The Life


“New York's sleazy underbelly gets a musical sparkle”

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The low-life musical has a long history that includes Guys and Dolls and Irma La Douce. But where they swathed gambling and prostitution in fairytale fables, this show, first seen on Broadway 20 years ago, aims to capture the grit and grime of New York’s 42nd Street before it was cleaned up. For all the efforts of Cy Coleman (music), Ira Gasman (lyrics) and David Newman (who co-authored the book), The Life still can’t avoid putting a gloss on an essentially tawdry milieu.

The story shows sex worker Queen attempting to escape her world with her pimp and lover, Fleetwood, a Vietnam veteran and drug addict. When he goes after a new recruit to the game and Queen falls prey to a brutal hustler, their chances of flight are seriously endangered.

However, for all the songs about dreams, nothing matches There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This from Coleman’s Sweet Charity. The best numbers here are marginal to the main action. The ever-magnificent Sharon D Clarke at one point throatily informs us: “I’m getting too old for the oldest profession.” In Mr Greed, dance is used to remind us that gambling, like sex work, depends on gullible punters.

Michael Blakemore imaginatively re-creates a show he directed in New York and the performances are good. T’Shan Williams as the questing Queen, Cornell S John as a cool super-pimp and Jo Servi as a rhyming barman all impress. But the inherent exuberance of the musical form militates against Zola-esque realism and, for all its energy and verve, three hours is a long time to spend in this sleazy sub-world.


Author: Michael Billington

“Gut-churning story of drugs and defiance”

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Twenty-seven years on from its premiere Off-Broadway, this vivid musical portrait of urban squalor finally makes it to these shores. Michael Blakemore, who’s previously directed it on a grander scale, presides over a full-blooded production that’s comparatively modest in dimensions but not in ambition.

It’s a brutal and sometimes gut-churning story of desperate individuals lurking on the fringes of New York’s Times Square. Their currencies are drugs, sleaze and defiance, and the king of their grubby world is hard-faced Memphis, played with sinister magnetism by Cornell S John.

Buzzing around him are several lesser hustlers and the women they manipulate, all jockeying for position. Those who aren’t in his thrall, at least initially, include T’Shan Williams’s high-minded Queen and her damaged, reckless lover Fleetwood (David Albury), along with apparently innocent Minnesotan newcomer Mary (Joanna Woodward), who’s far cannier than she looks.

As betrayals multiply and violence flares, an eleven-piece band exuberantly relays the mixture of jazz, funk and gospel in Cy Coleman’s surging score. At nearly three hours it’s an overlong show — some of the tunes feel overstretched and the book is bumpy. But Ira Gasman’s lyrics are often pin-sharp, and the performances pulsate with vitality. The standout is Sharon D Clarke. As Sonja, a veteran of 15,000 paid encounters, she’s vocally majestic and an expert with the acerbic one-liners. 


Author: Henry Hitchings

The Stage

“Gritty and glorious"

The Times

“Fantastic jazzy blues, with lashings of showbiz thrown in”

South London Press

“A riot of noise and colour”


A gritty yet poignant depiction of life on the Times Square streets of the 1980s

Queen, a young girl from Savannah, and Fleetwood, a Vietnam vet with a drug habit, are trying to make it in a merciless New York. Queen is forced into part-time prostitution and ‘The Life’ describes how these two lovers move through this dark world until Queen is helped by her one true friend, an older more experienced hooker, Sonja, to make her escape.

On this journey, we meet Memphis, the all-powerful king pimp; the girls he controls; Jojo, the hustler, who makes it all happen; and the fresh-faced Mary, straight off the bus from small town Minnesota, only too eager to embrace what New York has to offer.

The Life features a rarely heard score by celebrated composer Cy Coleman (City of Angels, Sweet Charity, Barnum), and is based on an original idea by lyricist Ira Gasman. Featuring a book by Coleman, Gasman and David Newman, The Life first opened on Broadway in 1997, receiving 12 Tony Award nominations.

It is on at Southwark Playhouse for a strictly limited season until 29 April 2017, starring Sharon D. Clarke and Cornell S. John.