down." In other words, right after Gene tells her she will not have to take the waitressing job, Leight hits the audience with the image of Terry working as a waitress. It is obvious to the audience by this point that Gene's promises mean nothing, because he is caught up in a music business that is also, increasingly, losing its meaning as the American cultural scene shifts from big band to rock. As the play progresses, and Clifford is born and is forced to undergo a variety of emotional abuse and neglect, this negative mood only increases, until finally, at the end, Clifford realizes that he can do nothing for his parents, who are stuck in their own worlds and will probably never change. As Yvonne C. Ervin notes in her review of the play for Down Beat, "Unable to face the reality of his marginal life, Gene hides in his music while Terry, a waitress, turns to alcohol."
In its final, negative moment, the play even leaves little hope that Clifford will move on from all of this. Clifford's future will forever be haunted by his dysfunctional family past, to the point that he wonders if he will ever decide to have kids of his own. Clifford is, unfortunately, unable to ignore or deny the realities that his parents have. He is unable to be like Gene, who is alive when he's playing and totally unaware when he's not. As Robert Brustein notes in his review of the play in The New Republic, "That elegaic note drenches the play in a wash of melancholy and loss."
Ryan D. Poquette, Critical Essay on Side Man, in Drama for Students, Gale, 2004.
In the following review, Ervin calls Side Man "heartbreaking, yet funny."
After another agonizing dance gig, three trumpeters relax and listen to, a tape of Clifford Brown's solo on "A Night in Tunisia." They try to finger the intricate lines, absorbed in the music. One trumpeter, Gene, brings the tape home to his son, Clifford. He begins to tell the boy of the car accident that took his namesake's life. But this rare, intimate father-son moment is soon interrupted by the screams of Terry, Clifford's inebriated mother.
So goes Side Man, a heartbreaking, yet funny, semi-autobiographical Broadway play by Warren Leight. Side Man transcribes the jazz parlance with poignant accuracy. Staged, it captures the essence of a man so obsessed with his music that it destroys his family. Leight, the son of a jazz musician, has written a complex tale that immerses the audience in the swings of emotion struggling musicians often face, from the pure ecstasy of clicking on stage to fading dreams of past glory.
Jam sessions at a lounge play offstage, with recordings by Brown, Lee Morgan, Donald Byrd and Miles Davis representing these performances. Some songs reinforce the plot, such as "It Never Entered My Mind," which Clifford's father plays as Clifford talks about how inattentive his father was, or Louis Armstrong's "St. James Infirmary," which plays during a funeral march for a musician leaving the business. "Since he's leaving the business, in effect, he's passed away," says Clifford in one of his monologues.
Told in a series of flashbacks, the story chronicles Gene and Terry's one date, their hasty wedding and the rather untimely birth of Clifford, on the only night Terry had a chance to see Sinatra. Over the next 20 years, Gene and the side men trumpeters close every ballroom, hotel and nightclub on the East Coast. Unable to face the reality of his marginal life, Gene hides in his music while Terry, a waitress, turns to alcohol. The term "side man" assumes a meaning far beyond Gene's role on the bandstand.
However, despite the grave issues confronted, humor abounds, especially in Act I. The musicians share the theory of "jazzenomics," or how to work enough weeks to get unemployment. In the words of one side man, "Classical musicians have the National Endowment for the Arts. We have New York State unemployment."
During the past winter, silver screen heartthrob Christian Slater portrayed Clifford, and has since been ably replaced by the original Clifford, Robert Sella.
Side Man, staged by the Weissberger Theater Group at New York's John Golden Theatre, has an anticipated run at least through the summer, and Leight hopes to take it on the road to Los Angeles.
Yvonne Ervin, "Mood Swings," in Down Beat, Vol. 66, No. 4, April 1999, p. 70.
In the following review, Brustein praises the intent behind Side Man and the accuracy of its story.
With almost half the New York theater season over, managers are reporting the largest ticket sales in theater history. Inevitably, it is the spectacles that still have the greatest drawing power—and by spectacle I mean eye-popping events of every description. A lot of the box office boom has been inflated by enormous advance sales for The Blue Room, where people seem to be mortgaging their summer homes just to get a brief glimpse of Nicole Kidman in the raw. Not many of these offerings are the source of much artistic refreshment to an already parched season.
