Theater archives

That’s Underattainment


Americans claim to be uninterested in the past, but really all they want is to have it marketed in new packaging. That something essential might get lost in the repackaging never seems to occur to them, nor are they perturbed by the way it increases the distance between them and the reality they’re trying to grasp. Sip a Classic Coke, pop a shot-for-shot remake of Psycho into the VCR, and you’ll never notice that the George Bush who’s pretending to be president now isn’t the same one who nominally served as veep when Nancy Reagan was president.

Our American uncertainty about the past is at the core of Sweet Smell of Success, a new musical based on a much cherished movie, itself now 45 years old, that has great malicious fun raking over old scandals of the two preceding decades. Though a lot of intelligent and skillful work has gone into the musical—John Guare’s spruce and sardonic book is actually better constructed than the Odets-Lehman screenplay—the overall feeling it gives is one of puzzled purposelessness. Why we’re being told this story, who its people are to us, why their travails should be set to music, are things the show’s creators have never figured out. The effect is as if a nice plateau in the hilly landscape had been moved from its fixed position into a Broadway theater, on the same justification people give for climbing high mountains: because it was there. Some people just won’t take that as a cue for leaving a peak in peace.

The movie was made by people with no bridges to New York showbiz that couldn’t be gleefully burned: Its stars, Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, were too big to contemplate stage appearances (Broadway didn’t cast via Hollywood in those days); director Alexander Mackendrick was strictly cinema, famous for his British triumphs with sharp-edge comedies like Whisky Galore (known here as Tight Little Island) and The Man in the White Suit. (His directorial career fizzled out strangely after Sweet Smell‘s box-office flop, and he spent much of his later decades teaching.) Of the two men who provided the ripe, salty dialogue that’s the movie’s chief glory, the senior partner, Clifford Odets, was nearing the end of his career, notoriously sour on both New York and Hollywood as mills for money and gossip; his junior, Ernest Lehman, author of the novella on which the movie’s based, had already been well placed on the Hollywood ladder for a decade, with one Oscar nomination already and another (for North by Northwest) shortly to follow.

The vision these men created of New York’s live-entertainment industry is that of a closed-off, gangsterish underworld to which talent, training, charisma, popularity, love, friendship, compassion, and loyalty are all irrelevant. Everything’s run by money, manipulation, and blackmail, with the power of the press simply an extension of those things—the tip of the iceberg that happens to get into print. While this undoubtedly pleased Hollywood as an image of New York, Odets and Lehman expanded its horizons with whiffs of topics that didn’t normally get past the production code in 1957, including incest, drugs, and false accusations of Communism—the latter hitting extremely close to home for Hollywood, which pursued blacklisting much more diligently than New York ever did. (The issue carried a personal sting for Odets, who had named names and later regretted it.) Adding a little gossip of its own, the film visibly modeled its central monster, kingpin columnist J.J. Hunsecker, on the notoriously merciless Red-baiter and manipulator of favors Walter Winchell, then in his decline (though to play it safe, the double initials suggested an earlier columnist, O.O. McIntyre).

These elements hardly make viable material for a musical show—not because they’re sordid, but because they effectively imply that no such show can be any good; people who think all castles are sand castles don’t usually start castle-construction firms. For all the skill that’s gone into it and all the talent in its cast, Sweet Smell, the musical, hardly gets through a minute of glory without starting to crumble again. The four or five perky, percussive jazz phrases on which Marvin Hamlisch has built much of the score run dry, never blossoming into melodies. Craig Carnelia’s workaday lyrics show an occasional glimmer, but near-zero dazzle. Bob Crowley’s set is framed by a towering canyon of glam-lit skyscrapers, up to which your eyes keep wandering, possibly because everything at ground level looks either drab or murky, especially Crowley’s costumes for the chorus, which badly needs not only differentiation but identification. Are these people, with their constantly shifting advice, in Sidney Falco’s head, are they hangers-on in the business, or are they ordinary joes and jills on the street? I have no idea, and I doubt that director Nicholas Hytner does; his solution is to keep them as close as possible to the borders of Natasha Katz’s harsh, flat pools of light. And Christopher Wheeldon’s choreography, miles from the quirky inventiveness of his NYCB work, gives them almost nothing to do that doesn’t look like background filler from a deep-focus movie shot, except that here the two leads are usually not talking in the foreground.

Against these shortcomings, we get bright, clean-lined performances from those leads, John Lithgow as Hunsecker and Brian d’Arcy James as his quasi-parasite Falco, along with Kelli O’Hara and Jack Noseworthy as Hunsecker’s sister and her musician beau, the loving couple broken apart by Falco’s Hunsecker-inspired machinations. Guare’s Susan Hunsecker is feistier and more hip than her movie equivalent, a change O’Hara seizes enthusiastically (in this version it’s Sidney who starts out naive), while her boyfriend Dallas has evolved from a jazz drummer to a solo singer-pianist in the Bobby Short mode. Noseworthy, whose glittery pop-tenor vocal tone and corrupted-choirboy good looks make him the show’s most interesting presence, has been rewarded with its closest thing to a good song, “One Track Mind.” The hints the four principals give of what Sweet Smell might have been in more daring or imaginative hands are seconded in the brief flashes we get of two minor performances that ride only on Guare, without benefit of song or dance: Joanna Glushak as Hunsecker’s tart secretary and Eric Michael Gillett as a seedy rival columnist. In scattered moments like theirs, you start to think that maybe Sweet Smell of Success might have made a tough, smart, scary new musical after all.

The legendary Sam Goldwyn might have produced such a musical, if he’d been interested in the theater as anything other than a place to shop for “properties.” A born gambler, all he knew about art was what he liked (which is enough, if you’re honest about it), and he had a fondness for sticking his neck out that led to some pretty good movies. And despite his boast that he only made family pictures, many of them—Street Scene, Dodsworth, Dead End, The Little Foxes—were based on the kind of realistic stage works that made other Hollywood moguls uncomfortable, bearing truths that were the moral equivalent of Harold Russell’s absent hands in The Best Years of Our Lives, also a Goldwyn production.

Some of this Goldwynic reality, and some of the fundamental integrity behind it, are included in Alan King’s performance of Mr. Goldwyn, although the patchy script, by two writers likely to remain obscure, has all the steady focus of a handheld camera operated by a team of chimps. Bits of Goldwyn authenticity, bits of Goldwyn myth (both pro and anti), sidebar chunks of Hollywood history and anecdote, running gags, hit-and-running allusions to historical events—like many patchworks, it makes a diverting if aesthetically dubious effect. King, carefully harmonizing his own joke-cracking presence with Goldwyn’s stress-filled, careworn but cunning reactions at a pivotal moment (the Radio City premiere of Hans Christian Andersen), makes out the best possible case for the writing. He has some able assistance from Gene Saks’s nimble, steady-pressure staging, David Gallo’s spacious set, and Lauren Klein as Goldwyn’s sternly supportive secretary. The better King is, though, the more you wish his script would face the historical facts straight on: A pro forma expression of indignation at HUAC only makes you wonder how Goldwyn dealt with the blacklist, and the constant phone calls from Farley Granger (a running gag) seem like coy allusions to a Hollywood story about which it’s too late to be coy. (The curious can consult Arthur Laurents’s version of Granger’s Hollywood life in Laurents’s recent autobiography.) Still, when the honesty hits home, or when King scores with an immaculately timed joke, it’s hard not to be indulgent with Mr. Goldwyn. Where else in town will you hear a producer declaring that he hates writers because “they bite the ass that feeds them”?

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