Thursday, April 3, 2008

Hearing the Sweet Smell of Success

On a recent trip to buy a new Broadway show CD, I picked out the 2002 Marvin Hamlisch/Craig Carnelia show Sweet Smell of Success, the adaptation of the Burt Lancaster film which, at this juncture, is a show most remembered for its cast. The role of J.J. Hunsecker won John Lithgow his Tony award, but it was golden-voiced Brain d’Arcy James (future Shrek and past stoker Frederick Barrett of the Titanic) who spent most of the evening on the stage. The Sweet Smell of Success would also be the OBCR rookie card for an ingĂ©nue named Kelli O’Hara. Unlike another prolific leading lady who also got her big, big break that season—Sutton Foster—O’Hara’s show didn’t win the Tony, but she walked away with an equally prolific career. Also of note in the cast is Frank Vlastnik, co-author of the favorite Broadway book Broadway Musicals.

In perusing written documentation of the work, critical response to the show is a curious mixture. In Broadway Musicals, Vlastnik and co-author Ken Bloom identify Sweet Smell of Success as a show in which the book (by John Guare) surpasses the music, though they also call the whole show ahead of its time elsewhere.

Ethan Mordden, premiere historian of the Broadway musical, includes the show in his chapter on “Five Special Shows” in The Happiest Corpse I’ve Ever Seen, his documentation of “The Last 25 Years of the Broadway Musical.” In this chapter, he discusses shows that he identifies as, well, special, unique, and probably the antithesis of his book’s title. He praises Sweet Smell of Success for taking a brilliant film and adding a lacking ingredient—reality, taking the film’s “stick figures” and creating human figures.

According to Barry Singer in Ever After, the show was actually a project initiated by Garth Drabinsky during the short-lived glory years of Livent, and his feelings on the result was, well, to be polite I’ll paraphrase Singer’s words, bad. Sony actually tried to back out of its contractual commitment to record the score, though, in a reported mist of secrecy, the show was thankfully recorded (If anyone wants to share the dirt . . . I’d like to hear!).

There’s not much like the joy of buying the Original Broadway Cast recording of a show you never saw, paging through the notes and pictures, and following the story being told in song. Sweet Smell of Success has the added bonus of beautiful cover artwork—a supreme use of black-and-white photographs to convey the essence of gossip-mongering with an appealing chalk orange that complements the tone. No matter how great the cover artwork, however, the experience is best when the score is worth discovering, and my purchase of Sweet Smell of Success has been among the best of experiences.

Why Marvin Hamlisch isn’t a regular presence on Broadway, I’ll never know. Perhaps it’s a result of all those happy royalties from A Chorus Line, but this twice in the seventies and once a decade thereafter isn’t enough!

Like the best of the contemporary scores, the plot of Sweet Smell of Success can be mostly followed through the recording. The plot concerns Sidney Falcone (Brian d’Arcy James), a budding press agent willing to scheme and fib to make it to the top, to catch the aroma of the sweet smell of success. However, on Broadway as in real life, one desperate action always leads to another when Sidney falls into the clutches of mega-time gossip columnist and power broker J.J. Hunsecker (John Lithgow’s role patterned after Walter Winchell). So close to his goal, Sidney becomes willing to do whatever he can to keep in the manipulative Hunsecker’s good graces. Kelli O’Hara is Susan, J.J.’s overprotected sister who is mad for singer Dallas Cochran, both of whom become pawns for the controlling J.J. Hunsecker and the desperate Sidney Falcone.

It is interesting to view Sweet Smell of Success in relation to Broadway’s traditional interpretation of the American Dream. In other musicals—The Pajama Game; Hello, Dolly!; Hairspray—the pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps hero/heroine is the successful embodiment of the American Dream. In Sidney Falcone we are presented with a character who is an equally realistic interpretation of the American Dream (if Dolly Levi is the “I worked hard to make it” dreamer, then Sidney Falcone is the equally truthful “I succeeded from the blood of others” dreamer). By the end of Sweet Smell of Success, one succeeds not from hard work or determination, but from one’s ability to outwit, outlast, and outplay.

