My college roommate had the cool computer: an Osborne I. It was clearly a developer's box, with a full 64 kilobytes of memory, a tilt-out modular keyboard straight out of Space: 1999, and two 5¼-inch floppy disk drives.
Meanwhile, I trundled by with occasional sessions on my stepfather's Radio Shack computer whenever I went home. The TRS-80 had one-fourth of the Osborne's memory, and it still loaded its software from cassette tapes. When prompted, you'd put one into the cheap black Realistic tape deck, connect the cord from the computer to its earplug jack, and press play.
So I'm safely in the target audience for Nerds, a musical comedy that traces the epic corporate rivalry between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, the visionary and sometimes ruthless founders of Microsoft and Apple, back to the dawn of microcomputing in the mid-1970s.
Playwrights Jordan Allen-Dutton and Erik Weiner (who also serve as lyricists) and composer Hal Goldberg began workshopping versions of this show 10 years ago. Since then, a 2005 production headlined the New York Musical Theatre Festival, and a Philadelphia run garnered two of that city's Barrymore Awards, for best original music and best new play, in 2007.
Six years later, the current production in Fletcher Opera Theater is being billed as a "pre-Broadway engagement." At this stage in its development, an unflappable cast puts the production's machinery smoothly through its paces.
But Nerds' New York prospects largely depend on that city's taste for a lampoon that's every bit as broad and outlandish, but decidedly less manic, than the similarly telescopic "histories" by the Reduced Shakespeare Company. Its chances are not particularly helped by a script that feels too formulaic too often, its oversimplified one-note characters, an even uglier reduction of women characters to sexually deprived onlookers and patsies, and a score that, while never less than competent, remains frequently less than memorable.
In the obligatory energetic opening number, "I Hope I Win," Gates (Stanley Bahorek) and Jobs (Darren Ritchie) go up against each another at a homebrew computing competition in 1975. When Gates loses, we get the similarly obligatory change-up in his character's sad and introspective paean, "I Am Just a Nerd." The lyrics here occasionally evince glimmers of promise and wit. At one point, the bespectacled geek reminds us, "When you have four eyes, that's twice as many tears," after bemoaning his lucklessness at romance: "I always get rejected / It hurts me in the heart / Although my pocket is protected."
But the flimsy psychoanalysis presents a sketch instead of a character: a bullied victim who ultimately will become a bully himself. Jobs doesn't fare much better as a lubricious salesman who snows supporters and lovers with mystic New Age patter.
There are jokes aplenty, and not too many of them require extensive knowledge of CP/M, MS-DOS or other Jurassic tech arcana. The rewarding payoffs include the fee Gates supposedly pays Tim Paterson (sad-sack Matthew Allen Wilson) for his operating system and a send-up of Apple's famous "1984" commercial for the Macintosh. And a handful of the show's references to geek love—and lust—are just sweet. Naïve, misguided and socially awkward—yes, all those too. But sweet nonetheless.
Aside from that, there are precious few surprises. A workmanlike tango ("Let's Merge") accompanies a sequence devoted to an unfriendly corporate seduction and takeover. A by-the-numbers gospel-tinged selection serves as this show's 11 o'clock song ("Think Different"). And the climactic courtroom scene covering Microsoft's antitrust trial in 1996 devolves into a contrived "Battle of the Century."
What follows is a conclusion even more bogus than what has preceded it. One of the fictitious women mentioned above convinces a deranged Gates to redeem his humanity and then deliver a closing curtain speech conveniently wrapping up the show's meaning—such as it is—for us.
I'm afraid this show needs a lot more debugging if it's ever getting out of beta.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The twilight of the geeks."