A new Sophocles production at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre is Electra-fying a lot of people, who are also expressing surprise over the way an ancient Greek classic has managed to become a Broadway hit. The last time this happened, I seem to remember, was in the late '40s, when Judith Anderson galvanized audiences with a pyrotechnical Medea that ran for years. Like that Robinson Jeffers version of Euripides's tragedy, Frank McGuinness's smooth colloquial adaptation of Sophocles's Electra provides opportunities for "great acting" by amputating most of the mythological references from the text. It's true there are not many of us left who share the religious beliefs of Periclean Athens. But you cannot fully understand the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Euripides until you acknowledge that, along with the narratives of Homer, they were the scriptures of ancient Greek theology. In Greek theaters, the orchestra area was built to house a religious altar rather than to seat paying customers. And it was not to win a Tony that the Chorus sang and danced around it.
It would be nice if modern productions afforded us even a shred of insight into why these works were written. But this is an Electra without the gods. The choral odes of the Women of Mycenae, which carry most of Sophocles's religious affirmations, have been considerably trimmed. And that Chorus has been reduced to one speaking character (powerfully played by Pat Carroll), accompanied by two relatively mute if attractive sidekicks, none of whom sing or dance. A program note by the director, David Leveaux, suggests why the play has been pulled from its own roots: "Electra is not an obscure classic, a strange story of a distant time and place and people, it is a moral struggle that resonates now from the Balkans to the streets of Omagh." In other words, you don't produce a Greek classic these days in order to expose audiences to a great matricidal tragedy. You stage it to remind them of what is in the newspapers.
At these ticket prices, it doesn't hurt to have a showy performance in the title role. Zoë Wanamaker enters the scenic desolation (unfinished brick walls, Queen Anne chairs buried in dirt, a large operating table supported by a broken Corinthian column) wearing an outsize overcoat and a white plaster mask. She removes this mask to reveal a set of ravaged features, topped with spiked and bloody hair, some of which seems to have been torn out of her scalp by the roots. Clearly Wanamaker is paying a huge price to play this role, and neither the actress nor her director ever lets us forget it. Her performance is one long hoarse wail. Considering all the emotional effort, it is unfortunate that her snub nose and saucer eyes occasionally make her look less like a wronged tormented princess than like Marcel Marceau impersonating Alfred E. Newman.
Derelict and outcast, sunk in perpetual grief over the death of her father, she pukes in disgust when confronted with her magisterial mother Clytemnestra (the regal Claire Bloom). Orestes (Michael Cumpsty looking like an Irish revolutionary) finds her "beauty has been broken and miserably disfigured," and in the recognition scene—one of the greatest in Greek tragedy—they stare at each other a moment, then embrace, Electra stroking his head, his face, his hands, before running around the stage like a crazed bird.
When I saw the Greek National Theater perform this scene, not just the brother and sister but the entire chorus embraced each other, a few single chorus members hugging their own bodies, as if to say, this is not just the homecoming of a long-lost sibling, it is the deliverance of an entire doomed nation. But Leveaux's Electra has been conscientiously staged around its star, which may be the reason why, for all its considerable theatrical virtues, it finally failed to move me.
At the Vivian Beaumont Theater, the Lincoln Center Theater is collaborating with Livent (US) Inc. on a Hal Prince musical called Parade. The economic adversities of Livent's once-hubristic empire have received a lot of press lately. Parade gives endorsement to the old adage that pride goeth before a flop. It is full of good intentions, earnest and high minded, even possessing a little dignity. But like a lot of efforts to endow the American musical with middle seriousness, it only proves that anything too momentous to be sung had better be spoken.
Parade concerns the horrible fate of an innocent Jewish man, Leo Frank, who was convicted, imprisoned, and later lynched for having murdered a young girl who worked under him in an Atlanta pencil factory. Since the true murderer was never identified (despite hints that a black superintendent in the building might have been guilty), the story provokes a kind of objectless abstract indignation. Not having a single villain to blame, the musical indicts an entire region, making Parade the occasion for a species of Dixie-baiting not that far from the Jew-baiting it deplores. The musical features more than your customary quota of Southern bigots, who begin and end the evening with a parade across the back of the stage commemorating Confederate Memorial Day. The first procession is a comic anachronism. (As one character remarks, "Why would anyone want to celebrate losing a war?") The second, occurring after the lynching, is a rebuke to the entire South.
