Warren Leight first published his Tony Award– winning play Side Man in 1998 in the United States. Inspired by his own autobiographical experiences in the music industry—his father was a jazz musician— the play also was inspired by the decline of the jazz industry itself. This memory play differs from similar works because the narrator, Clifford, ‘‘remembers’’ back to times before he was even born. Through these flashbacks, Clifford, who also talks directly to the audience members, drawing them into the action, chronicles the life and death of his parents’ relationship, a dysfunctional pairing that has had disastrous effects on Clifford’s own views of life. The narrative also makes uses of jarring time-and-place shifting effects, as Clifford’s story takes the audience back and forth from 1953 to 1985 and to various points in between. These chaotic transitions help to highlight the chaos of Clifford’s life and his parents’ relationship, as well as their failed dreams and irresponsible behaviors. At the same time, this combined effect helps to underscore the decline and fall of jazz and big band music, beginning in the 1950s as it was replaced by rock and roll and other forms of popular music. Side Man was the work that made Leight famous on Broadway, but in 2003, Leight returned to similar material when he published Glimmer, Glimmer, and Shine, another play about the pitfalls of the jazz life. Side Man is available in a 1998 paperback edition from Grove Press.
Side Man starts out in 1985, with the main character, Clifford, addressing the audience directly, a technique that he uses throughout the play. He notes that he has not seen his parents, and they have not seen each other, in a long time. The stage lights go down, and when they come up, Clifford is at his mother’s apartment for an awkward reunion. This is the first of many times that the production uses the stage lights to shift the action to a different time or place. The scene shifts again, and Clifford is at the Melody Lounge, where his father, Gene, is playing trumpet onstage with his old friends and fellow musicians, Ziggy, Al, and Jonesy. Clifford runs into Patsy, another one of the old gang. As they are catching up, the lights come up on another part of the stage, revealing Clifford’s mother in her apartment set, where she calls across the stage, asking Clifford a question. Clifford answers it, the lights go out at Terry’s apartment, and the action resumes in the Melody Lounge. Leight uses these types of interruptions, which do not always observe the normal laws of space and time, throughout the play. In some cases, as with the next interruption, where Terry talks about the musicians’ treating the unemployment office as a social event, Leight uses the interruptions to shift the narrative to another time.
The action shifts to 1977, when Clifford is twenty, and he receives his first unemployment check, an event that makes Gene proud. At a diner afterwards, the four musicians and Clifford eat and talk about the past. Jonesy, a former heroin addict, talks about the effects of addiction. Clifford talks about his scholarship to an out-of-state art school and notes to the audience that he cannot afford to take it. He has to remain in New York and help pay bills since Gene is content to work only long enough each year until he gets on unemployment. Instead, Clifford is going to work for an advertising firm in New York. Patsy comes by and offers to buy Clifford a drink for getting his first unemployment check. During the conversation, Gene spaces out, and Clifford notes to the audience that his dad is thinking back to 1953, before Clifford’s birth.
The action shifts back to 1953, and as the stage notes indicate, Clifford remains onstage for the rest of the act, narrating the action as it happens, even though he is not born yet. When Gene meets Terry for the first time, it starts off badly, with his being a show-off on his trumpet while she is having...
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