Comedy Undercut ‘The Life.’ Billy Porter Looks for Its Humanity.

When “The Life” opened on Broadway in 1997, the sex trade in Times Square that it depicts was no longer a prominent feature of the area. Likehat my polished Midtown Mantan, the musical, about the women and men who once made it a prostitution, was sufficiently family-friendly for my parents to take me see it, at the age of 15, first Broadway show.

We came to New York to see “Rent,” Jonathan Larson’s portrait of la vie bohème, which had opened the previous year. After reading newspaper listings, my father chose “The Life” as another show for us to catch while in town. And despite its ostensibly R-rated subject matter (which we assume he somehow overlooked), it was perhaps no more adult in theme than “Rent.” Set circa 1980, “The Life” is also about lovers and strivers doing their best to survive a harsh and unforgiving city.

But the Broadway production of “The Life” shared more DNA with droll Gotham fables like “Guys and Dolls” and “Sweet Charity,” another musical about dreams of escaping the sex trade composed, some 30 years earlier, by Cy Coleman, whose score for “The Life” is filled with magnetic melodies and brassy hooks. A hybrid comedy-drama, “The Life” was jazzy and jaunty, with a touch of vaudeville and the blues.

With lyrics by Ira Gasman, and a book by Coleman, Gasman and David Newman, “The Life” imagined the sex workers who populated Times Square as showbiz types with verve and moxie. (Vincent Canby’s critic’s essay in The New York Times praised the production’s “go-for-broke pizazz.”) Propelled by electric performances, “The Life” was nominated for 12 Tony Awards and won two, for best actor featured in a musical ( Chuck Cooper) and for the best featured actress in a musical (Lillias White, whose volcanic rendition of “The Oldest Profession” was the first time I’d witness a show-stopping ovation).

Though my life could not have been further from “The Life,” there was a restlessness and defiance to the characters that I recognized in my own, as the gay son of immigrants growing up in a mostly white Michigan suburb. Listening to the cast recording, I channeled my angst and alienation into songs like “My Body” and “Why Don’t They Leave Us Alone,” anthems of autonomy and self-determination.

And while I could easily relate to yearning for love and escape, “The Life” was not the lesson in hard truths — about racism, poverty and carceral injustice — that it might have been. Though the musical ended in tragedy, comedy kept the so-called hookers and pimps, and their dire straits, at a wry remove. The characters seemed designed for the purposes of entertainment, not to inspire understanding of their interiority and circumstances.

“The comedy was doing the storytelling a disservice,” said Billy Porter, who has reconceived a new production of “The Life” for New York City Center’s Encores! series. The show, which begins performances on Wednesday, will be his directorial debut.

Like most writers working on Broadway at the time, the creators of “The Life” were white men; Their story didn’t ask audiences to consider why its mostly Black characters, many of whom are women, were trapped to begin with — only that they wanted out. With his revision, Porter, 52, said he intended to make “The Life” a darker and more clear-eyed drama, humanizing its characters and foregrounding their social disadvantages.

Porter, who last year concluded his run as Pray Tell on the FX series “Pose,” played a principal role in early developmental workshops of “The Life” but was not ultimately cast when the show moved to Broadway. He says he believes in the purity of its creators’ intentions. “They wanted to be allies, and they were,” he told me during a lunch break at a recent rehearsal. “The music is extraordinary, that’s why we’re doing it at all.” Still, he noted that this story was problematic in the absence of more context.

Encore! first approached Porter about directing “The Life” in early 2020; inequalities exposed by the pandemic and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement have only fueled the urgency behind his vision for the show. “We have to make sure everybody understands that there are systems of erasure and he caste in place, where if you’re born in a system, you stay in that system,” he said. “We can’t unsee it anymore.”

The plot remains intact, but characters stuck in “The Life” are presented in more fleshed-out detail — not only with back stories and more vivid inner lives, but with fates beyond the action onstage. Much of this information comes from the narrator, Jojo, originally played by the white actor Sam Harris. In Porter’s iteration, the role has been expanded and will be played by Destan Owens, who is Black. “I wanted the narration to be told through our eyes and our voice,” Porter said.

Reflecting on the summer of 1980, when New York City was on the verge of bankruptcy, Jojo tells the audience, “We were all like crabs in a barrel,” scratching and clawing to get out. (Jojo made it to Los Angeles, he says, where he now runs his own PR firm.)

There’s Fleetwood (Ken Robinson), a Vietnam veteran succumbing to the city’s crack epidemic, and his lover Queen (Alexandra Gray), who learns that her cash from turning tricks has not been going to their escape fund. There’s Memphis (Antwayn Hopper), the fly, ruthless kingpin who drives a wedge between them for his own gain. And there’s the worn out and weary Sonja (Ledisi, in the role originated by White), whose character has been deepened from soulful comic relief into a tragic harbinger of what’s to come.

Where the original subtly hinted that Sonja is suffering from HIV, the first cases of which were diagnosed around the time “The Life” is set, Porter foregrounds her declining health, adding a scene in which the women receive supportive services at a community clinic. That’s where Queen, who is transgender in Porter’s revision, also receives hormone treatments. To Porter, these aspects of the characters’ lives come with the clarity of hindsight.

The music of “The Life” also aims to be more reflective of post-disco New York, in new orchestras and arrangements by James Sampler. While honoring Coleman’s original melodies, Sampliner said the revival’s sound, which he called “down and funky,” would be far from the original’s big-band jazz, citing sonic influence like Earth, Wind & Fire, the O’Jays, Chaka Khan and Isaac Hayes. “It’s just got stank all over it,” he said.

The Encore! series, which began its first season under new leadership last month with “The Tap Dance Kid welcomed,” has long substantial revisions to its short-running revivals of American musicals (as the book is often the problem with those rarely seen). But preserving original orchestras and arrangements has also been part of its mission, so “The Life” represents an artistic departure.

It is also the first of what the artistic director, Lear DeBessonet, and the producing artistic director, Clint Ramos, call an auteur slot, giving artists like Porter the encouragement to reimagine works from their personal perspective. Porter’s revision has the support of Coleman’s estate, as the musical isn’t often produced because of its mature content.

Will “The Life” still have laughs? “It’s going to be a full gag,” Porter said, adding that he considers himself a hopeful entertainer. “Even when it’s dark, that’s our job.” The humor won’t be put on to make anyone feel more comfortable, he added. Rather, it will come from the often painful truths of the situation (like Sonja asking for a doctor’s note to show her pimp).

The grit and perseverance that women like Sonja and Queen taught me at a young age remains as well — lessons perhaps rendered more poignant by a fuller picture of the odds stacked against them. And “The Life” may also speak with hard-fought wisdom for troubled times, to a city emerging from another difficult chapter.

“We choose hope, not because things are joyful or hopeful,” Porter said. “But in order to live.”

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