What is unusual about the recording of Sweet Smell of Success is that while the story is undeniably bleak and filled with interesting repulsive characters who do repulsive things, to quote Little Sally, “the music’s so happy.” Okay, that’s not a completely accurate description, but whereas bleak shows like those of Michael John LaChiusa or Jason Robert Brown carry the weight of their themes in the music, an unsuspecting ear could easily think of the score to Sweet Smell of Success as something flashy and fun. Of course, there is darkness in the score—the disturbing base line in “For Susan” or the two-faced lyrics of “Don’t Look Now” for starters—but at heart, Sweet Smell of Success plays on CD like a big, classic Broadway musical, perhaps akin to Chicago in how the light is used to mask the dark.

What this means is that musically, Sweet Smell of Success is a great listen on CD, providing a showcase for Brian d’Arcy James who has, when given the music that showcases it, one of the best male voices on Broadway hands-down. His “At the Fountain” is a powerful testament to the hope-filled side of the American Dream, the title referring to a story he tells in which Lana Turner got discovered at a soda fountain, just as J.J. Hunsecker has discovered him.

Kelli O’Hara gets to shine with James in “What If,” another strong entry on a recording filled with them. In it, Susan pleads with Sidney to make a name for Dallas, while the chorus echoes the warning flags inside Sidney’s mind.

Another O’Hara gem is her duet with Jack Noseworthy “Don’t Know Where You Leave Off,” the prerequisite love song ingeniously sprinkled with sung dialogue, beautifully written and beautifully sung.

John Lithgow, not surprisingly, is one of those talents whose strength lies in interpretation rather than singing, so his few songs on the disc are marked with his intonations. His “For Susan” is both loving and wistful as well as pain-filled and dangerous. His highlight, though, is the vaudeville-styled “Don’t Look Now,” a great Broadway song in which he is the magician with “nothing up their sleeve” who only seeks “to deceive.”

In addition to Hamlisch’s music, kudos must be given to Carnelia’s great lyrics. Topped with exact rhymes, Carnelia’s lyrics dig into the passion and drives of the characters, alternating with wit and charm where needed (like the clever use of numbers in “One Track Mind”). Hearing the few intervals of sung dialogue (placed in the middle of songs) reminds the listener of how it can be done perfectly rather than perfunctorily as is often done in some un-named British shows.

In short, I love this score, and I'll have to make a point of getting the libretto.

After investigating on one of the best research tools available for musical theatre—Talkin’ Broadway’s All That Chat—it’s interesting to note how director Nicholas Hytner and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon handled the dual duties of the chorus, which act both as a traditional chorus and as the voice for Sidney’s inner thoughts (presumably similar to what happens in Jane Eyre). Here, to emphasize Sidney’s inner dialogue, the chorus was staged to surround Brian d’Arcy James (as Sidney) to sing to him, while their more traditional chorus parts were danced and performed in traditional chorus style.

Honestly, if I was still directing high school musicals, I would love to check into Sweet Smell of Success because in a production with a big cast, there would be a lot of play space for what the chorus could do and how they could be used to interpret Sidney’s thoughts, particularly when the director could divide the chorus into two categories. With completely different actors in each chorus, a different set of costumes, and a clever use of lights, there’s much that could be done with this music.

Sadly, the song “Dirt” preserved by the Tony Awards is oddly one of the least-memorable of the bunch on the CD. Sweet Smell of Success announced closing the performance after that Tonys airing—a moment touchingly retold by John Lithgow on a bonus interview on the Show Business: The Road to Broadway DVD. Perhaps the plot was simply too bleak, too inaccessible. Maybe it was the harsh reviews. Sweet Smell of Success survived only about 3.5 months (109 performances and 18 previews) in the Martin Beck Theatre. Once again, thank God for cast recordings, for whatever the show was on stage, on CD, it makes for a great listen.

the Broadway Mouth
April 3, 2008

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have no gotten into writing shows and other things yet but I have published a song that I wrote on here. Feel free to check it out on my page. It is called "One in a Million" if you haven't checked it out already.