“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” It is one of the most memorable lines from the 1970 cinematic schmaltzfest, Love Story. It is #13 on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 Years … 100 Movie Quotes. It’s been parodied in countless TV shows and movies. And, as anyone who’s ever been in a relationship will contest, it is one of the stupidest lines of dialogue ever uttered on screen. (As John Lennon famously stated, “Love means having to say you’re sorry every 15 minutes.”) Thankfully, in Love Story, the musical, now being presented in an earnest production at the Walnut Street Theatre, the line is noticeably absent. The schmaltz, though, is as present as ever.
Like the movie and the book, Love Story, the musical tells the story of two ill-fated lovers: Jenny (Alexandra Silber), the brilliant, sarcastic-to-a-fault pianist and Oliver (Will Reynolds) the put-upon, athletic heir. After meeting at the Radcliffe library, their courtship is swift and intense, peppered with pet names like “preppy,” “bastard,” and “bitch.” Their marriage makes them choose between lifelong dreams and their relationship, and brings bitter consternation from their fathers (especially Oliver’s). But when Jenny is diagnosed with a terminal illness, their lives—and their love—is cut short.
As Jenny and Oliver, Silber and Reynolds give fine performances. With strong voices and resolute acting, they are engaging to watch. Silber is endearingly obstinate; Reynolds, with the Ryan O’Neal mussy curls, is effective. Even in moments of over-choreographed scenes, specifically the first time that they make love — which is more balletic (the removing of clothes, the unnatural positioning, the use of stage smoke) than naturalistic — there is a genuine connection between the two. Charles Pistone also gives a tender performance as Jenny’s father Phil, successfully fighting the tendency to veer into caricature.
The script by Stephen Clark (Olivier-award winning lyricist of Martin Guerre) borrows heavily from Erich Segal’s book and movie script. And, as such, it mechanically tugs at the audience’s heart and recreates the sob-inducing finale. The songs from award-winning composer Howard Goodall, with lyrics from Clark, contain memorable and hummable melodies, but stunt the scenes. Except for a few numbers—the wonderful “Pasta” which, with playful, pitter-patter lyrics and tight direction, is one of the few gleeful moments of levity in the show — most are disconnected from the scene. Instead of songs that continue the dialogue or engagement of the characters, they are often presentational soliloquies. Facing the audience, the character will sing what they are thinking, instead of actually saying it to each other. The effect is that for a show about love and connection, the songs frequently prevent interaction. For example, in “What Happens Now?” the characters Jenny and Oliver sing about their burgeoning relationship separately and, often, across the stage from each other.
Under the direction of Annabel Bolton, the musical does try to bring some realism to the show, particularly leading up to Jenny’s death. With tentative steps and wincing sighs, the audience understands when Jenny finally asks to be taken to the doctor. (Unlike the movie, where Roger Ebert coined the phrase Ali MacGraw’s Disease: “a movie illness in which the only symptom is that the sufferer grows more beautiful as death approaches.”) Ultimately, realism is hard to achieve when the cast are saying/singing things like: “I promise I’ll honor love,” or “[death]’s like falling off a cliff in slow motion,” or “love’s a bridge to cross an ocean.”
Those who have never seen the original movie or read the book will probably feel that Love Story, the musical is out of date and overly sentimental. But for many, that may be the best selling point. In the quiet of the theater, they can relive and cry the same tears they shed for a movie 42 years ago.