Theatre yesterday and today

 

 

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ALL IN THE TIMING

Perhaps the greatest example of a show finding better timing the second time around is that of John Kander, Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse's Chicago. Though it managed a two-year run, its initial 1975 production starring the remarkable triumvirate of Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera and Jerry Orbach, was very much overshadowed that season by A Chorus Line, with its cast of Broadway gypsies and Donna McKechnie. Opening just two months prior to A Chorus Line, it might surprise you that Chicago got mixed reviews. Steven Suskin, in his book More Opening Nights on Broadway, cites six top critics broken down as 2 favorable, 2 mixed, and two unfavorable. Clive Barnes probably summed it up for most when he wrote "a great deal has been done with very little." And though it had a two-year run, it only sold out when Gwen Verdon was injured, and a game Liza Minnelli was brought in for nine weeks (then at the height of her fame, her performance as Roxie Hart became a must-see). I saw it on three occasions... and it was sensational every time.

Back when the Richard Rodgers Theatre was the 46th Street (1975).

Chicago's reappraisal came, as most everyone knows, after a weeklong run at City Center's Encores! in 1996. It transferred to Broadway a few months later and has been running ever since. The reasons why it has stayed for twenty-two years (so far) are numerous, but its critical reassessment boils down to one: its time had finally come. With this production coming less than a year after the O.J. Simpson verdict was handed down, Chicago's Billy Flynn coining the whole world "show biz" was now truly prophetic, bringing a brand new resonance (and relevance). Once thought a bit too bleak for Broadway, it was now bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Still retaining its sleek Bob Fosse choreography, with his well-known cynicism lovingly recreated by every flick of the wrist, Chicago turned into a hit that has now gone well beyond the nearly fifteen-year run of A Chorus Line.

So what's the next musical ripe for possibly finding life rosier the second time around? For my money, it's another show (like Chicago) that doesn't exactly dwell on the positive, and with a title that drips with irony: The Sweet Smell of Success. It's a musical based upon the short story by Ernest Lehman, and the screenplay he shared credit with Clifford Odets. It opened in 2002, sixteen years ago tonight, with unfortunate timing. It was six months after 9/11, perhaps too short a period for audiences to accept its darker aspects. At the time, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick were still packing them in a block away with their historic turn in The Producers, a show that made you "forget your troubles and come on get happy." Sweet Smell's producers were well aware they were bucking a tide in bringing their show in, but they were convinced of its quality. And they weren't wrong.

I'm a tremendous fan of the 1957 movie upon which its based, which is set in Manhattan in and around late-night hot spots like the Stork Club, in a world of gossip columns, then capable of destroying careers quicker than you can say "me too." I was concerned when the musical was announced, mainly by the inherent difficulty filling the shoes of Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster, who as a needy publicist and a powerful Walter Winchell-like columnist, may have hit career bests respectively in these roles. But in Brian D'Arcy James and John Lithgow, the musical found two actors who had what it took to make the parts of Sidney Falcone and J.J. Hunsecker their own. It also didn't hurt that it featured Kelli O'Hara creating her first original role on Broadway. Her performance on the recording, marking her CD debut, is stylishly original, which she would continue to prove over these last sixteen years. As Hunsecker, who only sings in four numbers, John Lithgow won the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical, the only award Sweet Smell earned out of its seven nominations.

Sweet Smell was composed by the late Marvin Hamlisch and Craig Carnelia, with a book by John Guare. For Hamlisch, already well known with hits like the aforementioned ACL and They're Playing Our Song, the lack of success for Sweet Smell probably didn't hurt as badly as it did Carnelia. This lyricist (who has also written the music to his own shows on occasion), has unluckily never had a bonafide hit in a career as a songwriter that began in 1978, when he contributed to the score of Working. Songs he wrote words and music to for that show: "Just a Housewife," "The Mason," "Joe," and the finale, "Something to Point To," are all excellent.

I urge you to listen to the CD of Sweet Smell, as to my mind, it is the best music Hamlisch ever composed for the theatre. Check in with me after you've heard the jazzy ballads and see if you agree that they are first rate, with intelligent and biting lyrics by Carnelia that positively soar as mightily as Hamlisch's tunes. And it's not for nothing that I say "soar," as it is the word used for a tremendous high-reaching note that D'Arcy James hits with all the power in his arsenal in his dramatic solo, "At the Fountain."

Always admired the black and white Weegee-style photos created for Sweet Smell.

Considering the daily dose of genuine "fake news" we now get (not the "fake news" Trump decries, which is actually real), Sweet Smell's journalistic setting would feel even more contemporary, even though it's set in 1952. However, there is one element to its book that is definitely worth reconsidering, which is the musical's ending. Spoiler alert: in the film's final scene, Sidney Falco is beaten badly by thugs hired by Hunsecker (shot in a pre-dawn Times Square in brilliant black & white by the great cinematographer James Wong Howe). In the musical (and this is pretty dark), Sidney is murdered. It happens offstage, but it is reported on by Hunsecker for his next day's column, wherein he pays tribute to his fallen so-called comrade. It's as cynical as it gets, perhaps too much so for a payoff that sent audiences out into the streets with a distinct chill, regardless of what the weather might have been.

With luck, the powers-that-be at Encores! will stage Sweet Smell of Success, maybe as soon as 2019. Maybe the Chicago scenario will play out again, with better timing forcing a re-evaluation of this most worthy musical.

If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.

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© 2016 Ron Fassler - All rights Reserved

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