I don't doubt that the book writer, Alfred Uhry, is being faithful to the facts in dramatizing how Frank's Northern Jewishness acted like a red flag to Southern Baptists looking for a scapegoat. But the facts don't always produce the most subtle drama, and Leo's forbidding manner doesn't make him a very appealing dramatic hero either. As if acknowledging this, Hal Prince, the director, has the defendant, in a courtroom fantasy number, break into one of Pat Birch's high-stepping dances, sashaying and cavorting with the three girls who falsely accused him of ogling them in the bathroom. This gives Brent Carver, who plays the part, a chance to remove his spectacles, kick up his heels, and drop his prissy characterization for a moment. But that dance is no more relevant to the action than the other efforts to strike lyrical sparks out of flintstone. Prince is obviously stuck with an insoluble problem in Parade, which is how to give singing and dancing to people more inclined to burning and lynching.
Parade is not a total loss, but the melodies (by Jason Robert Brown, who also wrote the lyrics) seem better suited to cotillion two-steps than to courtroom melodramatics. The musical comedy form simply does not have the weight to support a tale of prejudice and injustice. The right collaborators might have made a strong opera out of these events, like Harvey Milk. With this team, Parade only comes to life when it becomes a love story between Leo and his hitherto indifferent wife (beautifully acted and sung by Carolee Carmello).
I was expecting more from Paul Rudnick's The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told (New York Theatre Workshop) than it eventually delivered, though this spoof of biblical stories (and Cecil B. DeMille movies) still contains some priceless episodes. (It also has the best satiric title since Christopher Durang's When Dinah Shore Ruled the Earth.) For one thing, the piece is too light to support its length—the two acts, barely related to each other, could easily have been separated into two different plays. For another, it features too many witticisms and too little forward movement.
I was hoping for a smart rejoinder to Terrence McNally's self-important Corpus Christi. What Rudnick gives us instead is an over-extended gay cabaret. Rudnick's perspective on biblical history through exclusively homosexual lenses has the same effect as Jackie Mason's squint at Gentile mores through Jewish sunglasses. It segregates the audience. This was the first performance I ever attended in which the line outside the men's room was longer than the line outside the ladies' room.
Rudnick's most inspired notion is to see the Bible as an extension of show business, putting Genesis, for example, into the context of a technical rehearsal. To the accompaniment of a rock treatment of Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra, a Stage Manager calls "Oceans, Go," "Thunder and lightning, Go," and we have the Creation of the World. Adam and Steve emerge in jockey shorts, immediately realizing they are gay and alone. Before long they learn the arts of oral and anal intercourse ("Lights 30," calls the Stage Manager, "Orgasm"), and, having been ejected from the garden, appear totally naked ("You know what this means? I have to go to a gym").
Adam and Steve are soon joined by two lesbians named Jane and Mabel ("We have vaginas, they're our friends"). After they've all been drenched by the Flood ("El Niño, Go"), Steve gets the opportunity to be unfaithful to Adam with one of the animals they've paired on the ark—a rhino. In what is undoubtedly the comic high point of the evening, these gay Hebrews appear before a gay Pharaoh (hilariously spoofed and poofed by Peter Bartlett) and threaten him with the plagues of Exodus, the worst being "the media." The act ends with the "miracle" of the Virgin Birth, as the three "wise guys" bring Jane and her baby myrrh and frankincense.
There are echoes here of Monty Python's Life of Brian, not to mention Thornton Wilder's Skin of Our Teeth and Mel Brooks's History the World, Part One. But Rudnick has such an uncanny eye and ear for sexual absurdity that much of it, in Christopher Ashley's witty production, still seems fresh and original.
The second act abandons its amusing biblical setting for a modern New York apartment at Christmastime, which means that Rudnick will now be examining not the biblical but the modern plagues of human existence. Steve has contracted AIDS, Jane has become a Vegetable Rights activist, and Mabel ("I'm not supposed to be pregnant, I'm a bull dyke") has agreed to have a baby with Jane. (A female Mormon, an easily embarrassed comic foil, hovers around the Christmas tree, trying hard not to be shocked.)
Jane and Mabel are married by a handicapped lesbian Rabbi who carries the play's metaphysical message: "Why do good things happen to bad people? … I'm in a wheelchair and Saddam Hussein is in a Mercedes." Following considerable labor, Mabel is allowed to experience the miracle of birth.… Steve, on an AIDS cocktail of 28 pills a day, is doomed to die, leading to a tearful farewell with Adam. The emotion is unearned, a heavy conclusion to a rakish cabaret, as if we were suddenly being asked to sympathize with the medical history of two standup comics. But most of this show is fun.
