On Monday 15 August 2016, for two performances only at the West End’s Arts Theatre, Simon Lipkin, Gina Beck, Julie Atherton and Samuel Holmes reunite to reprise their roles in last year’s critically acclaimed revival of the hit 1996 Off-Broadway musical I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change. The production, nominated for Best Revival in last year’s Broadway World Awards, will return for two performances at the West End’s Arts Theatre on Monday 15 August 2016.
Ahead of the reunion, we took the opportunity to catch up with the musical’s composer, Jimmy Roberts, about the musical comedy’s enduring appeal, his long-running collaboration with Joe DiPietro and his upcoming projects including a new musical about Rex Harrison and Noel Coward.
I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change was written in the 1990s and became the second longest-running production in Off Broadway’s history. To this day, it continues to be performed throughout the world. What do you think is secret to its longevity?
I think it’s a deceptively complex show. It finds a light and musically funny way to talk about a fun and exasperating subject the world over: relationships. The “scaffolding” of the show is not seen on the surface yet gives it a structure and rich material for actors to mine and a director to stage. It’s not really a revue, though it appears to be. We, the writers, along with our original director, think of it as a series of one-act musicals, one after the other. Characters are quickly established, conflicts erupt, and voilà, a song to amplify the emotions and hopefully resolve the conflict. In other words, there is more than meets the eye here, at least theatrically.
Where did the idea for the show come from?
In the late 1980s Joe DiPietro had put together an evening of sharply-observed sketches about being single and dating, primarily about people his own age (he was then in his late twenties). It was called, Love Lemmings – a leap into the dating abyss. It wasn’t really a musical, though at times it had a dramatically-appropriate pop songs between scenes, and in other incarnations, had a few original songs by Joe and another composer. Although it was a very funny evening, and generally very well-received, a producer encouraged Joe to turn it into a full-fledged musical, thinking it would have a better chance at achieving commercial success.
How did your relationship with Joe DiPietro first come about? Were you put together, or had you been planning a collaboration?
There were apparently several people, who ran theatres or theatre companies, knew both Joe and me, and suggested we meet for the purpose of turning Love Lemmings into a musical. I was sent a video of the sketch revue and, like everyone else, loved Joe’s work. An “interesting fact” is: we wrote a few songs together and liked them. Nevertheless, I, the composer, felt that the addition of music somehow watered down Joe’s trenchant sketches, and I didn’t want to see them end up in a typical conventional revue, with “five people in nice sweaters sitting on stools, singing.” It amazes me that I said that! The result was, we parted for a year. He went on to further develop the show, and even found a composer to add just a few songs to the evening. But when a particular producer, with a particular theatre offered Joe a real opportunity to turn it into a musical, he called me once again, and this time I overcame my own hesitations and we began to work together, over several years and several workshops, acquiring a very fine director and wonderful, smart producers along the way.
Did you have any idea during the early stages of the show’s development that it would become the huge success its known as today?
Speaking for myself, no. Of course, I loved the material we were coming up with. But I didn’t think in terms of commercial success. That’s the truth. Just getting it right, finding the perfect song for each moment – even if it meant throwing out songs we were fond of because they didn’t work in the larger scheme of things. But I will say that, even in its earliest form, it was clear that the show made a direct and strong connection with audiences. Their laughter, their sense of identity with the characters and situations in the show were palpable. Joe DiPietro’s great gift for comedy and scene-writing were beginning to blossom here, and it was exciting to join him for the ride.
One of the most celebrated aspects of the show is the numerous musical styles that it embraces. Ranging from classic Broadway to operetta and even 1980s power ballads. What was the inspiration behind this decision?
The variety of musical styles is a reflection of the kind of musician I have always been, always will be. From my earliest piano lessons, I was soaking up the different harmonies and rhythms that comprised jazz, or classical, or country, or pop, tango, waltz, gospel, etc. So it was a no-brainer to choose a different style for each song, that might, with a tinge of irony, make its own comment on the words. A country lament for a bridesmaid forced to wear an ugly dress, a classical cantata as the cast celebrates the joys and fears of first dates, a sexy tango for a married couple, building up to a night of lovemaking, interrupted repeatedly by their toddlers and their toys. However, when the situation called for it, I wrote straight-ahead ballads without any particular style, such as “I WiIl Be Loved Tonight” or “Shouldn’t I Be Less In Love With You?”
Which song or scene from the show can you relate to the most?
We used to say people had either Act One (dating) or Act Two (marriage) mentalities. And sometimes life, with all its twists, sends you back and forth between “Act One” and “Act Two.” When the marriage is over, then you’re back to dating. The cycle never ends. I happen to be an “Act One” person now, but I relate to many of the songs and scenes in both acts. I think many guys would relate to the tennis scene, where the girl asks the guy why he hasn’t yet made a pass at her, and he answers her awkwardly. I know I do.
The show was originally performed in New York. How well do you think it translates to a British audience?
It’s been a surprise and a delightful one, how this very American show seems to possess underpinnings that are more universal than we realised. The show has been produced in over thirty countries. I mean, even the idea of a “date” seems very American. Plus ugly bridesmaid dresses, and serial killers, etc., etc. But still, at its heart, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change says people everywhere, despite their fears and craziness, want to connect. They really do and it’s worth it. That’s what all the characters, of all ages in our show, make clear. We all know that British audiences have their own particular sensibility. I think they value words very highly and prefer their comedies to have a bit of irony and not be simply “on the nose.” I think Kirk Jameson’s production uses that lens to make the material work for a British audience while at the same time respecting the original.
In your opinion, what are the major differences between theatre in New York and London?
That’s a big question. And whatever differences there are might even be disappearing a bit. American-style musical theatre, and I mean by the newer composers and writers, now seems to have been adopted by writers in many other countries, including Britain. Almost an international style. I’m also amused by the way my own twenty-year-old show is interpreted these days! Sure it’s about love and sex. But what we portrayed under the covers in 1996, is now much franker, and out in the open!
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m excited to be working on two new shows. Both have taken many years, and both are finished at last, ready for the next step. All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go takes place in a quirky motor inn near Buffalo, New York on the day that an extended Amish family and a busload of cross-dressing men are marooned there during a vast blizzard. Three days and nights – and everyone’s been changed by checkout time!
The other musical is called Rex & Lilli & The Master – it concerns the great Rex Harrison, and propels him from the austerity of postwar Britain to the excesses of Hollywood in the Fifties and beyond. What fame can do and what it does do to Rex and his wife, Lilli Palmer – and through all of this saga, we are escorted, charmingly, by Rex and Lilli’s dear friend, Noel Coward, our narrator/host. The great thing about this one is that I’ve collaborated with Rex Harrison’s brilliant son, the playwright and novelist, Carey Harrison. Carey has created a clear-eyed, affecting portrait of two fascinating people who happened to be his parents, as well as Noel Coward, who happened to be his friend.