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Hornby's 'High Fidelity' Takes the Stage

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Hornby's 'High Fidelity' Takes the Stage

Performing Arts

Hornby's 'High Fidelity' Takes the Stage

Hornby's 'High Fidelity' Takes the Stage

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The Nick Hornby novel High Fidelity, with a record-store owner as its protagonist, takes rock music seriously. Now the story is on its way to Broadway as a musical. It's getting a preview run in Boston.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Nick Hornby's bestselling novel, High Fidelity, struck a chord with rock-obsessed readers when it came out in 1995. It captured the world of a musty used-record store and exposed the inner lives of the crabby music snobs who worked there.

In 2000, High Fidelity was turned into a movie, and now it's headed for Broadway, as a musical. The production recently opened in Boston, where reporter Andrea Shea found out what happens when big theater and underground vinyl collide.

ANDREA SHEA: A Broadway musical about elitist rock snobs. That description right there seems somehow counterintuitive, and it raises the question: Would the scrubby, vinyl fanatics in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity give this musical adaptation a chance, or would they trash it and run far, far away?

I went to Looney Tunes record store in Boston to consult with some experts.

(Soundbite of music)

SHEA: Flipping through a stack of weathered albums, customer Scott Doggitt(ph) of Wrentham, Massachusetts says he read Hornby's novel, but he thinks musicals are a nightmare.

Mr. SCOTT DOGGITT (Music Store Customer): It was a fun book. It sort of spoke to a group of people that are sort of like me, you know, the psychotic collector. As a musical, I don't know. I mean, all the lyrics tend to be non-metaphorical, so I really hate musicals.

Mr. PAT McGRATH (Owner, Looney Tunes Records): ...on Mars record, and a 10-inch on Epic...

SHEA: But Pat McGrath, who's owned this store for 28 years, explains in hushed tones that he grew up listening to his mother's Broadway LPs.

Mr. McGRATH: It's like a deep, dark secret. Sometimes I do feel like if I play a Broadway tune for somebody, I'm giving in to some sort of sinister urge.

SHEA: McGrath says he's curious about the new musical, and he's not disturbed by the idea of Rob, the low-key main character in High Fidelity, bursting into song.

Mr. McGRATH: We don't know what lies in the darkest recesses of Rob's mind. Oklahoma might be in there kicking around. You don't know.

SHEA: Rob owns Championship Vinyl, and in the new show, he sings his heart out. Sometimes he does it alone, sometimes he does it with the regulars who fill his underground shop.

(Soundbite of musical "High Fidelity")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As Rob) (Singing) ...and they'll write on my tombstone, right beside my date of birth: Part-time stoner went to clerk to owner of the last real record store on Earth, real record store...

SHEA: For the on-stage record store, set designers used 15,000 albums to fill the bins and stacks. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde, and rare singles by The Smiths are on view, and there are musical references in the songs themselves. Composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Amanda Green say they bent over backwards in their original score to retain the tone and essence of the characters in Nick Hornby's novel.

Mr. TOM KITT (Composer): The task was to create music that you feel like these guys would listen to and would be proud to know, but also that tells a story and is exciting and works on a Broadway stage.

Ms. AMANDA GREEN (Lyricist): And I also think we can't also be apologetic. I mean, we write musicals. We're not writing a rock concert. So like all these songs are dramatic, they tell a story. So that's the medium we're working in. We want it to be satisfying on that level.

(Soundbite of musical "High Fidelity")

Unidentified Man #2: (As character) My desert island all-time top five breakups in chronological order.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #2: (As character) (Singing) One, Allison Ashworth; two, Penny Hardwick; three, Charlie Nickleson; four, Sarah Kendrew; and five, Jackie Allen.

SHEA: Top-five lists fill Hornby's novel. They're all over the movie and now here too. The musical's book writer, playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, says he feels for the purists who are edgy about this new incarnation.

Mr. DAVID LINDSAY-ABAIRE (Playwright): Well, I think everybody's dubious of any sort of adaptation of anything that they love, and so as someone who happened to love the book and love the movie, I was worried about what it would mean to turn it into a musical.

Mr. JEFFREY SELLER (Producer): Any time musical theater writers decide to sit down in a room and write a musical, it is a dangerous endeavor. It is an endeavor that usually fails.

SHEA: Producer Jeffrey Seller speaks from experience, although he's had a string of successes. He's one of the men who helped turn a naughty puppet show known as Avenue Q into a Broadway hit. He also produced Rent and admits High Fidelity's pre-Broadway run is traumatic.

Mr. SELLER: There are probably two days a week where I think, oh my God, this is brilliant, this is just going to be such a hit. And then the other day I'm like, oh, maybe this is just terrible, and it was a terrible idea, and the whole thing is going to run straight into the ground. And I go through that every single time on every single show.

SHEA: Director Walter Bobbie says while musical theater is indeed a risky business and adapting High Fidelity into a musical might seem an odd choice, it's not unprecedented. Consider a sprawling epic by Victor Hugo or whimsical poetry by T.S. Eliot.

Mr. WALTER BOBBIE (Director): Les Miz is a terrible idea for a musical until you write it. Cats is a terrible idea for a musical until it seems inevitable. No one really knows what's a great idea for a musical until life has been breathed into it and it proves itself.

(Soundbite of musical "High Fidelity")

Unidentified Man #3: (As character) (Singing) Maybe I've got a prayer.

Unidentified Man #4: (As character) (Singing) Maybe oh maybe Elvis isn't dead.

SHEA: With the movie and now the musical, this is the third life for High Fidelity. Writer Nick Hornby has been following the musical's progress from a distance, but says a few of the songs are on his iPod.

Mr. NICK HORNBY (Author, High Fidelity): I just find it really fascinating to write something that then other people want to do something with, and I don't feel protective of the material, I don't feel precious about it, and I'd be really sorry if none of these things had happened.

SHEA: And the last musical Hornby went to see?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORNBY: Yeah, it was a while ago. I think I took my mum to see Carousel, probably five or six years ago.

Mr. McGRATH: Here's another receipt.

Unidentified Man #5: Oh, thank you.

Mr. McGRATH: Sure thing.

SHEA: Back at Looney Tunes record store, owner Pat McGrath says he'll be in the audience during High Fidelity's Boston run. And he asks, why stop there?

Mr. McGRATH: I wonder if they're going to do like a High Fidelity on Ice or something like that. You know, like an Ice Capade of it? You know how they do that sometimes? High Fidelity on Ice. That'd be good. I can see that.

SHEA: For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea.

(Soundbite of musical "High Fidelity")

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