With Side Man (Golden Theater), Warren Leight had a wonderful idea for a play—to trace the evolution of society and the disintegration of a marriage through changes in the styles of popular music. Gene (played by Frank Wood) is a white horn player, unknown to the public but much admired by other musicians, who compare him to greats like Dizzy Gillespie. None of them play for fame and money but rather for each other. And throughout the play, Gene is desperately trying to find work and creative fulfillment in jazz clubs or with such swing bands as Claude Thornhill's and Charlie Barnett's, at a time when Presley and the Beatles are beginning to revolutionize the nature of popular music.
Encased within this pattern of social change is a very personal domestic story, told by Gene's son Clifford (Christian Slater). It is the story of Gene's marriage to Terry (Wendy Makkena), and her growing decline into paranoia and alcoholism. A former flutist herself, Terry is nevertheless determined that Gene give up music and find some gainful employment. And it is not just because he finds this unacceptable that Gene is alienated from his wife. He simply has no affect outside of his music, no feeling for anyone other than his musician friends, one of whom, having scored some heroin ("I gotta see a man about some horse"), is imprisoned for eight years.
As a former sideman myself (tenor and clarinet), I can testify to the accuracy with which Leight has drawn his characters, and his nostalgia about the end of the Big Band era is a feeling I share. In Gene, Leight has created a kind of neglected American hero, a man who "senses everything when he is blowing and almost nothing when he's not." That elegiac note drenches the play in a wash of melancholy and loss.
Side Man resonates with echoes of The Glass Menagerie, particularly in the way young Clifford addresses the audience about himself and his family. And the tortured marriage of Gene and Terry bears a certain resemblance to that of James and Mary Tyrone in A Long Day's Journey into Night. As directed by Michael Mayer, this year's favorite director (last year it was Scott Ellis), some of the acting would not be out of place in Seinfeld. But despite the mugging and the overplaying among the musicians, Mayer has pulled an understated performance out of Christian Slater, a ferocious one out of Wendy Makkena, and a really lovely one, full of modesty and suppressed power, out of Frank Wood, who well knows how to reveal a character piece by piece rather than all at once. Side Man doesn't successfully achieve all its goals, but all of its goals are worth achieving, which makes it a very welcome tonic in a season of parch.
Robert Brustein, "Electra," in New Republic, Vol. 220, No. 6, February 8, 1999, p. 26.
In the following review, Kanfer provides an overview of the play and praises the acting and direction.
Clifford Brown's biography is one of the shortest, saddest entries in the annals of American music. He was still a teenaged brass player when he was invited to solo alongside the legendary jazz saxophonist, Charlie Parker. In his early 20s he bolstered his reputation with some landmark recordings. While others around him succumbed to the effects of drugs and alcohol, he stayed healthy and surprisingly free of temptations. At 25, he seemed ready to stand with Dizzy Gillespie and Roy Eldridge as a jazz trumpet superstar. Then, on June 26, 1956, four months before his 26th birthday, he went out for a drive, failed to avoid an oncoming car, and was killed instantly.
Brown is the unseen presence in Side Man, a compelling recollection of the bygone epoch (c. 1953–85) when live jazz could be heard in hundreds of night clubs around the country. That was the last time instrumentalists—the "side men" of bands and combos—could do what they loved, and earn enough to get by. Electronically amplified Rock, Heavy Metal, Fusion, etc., have all but destroyed the jazz player's profession. Beyond a few brand names, today's side men resemble the troubadours of yore. Both groups were rendered obsolete by a combination of technology and lowered public taste.
When we first encounter Gene (Frank Wood), he is thirtysomething and profitably occupied with his music and his colleagues. Like him, they are side men with no real interest in anything but syncopation. The group includes Jonesy (Kevin Geer), a smalltime horn player and full-time substance abuser; Ziggy (Michael Mastro), a faceless nebbish, except when he solos on his brass instrument; and another trumpet player, Al (Joseph Lyle Taylor), who never met a bimbo he couldn't seduce.
Into this tight-knit quartet comes Terry (Wendy Makkena), a naïve kid from the sticks. The skinny girl wonders about the musicians' "funny-tasting" cigarettes, and cannot understand the white men who sit in worshipful silence, listening to the tape the black Clifford Brown made a few hours before he was killed. Yet this kind of ignorance is harmless and, at times, charming. What proves corrosive is her starry-eyed regard for Gene, whose shortcomings she refuses to recognize. These include emotional indifference, financial irresponsibility, and an inability to plan anything more complicated than his next club date.
