Edinburgh Fringe 2023
A very quick sketch of the life of the founder of Apple, Steve Jobs, set to minimalist music.
The scene is set with four Apple screens displaying the title of the show in white letters on black screens. A figure in jeans and a black roll-neck sweater taps on each of the four keyboards in front. The screens go black and the lights come up on the stage. More tapping on the keyboards, and the screen displays the year 1955. Steve Jobs, played by Stephen Smith, starts to tell his life story. Him being born, abandoned, and adopted. A picture of Steve Jobs with his adopted father appears on the far-left screen. The character Steve Jobs sings his first song, ‘Chosen’. With the next taps on the keyboards, the year 1962 appears. Steve is seven years old, and a playmate suggests that adoption doesn’t mean he was chosen, but that he was abandoned by his mother. This makes Steve question his identity. The musical stresses the hurt and attributes his difficulties in relationships to this question, despite his adoptive parents’ abundance of love. What the show doesn’t mention is that the Jobs went to court and fought to keep Steve when his biological mother found out that the Jobs weren’t college graduates and wanted the baby moved.
His dad, a mechanic, introduces Steve to the idea of simplicity in form and functionality. This striving for simplicity, which was a guiding force for Steve Jobs in his life and work, is also the concept of this show. Not only is the set of four Apple screens and keyboards simple yet very effective, but the music is also very minimalist. We have little melodic variation, and often the text is delivered in Sprechgesang to a simple electronic backing track. The show feels closer to a play with music than an actual musical.
In 1990, Steve Jobs mentioned in an interview that around the age of 12, he read an article that probably appeared in Scientific American. They measured the efficiency of locomotion of species on planet earth by kcal expenditure getting from point A to point B. While the condor came top of the list and humans, as the crown of creation, were only a third down, humans surpassed the condor in efficiency when they used a bicycle. It showed that humans were tool builders who could amplify their inherent skill set. Steve Jobs took from this that a computer is a bicycle of the mind. This interview is used verbatim in the show and becomes a theme to which it returns again and again.
Steve Jobs referred to taking LSD as a ‘profound experience’, and much is made of this in the show. Here, Joel Goodman, who wrote lyrics and music, could have turned the Scientific American article into a psychedelic inspiration that led Jobs to found Apple. However, we see four different kaleidoscopes turn and create endlessly new shapes in various colours on the screens, while Steve sits on the ground and trips unconvincingly. The kaleidoscopic colours seem a bit of a ’70s cliché. The music, however, could have made much more of his experience and maybe helped to transport the audience as well. As it stands, it falls flat and on the night I was in, it even produced giggles from some embarrassed younger audience members.
We learn about Jobs dropping out of college, which was paid for by his biological parents. While this is true, the show gives no explanation as to why the mother who apparently so carelessly abandoned her child then pays for his education. The true story is that his Catholic biological mother, a graduate, was forced to give him up, as she wasn’t allowed to marry his Muslim biological father, a Syrian PhD student.
Steve takes up calligraphy as it is ‘beautiful, historical, and artistically subtle’. The music at this point becomes very serial and reminds a bit of Philip Glass. As Steve Jobs’ love for Bach is well known and even mentioned a few times in this show, it might have been a good idea to write this section as a fugue, a musical form that is also ‘beautiful, historical, and artistically subtle’.
Jobs discovers Buddhism, and here the composer uses cultural references very well. Drumming and chanting create an eerie soundtrack to this scene. Most of Jobs’ lines are spoken, with the odd line sung to music that has a certain urgency.
We follow Jobs’ internal cleansing with his explanation of his strict vegan diet, which at least borders on an eating disorder if not crosses the line. The scene has a feeling of ridicule and feels insensitive. It went down well with the younger members of the audience, though.
Apple is founded, and a whirlwind of information follows. There is so much to Steve Jobs’ life that there isn’t really much time to stop and sing. There are few tunes in this production and hardly any points where the character Jobs halts and reflects, i.e., does the thing that really works in a musical.
The only number that stood out for me is ‘I’m back’, after Jobs returns to work at Apple. It is a cheesy show tune made even more fun with various colour slides popping up on the four monitors. Surprisingly this is more psychedelically than the LSD trip.
The show ends with the line ‘I am sorry I wasn’t there – I wish I had more time, now it is too late!’ and four muted interviews from different decades playing on a loop on the four monitors. This is a nice touch, showing the drastic physical change of Steve Jobs.