The plot of the musical “Love Story” is as basic and common as one could imagine. Rich boy meets poor girl. They fall madly in love and sacrifice dreams for each other. Girl dies. Curtain falls.
There’s a reason that this plot is used so often, though: it works.
“Love Story”, the brainchild of Erich Segal, has flourished in popular culture for 40 years as a novel, film and more recently, a musical (Stephen Clark and Howard Goodall). The musical, currently playing at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia, is tragic and funny, and ruthlessly tugs on the heartstrings.
The play opens on a bare, wide white stage. The orchestra enters, all in black, and sits on white chairs along the back of the stage and places their music on white music stands. The pianist sits at an all-white piano.
Downstage of the orchestra, the only set piece is a black piano and black piano bench. The strong contrasts of black and white bring to mind yin and yang, foreshadowing the perfect whole created by man and woman in this play, and making more surprising the rebellion that each character brings against behaving as he or she “should.”
Though the musical as a whole is excellent, the opening number, “What Can You Say”, is weak. The lyrics are banal and lack complexity. The singers are fine, but no better than Mixed Company. In the middle of the song, though, the lead woman, Jenny (Alexandra Silber) starts to sing, and everything changes. Her voice and her presence are outstanding, and from the moment she stepped onstage she commanded attention.
Playing opposite Silber is Will Reynolds as Oliver. Reynolds matches Silber in stage presence, singing ability and physical beauty. Oliver has the last line of the opening song: “What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died …” The story then drops back to several years before, when the two met.
Oliver, a Harvard hockey star, pre-law, from an incredibly rich family, meets Jenny, a poor, brilliant pianist from a single-parent household, while in the library. Jenny slips him her number and tells him to buy her coffee. At coffee, she is a tease and a flirt, while he is direct and uptight — it is clear that people do not usually push his buttons like she does. He is intrigued by her. He asks her to come to his hockey game that weekend, and adds, “Oh, and when you see the guy scoring all the goals … that’s me.”
Both Jenny and Oliver are extremely talented in their respective areas. Jenny has been practicing piano for hours every day since she was five years old and dreams of playing in Carnegie Hall. She is selected for a very competitive scholarship to learn piano from a Master in France.
Oliver’s own dreams are confused by his father’s overbearing presence. In his first appearance, the father tells his son, “I don’t like to be disappointed.” It is never clear whether Oliver truly wants to go to law school, or whether he is going because his father told him he would.
Naturally, they decide to get married after 10 or so stage kisses and beautiful balletic sex.
Oliver’s ultra-rich father disowns his son for marrying so far below his social class — but Oliver does not help matters by being a disrespectful son. The play does not fully address the father-son relationship, assuming that the audience is familiar enough with that story to fill in the gaps themselves.
After he is disowned, Oliver and Jenny start a life together in a very small apartment. Jenny gives up her scholarship to go to Paris so that she can get a teaching job to support Oliver as he goes through law school.
This is a turn-off. Although Jenny says on her deathbed that Oliver did not steal Paris and music from her, the objective truth is that he did. When Jenny tells her father that she is giving up the scholarship, he explodes, saying that she shouldn’t give up her lifelong dreams for some guy, and asking why Oliver’s law degree is more important than her music. Jenny and Oliver insist that they are both making sacrifices — Oliver is giving up his family and ice hockey, they say.
That is all very well. But as Oliver goes through law school, gets his first job, and rises up the corporate ladder, Jenny stands around at home hoping to get pregnant. Presumably she is also teaching, but she never talks (or sings) about it and it seems to offer her no fulfillment. In her solo “Nocturnes”, in which she sings about what music she will play to her unborn children, one would think that she might bring up children she plays music for at school. The fact that she does not indicates either that she is working solely for Oliver’s benefit, or that writers Clark and Goodall forgot that women live for themselves, not just for their husbands and children.
Criticism aside, though, this musical was incredibly touching. Jenny and Oliver’s love seemed very real; their joys and frustrations were uplifting and heart-wrenching. Every so often, often at the peak of their joy, I would remember that Jenny was going to die when she was 25 and get teary-eyed. When the two of them found out that Jenny had leukemia, I started outright crying.
Admittedly, the plot of this musical sounds trite and unoriginal. Is it possible that I fell for all of the love-y sappiness because I’m 21? Maybe.
But if so, that means that the couple sitting to my right only fell for it because they were 60. Or the group sitting in front of me only fell for it because they were in their 70s. For the last third of the musical, the audience was sniffling and unzipping their pocketbooks for tissues. I’ve never heard so many noses blown in one room.
“Love Story” is playing at the Walnut Street Theater, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, through October 21st. Shows are 8 p.m. weeknights and 2 and 8 p.m. on weekends (slight variations—visit website before making plans. (http://www.walnutstreettheatre.org/season/schedule.php?event=87). Tickets are $15 to $100, and all remaining tickets are $20 the day of for people under 24. The show runs an hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.