Bless John Simpkins for giving Sweet Smell of Success another chance.
The gifted director, who also teaches at NYU, staged a revival of the 2002 musical on campus two years ago. On Sept. 12, with Marvin Hamlisch being inducted in the NYU Hall of Fame, Simpkins felt that another revival of his 2002 musical was in order.
Zach Monroe was a sensationally oily JJ Hunsecker, the 1950s gossip columnist who had millions of readers and arguably as many enemies. Donald Coggin beautifully captured the desperate feelings of Sidney Falco, the publicist who would have walked through Times Square in a sunsuit if Hunsecker would deign to write about one of his clients.
Every man has at least one Achilles’ heel on his two feet, and JJ’s turned out to be his half-sister Susan (the extraordinary Jane Kivnick). JJ semi-lusted for her, although if she did hook up with the then-still-single Senator John F. Kennedy, he would have approved.
The original production of Sweet Smell started previews on Feb. 23, 2002 – only five months after the World Trade Center bombings. By mid-June, it was gone, even though John Lithgow had won a Best Actor in a Musical Tony for his JJ.
It’s often been said that the country wasn’t in the mood for a dark musical and preferred the far lighter (and lightweight) Mamma Mia! Truth to tell, that’s only part of the story. Nicholas Hytner’s production and Bob Crowley’s set missed the mark by a far greater margin than Annie Oakley did when purposely losing her shooting match to Frank Butler.
Not that Hamlisch was ever sorry he did it. Says Simpkins, “In Marvin’s visit to our first production, he talked about being guided only by his passions and beliefs in the projects that came his way. He told the cast and audience, ‘You go through your life and your career and you do the best work you can and you be the best person that you can. It’s like an old 35mm camera. You click and click and only later do you have a chance to look at all the photos and see how they all add up and what collective story they may tell about you as an artist.’”
Both productions by Hytner and Simpkins are but memories, but Sweet Smell of Success has lived on thanks to a recording session that took place on St. Patrick’s Day, 2002.
There’s an irony here: one song, “Psalm 151,” takes place in St. Patrick’s Cathedral; there, JJ makes Sidney swear that he’ll make certain that Susan won’t become involved with any improper man. But this song didn’t make the recording.
Everything else that did, however, is choice – including the occasional snippet from John Guare’s book, but of course mostly through Hamlisch’s exceptional music and Craig Carnelia’s pin-point perfect lyrics. While many a Broadway musical has had its book and lyrics written by the same person, here Guare and Carnelia split the duties – but you’d never know it. How expertly they spoke in one voice. As for Hamlisch’s music, I can’t say it better than his widow Terre Blair Hamlisch did: “The layering of motifs are a large part of the sophistication.”
Sweet Smell of Success, of course, comes from the 1957 film noir of the same name. Just as the musical has had a hard time getting its just due, so did the film when first released, although Burt Lancaster (JJ), Tony Curtis (Sidney) and Susan Harrison (Susan) got good reviews. However, even at the time, James Wong Howe’s black-and-white cinematography received raves for making New York City after dark look both exciting and dangerous.
And “exciting and dangerous” is a good way to describe much of Hamlisch’s music. His greatest achievement was capturing those feelings. “Welcome to the Night,” in which JJ and Sidney bond, has an inviting yet ominous mood. During “I Cannot Hear the City” – sung by Susan’s beau Dallas (Jack Noseworthy) — one can even envision that the side streets off the theater district have just been cleansed by a rainstorm.
Yes, Susan has a beau, and that he’s a lounge pianist certainly wouldn’t please JJ. However, Hamlisch and Carnelia surely pleased by writing marvelous pastiches of ‘50s supper club music. “One Track Mind” is particularly delightful as both the melody and the lyrics escalate. We also meet another club singer, although unnamed, at the Club Zanzibar, who delivers the swingin’ “Laughing All the Way to the Bank.” Carnelia’s lyric here is clever for another reason: after Liberace had said “I cried all the way to the bank” (in response to bad reviews), the line was both very much in the news and on people’s lips. That it was quoted so often could have spurred a popular song at the time.
JJ’s affection for his half-sister is best shown in “For Susan,” a lovely waltz. He uses it as an excuse to dance with her, but before the song ends, the action has moved forward in a way that takes the plot into the stratosphere.
A very different waltz — more deliberate, even majestic – is Sidney’s “At the Fountain.” It’s his metaphor for having arrived big time. What’s magical about Hamlisch’s melody and Carnelia’s lyric is that it somehow makes us have some sympathy for a guy who’s already been shown to be overly sycophantic.
Sidney has a girlfriend, Rita, who’s so excited that he’s going to spend the night with her after weeks of neglect. The song is simply called “Rita’s Tune,” but it could just have easily been called “Tonight’s the Night.”
And tonight’s a night as good as any other to listen to Sweet Smell of Success. Hear Hamlisch’s sinuous melody for “The Column,” the opening number, as well as “Dirt,” in which New Yorkers unapologetically show that nefariously inquiring minds always do want to know the seamy side.
Simpkins worked hand-in-hand with Terre Blair, Hamlisch’s widow, and wound up adding some material that had been dropped or never used in the 2002 production.
“They included one of my favorite songs from the show, ‘That’s How I Say Goodbye,’” says Blair of the song in which Susan informs Dallas that there’s no hope for their relationship. “I remember how sad Marvin was when it was dropped – less for himself, really, and more for Kelli O’Hara. He called her and let her know how bad he felt.”
This alone would warrant a New York University cast album. But until that comes along, we still have the original cast album of Sweet Smell of Success to return us to ‘50s New York nightlife in all its glamour and grime.