Catastrophe takes root in the first years of their marriage. The uneasy relationship comes to reflect the state of jazz itself, declining from a brief, sunny period to excesses of abuse and, ultimately, to provety and despair. To tell this tale, playwright Warren Leight uses a narrator who provides character analysis and propels the plot, flashing back in time, shifting people around like chess pieces. The twentysomething Clifford (Robert Sella), named for the late, great musician, is Gene and Terry's only child. Despite their protests to the contrary, he learns he was an accident that never got aborted, even though Gene urged his wife to have the procedure. Unwanted, neglected, poor in material goods and parental support, he somehow survives—but at a price.
Clifford speaks to us about years of couch time at the therapist's, and conjures up the old days to show us how he got his scars. Some scenes illustrate Gene's dereliction and Terry's encroaching alcoholism and lunacy. Others bring on the side men, playing joyfully on their long march to oblivion. The most effective of these set pieces take place in the Rainbow Lounge. Here the presiding figure is Patsy (Angelica Torn), a tough-talking waitress. She knows that these guys may be diverting jokesters and fun in bed, but that every last one of them is as reliable as a hock shop cornet. Patsy and Clifford provide the welcome voices of sanity and realism in Side Man. But the lyricism comes from Gene and his pals, artists who try to perfect their work even though they know it is as doomed as Clifford Brown himself.
As the main side man, Wood gives one of those transcendent performances that will be recalled long after the curtain has gone down for the last time. Alternately numb and discerning, he is the embodiment of an individual who "could sense everything while he was blowing, and almost nothing when he wasn't." Mastro, Geer and Taylor lend a vitality and gallows humor to the proceedings, and Torn does well enough with a bromidic part: the flinty demimonde with the 24 karat heart. Sella skillfully evokes his parched childhood, and the music that was to become his sibling rival. He concludes his memoir with a brilliant and bitter valedictory, saluting the obsessives who will end as "a 50-year blip on the screen."
Only Makkena fails to deliver a rounded performance; her lengthy mad scenes are ludicrous where they should be pathetic, and overwound where they should be muted. Part of this is due to Michael Mayer's otherwise admirable direction. He uses all of the Roundabout Theater Company's Criterion Center Stage Right, helped along by Neil Patel's canny set design and Kenneth Posner's moody lighting. Along with the cast, they give fresh meaning to George Bernard Shaw's stark definition of music as "the brandy of the damned."
Stefan Kanfer, Review of Side Man, in New Leader, Vol. 81, No. 9, August 10–24, 1998, pp. 21–22.
In the following review, Isherwood calls Side Man an "affecting and vividly drawn picture."
In Warren Leight's Side Man, the first Broadway opening of the new season, a jazz musician's beloved trumpet becomes the instrument of his family's destruction. Leight's comic and melancholy memory play, a transfer from off Broadway under the helm of busy director Michael Mayer, is an affecting, vividly drawn picture of the domestic tragedies that were the ripple effects of a dying business that also happened to be an art form.
Side Man unfolds through the eyes of Clifford (Robert Sella), the only child of trumpeter Gene (Frank Wood), and it begins at the end, as Clifford makes final visits to his father and mother Terry (Wendy Makkena)—separately, he assures us with a wry smile—before leaving New York for parts west.
Dad's playing a gig at a bar whose luster has long since dimmed, and Mom's still smoking herself into oblivion in her housecoat, asking wary questions that reveal the lingering vestiges of her love for her ex-husband, the "rat bastard."
The ache that fuels Clifford's tour through his family's fractious domestic history is the haunting belief that it was his birth that soured his parents' marriage, and Sella's ingratiating, unself-consciously moving performance quietly suggests that the humor Clifford brings to his examination of his family's fate is born of considerable pain. The shine in his eyes could be equally emotion or amusement at the memory of his father's friends' antics.
Jumping haphazardly back in time, Clifford recalls key moments in his life, such as the day in 1977 when, fresh out of college, he picked up his first unemployment check, and was welcomed into the brotherhood of man by his dad and his bandmates Al (Joseph Lyle Taylor), Ziggy (Michael Mastro) and Jonesy (Kevin Geer). By then they had come to rely on government assistance to keep plying their ever-less-lucrative trade.
