City of Angels

I just shelled out 22 dollars to see a musical called “City of Angels”. I’d never heard of it, and was shocked at how good it was; apparently it won best musical, best lead actor, best book, and best original score at the Tony awards when it came out. I would have said I was surprised before I actually saw it; now I’m just surprised I had never heard of it before this.

The book is one of the most clever I’ve ever seen. It’s the 1940s. A writer named Stine is adapting his hardboiled detective noir novel into a screenplay, and butting heads with the director throughout the process. Performed simultaneously, and using almost all the same actors, the plot of the screenplay he’s writing is also performed: A private eye named Stone (the only major character played by an actor not used at all in the “Hollywood” section of the show, for reasons that become clear later on) is hired by a femme fatale to investigate the disappearance of her stepdaughter. The two plots mirror each other as the show goes on.

This is all clever enough, but what really makes this show brilliant – and what made it particularly meaningful and resonant to me – is what it has to say about the relationship between fiction and reality, and between characters and the authors who create them.

The protagonist of “City of Angels” is not a good person, though he is a likable and charming one. He is a serial philanderer and chronic liar who is willing to give up artistic control of his story in exchange for the fame, money, and power Hollywood promises to give him. What makes him really interesting is that he knows this – mostly.

Because while he can admit (to himself, at least) that he’s a philanderer and liar, and while he feels guilty about his actions and doesn’t blame his wife for condemning him, what he does not – will not – admit throughout the play is that he’s doing anything wrong when it comes to his story.

Stine’s identity is bound up with him as a writer. It’s one of the reasons he wants to make it in Hollywood: Maybe he’s a liar, a philanderer, and a coward, but he knows he can write – and knows, whatever his other faults, that people must at least give him credit for that.

Unless, of course, his wife is right. Unless he’s selling out, and letting the studio make changes he doesn’t approve of for the sake of fame and money.

Stine won’t confront himself about this, but his characters will. Stine’s lead detective, Stone, ends up playing Stine’s conscience; several times it is brought up that just because Stine wrote a great hero, doesn’t mean he is one. Everywhere Stine goes wrong, Stone goes right. Where Stine cheats on his wife Stone stays faithful to his fiancee to the point of taking the fall for a murder she committed after SHE cheated on HIM. And it’s Stone – at this point in his story, arrested for a crime he didn’t commit and in serious danger of prison or death because he still won’t give up his former fiancee – who calls Stine out.

The song “You’re Nothing Without Me” is now one of my all-time favorites. It not only gets to the heart of the character, it gets to the heart of writing in general: Stine and Stone, creator and created, start arguing with each other: Who really needs whom? Does Stine, the writer, need Stone to matter? Or is Stone a mere figment of Stine’s imagination? Can a writer make changes to a character or story based on the decisions of somebody else and still claim that character? Is a character “just” the ideas you put in him?

The truth – as everybody who has tried to write anything knows – is that a character is a part of the writer. The character is nothing without you – but when somebody becomes such a huge part of your life, you can’t just pick them away like lint, as the song suggests. And as folks like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle know, dropping a character isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Here’s the song. Watch the show, especially if you’re a writer or reader. It’s brilliant.

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