Any dedicated, line-repeating Sex and the City fan knows there are at least two Sex and the City’s; the first seasons in which Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha exist in a fairly un-glossy New York, which have an echo of the pop-friskiness of Desperately Seeking Susan. Bathed in global popularity, the show thereafter transformed into a high-gloss, serious-fashion fairytale of princesses rejecting frogs and finding princes. Sex and the City was always a pleasure to watch, but its later seasons were a striking departure from its initial sharp celebration and interrogation of sexual freedom and being single, emphasis on the “being.”
Turn on your TV and the episodes are on repeat somewhere. Those of us who loved it and held viewing parties the first time around can and do watch it over and over again. How many times have I seen Carrie send that vase of carnations flying after Berger’s Post-it: “I’m Sorry I Can’t Don’t Hate Me—”? Oh reader, too many times.
The movies: well yes, they’re not good, particularly the ghastly second one. But like a bad relation, they are borne, not completely disowned. Mention them, and fans look as stricken as the gang did when Carrie momentarily became “fashion roadkill.” (But look, she’s up and smiling again, with Heidi Klum!)
This week, HBO premieres And Just Like That, which will show us where “the girls” are today, minus Samantha because Kim Cattrall and Sarah Jessica Parker famously fell out. Good or terrible, the series will join the canon, and its fans will welcome it. And here too is Candace Bushnell, from whose typewriter Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte originally sprang forth with a stage show called Is There Still Sex in the City?
However, instead of a bejeweled Manolo, what this show reminds you, indeed beats you over your head with bluntly and depressingly, is that everything is marketing now. The stage show is timed to perfection, opening at the Daryl Roth Theatre (to February 6), the same week as the TV show. Once you step inside the theater, there is a bar set up where you can pick up your Cosmo. After the show, you can drink more of them downstairs.
There on the stage is a snazzy New York apartment, clothes rails, Martini glasses, and all. And pounding merrily from the sound system, pre-Bushnell’s appearance, is a chart-topping megamix of female empowerment anthems like the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe.” The theme is both girls’ night out, and shameless brand extension. The pre-show atmosphere has all the expectant warmth of an all-ages fan convention. Around me, everyone seemed so excited to be there. Old friends were catching up, just as in a few days we will catch up with Carrie, Miranda, and Charlotte (and how much I want to add Samantha there too).
This is where the weird disconnect sets in, because Candace Bushnell wrote the book (spawned from newspaper columns) the TV show was based on, but she did not write the TV show that everyone knows and loves. And this stage show isn’t about whether there is still sex in the city, and it is not really about Sex and the City; the show, if it poses any question, is about whether there is still sex if you’re over 60, as Bushnell is.
And while there is the odd clip from the TV show, this is really a one-woman show about Candace Bushnell, and her life, and Sex and the City’s part in her enormous publishing success—which, she goes to great pains to point out, was about more than just Sex and the City. She even has slides of New York Times bestseller lists to show us the triumphs of Lipstick Jungle and the rest.
The problem, and it is not easy or pleasant for a Sex and the City fan to type this, is that Bushnell is not a great storyteller on stage. This is more a pastel-colored TED talk than a one-woman show, and it’s tonally pretty flat and scattered. The set is a Sex and the City-styled glamorous dream, and she looks amazing, but it feels like Sex and the City-lite; any deep story must have a glib zinger as a bookend.
It’s not that the stories are dull, but they are by rote. We hear of how “Candi” became Candace; how the smalltown girl became a fixture on the scene, then a fixture writing about the scene. Bushnell is most interesting talking about a New York life that is most recognizable, as a young writer trying to make it, mining her friends’ stories—how Sex and the City came to be constructed—despite their in-vain pleas for discretion. Sex and the City was a column in the New York Observer, and then, to her great excitement, a TV show.
She does detail her personal life, though she does not talk about Ron Galotti, the real-life Mr. Big, in detail. She does not talk about her ex-husband Charles Askegard, though she references that marriage and the shock of the return to single life following its end. And there is the blurred line, too unexamined, between Candace Bushnell and Carrie Bradshaw.
Today, Bushnell says, she remains single (the real Mr. Big and not Big both long gone), has moved out to Long Island, and lives around nature alongside the real-life Charlotte, Miranda, and Samantha, where they remain in a constant game of phone-tag, detailing their sexual and romantic misadventures. She loves her life, she insists.
This stage show is strangely nullifying for such a colorful, rollercoaster of a life. You will learn not much about Candace Bushnell and Sex and the City that you cannot already Google—although her stories of what it was like on the set of the TV show in the early days are thrilling moments of the fairytale coming true right before her eyes. If you are a fan, you won’t feel like it’s a waste of an evening, you may just feel underwhelmed, like the Cosmo wasn’t as ice-chilled as you would like, or the champagne cocktail a little flat.
It reminds you that Sex and the City was a fiction made by TV writers. We were not watching Candace Bushnell. And Candace Bushnell can’t be expected to be the TV show she inspired. Also: Most writers do not live like Carrie Bradshaw or Candace Bushnell, and most writers keep their wisdom for the page rather than performing it on stage for good reason.
The audience the night this critic went to see the stage show was audibly happiest when the theme tune to the TV show struck up, or a familiar clip played. Look at me, Candace Bushnell is saying, when the audience wants to look at the TV offshoot of the thing she created. Creativity can be cruel, even if the millions in the bank provide a comforting cushion.
What the stage show also makes tantalizingly clear is that the real life of Candace Bushnell and her other single friends is infinitely more intriguing than the married-off protagonists of Sex and the City. The dreary, Victorian conventions of the closing episodes of the original TV show—marry them off, make them believe in the savior aspect of love!—planed off a lived reality that would have been far more challenging, and rewarding, to dramatize than the glossy fairytale we ended up cherishing.
None of these cavils really matter, given that the revivified Sex and the City juggernaut is upon us. Here comes And Just Like That, just after this opening night. Here come the wall-to-wall articles about whether Sex and the City still holds up. And here are the fans, for sure reading every word of the media frenzy, but also just delighting in being among old friends again.