Delving into a past when glamour—and a modicum of financial viability—still clung to the lifestyles of itinerant band musicians, Leight's play gives us funny and piquant snapshots of the jazz milieu, a world whose denizens lived proudly outside the bounds of 9-to-5 respectability. For them, capitulation to the lures of the "straight" world—the regular paychecks, the mortgage, the security—was akin to death, and newlywed Terry and Gene's apartment gradually comes to be decorated in "early American divorce," as the marriages of everyone else in their circle disintegrate almost instantly.
The advent of Elvis—whom the gang watches with grim, grudging admiration on "Ed Sullivan"—gradually leads to the demise of the big band circuit that was bread and butter to horn players, but Gene ignores Terry's demands that he give up music for a more steady job, even when she threatens to kill him and the unborn Clifford. For Gene, who can recite jazz arcana but won't remember his son's birthday, music is not his job, it's his life.
Leight, who was indeed the son of a jazz side man, is sympathetic to Gene's steadfast adherence to his music, but doesn't shy away from showing the corrosive effect it had on his family. For Gene and his mates, music was a drug no less addictive—and destructive than the heroin Jonesy also indulged in, which ruined his life the way an incurable jones for jazz would ultimately claim Terry and Gene's marriage.
The play's jokey comedy sometimes lends an outlandishness that gives a melodramatic edge to later, more tragic developments. Ultimately it may detract from its emotional appeal, a problem that Mayer's direction colludes in: Many of the performances seem slightly overripe, perhaps a problem of adjustment from the shows previous, smaller space to the more capacious Roundabout Stage Right.
Wood's diffident Gene is a character defined more by small tics—the mouth gaping in what could be a smile or a grimace, the distant look in the eyes, the nervous whinny of a laugh—than anything deeper. He comes off a little too much like a horntooting, live-action Homer Simpson. (His emotional absence from his family is of course one of Leight's points, but Gene's passion for his music must be taken on faith.)
Gene's wife and cohorts also have cartoonish aspects that sometimes give short shrift to their humanity: Makkena's Terry devolves rather suddenly from strident naif to shrewish, crazed harridan, managing to remain just a shade short of caricature.
Still, cartoonish or not, these figures do linger in the memory, like so much smoke you can't clear out of a room, and the play's final moments are intensely sad, as Clifford seeks one last time to make a connection to his father, whom he hasn't seen in several years. "How could he sense everything when he was playing, and nothing when he wasn't?" Clifford wonders at one point, and as his gesture toward communion goes unnoticed or unacknowledged, Kenneth Posner's sharp lighting closes in on Clifford alone, and the tragedy of a family that has become three solitary figures hits home.
Charles Isherwood, Review of Side Man, in Variety, Vol. 371, No. 8, June 29, 1998, p. 48.
Brustein, Robert, "A Season of Parch," in the New Republic, February 8, 1999.
Ervin, Yvonne C., "Mood Swings," in Down Beat, Vol. 66, No. 4, April 1999, p. 70.
Isherwood, Charles, Review of Side Man, in Variety, Vol. 371, No. 8, June 29, 1998, p. 48.
Kanfer, Stefan, Review of Side Man, in the New Leader, Vol. 81, No. 9, August 10, 1998, p. 21.
Leight, Warren, Side Man, Grove Press, 1998.
Amadie, Jimmy, Jazz Improv: How to Play It and Teach It, Thornton Publications, 1991.
This book uses a unique method to teach students, teachers, and professional musicians the techniques of improvising their music. The book bases its lessons on the tonal concept of tension and release.
Gioia, Ted, The History of Jazz, Oxford University Press, 1997.
This book gives a thorough history of the roots of jazz in Africa to its place in music at the end of the twentieth century. Along the way, the author explores various jazz hotspots in cities such as New York, Chicago, New Orleans, and Kansas City. The author also discusses the musicians who made jazz popular in its day.
Kirchner, Bill, ed., The Oxford Companion to Jazz, Oxford University Press, 2000.
This book contains sixty essays that collectively discuss all aspects of jazz history and culture, including overviews of different styles, discussions of different time periods, the roots of jazz, the culture of nightclubs, and biographies of the major jazz performers.
Stearns, Marshall W., Story of Jazz, Oxford University Press, 1970.
This book examines the cultural effect of jazz in America. Like the play, this book traces the development of jazz through the rock revolution. The book also covers technical elements related to jazz form and structure.