By John D. Delmar
Well, just what New York needs now ... a bitter, misanthropic musical showing the vermin and rats crawling out from an urban sewer. Liars, cheats and murderers. Guys who pimp their girlfriends just to get ahead. A columnist who reigns like an oriental despot, with an unhealthy Freudian attention to his sister.
Despite its grim subject matter, The Sweet
Smell isn't rank. True, it isn't as good as the film. It certainly
won't be a Broadway classic. But in many ways it is a better musical
than "The Producers," the very successful show covering
the same general era, cast of characters and locale. Both shows
depict the dark side of Times Square show business, circa 1950's.
But while "The Producers" gets cheap laughs from offensive
stereotypes (addled, horney old ladies; mincing, limp-wristed
gays), "Sweet Smell" confronts the serious issue of
of power, and does so with generally fine acting, creative choreography and evocative sets.
"Sweet Smell of Success" began as
a novella, written by Ernest Lehman. Lehman worked as a press
agent in New York, evolved into a magazine writer, and later went
on to write or co-write a number of hit films, including the saccherine-sweet
"The Sound of Music." In
1957, he co-wrote the script for the the film version of "Sweet Smell." His co-author was Clifford Odets, who had written "Waiting for Lefty" in 1935 and "Golden Boy" in 1937, but was a bit past his prime by 1957.
Lehman had seen the destructive power of columnist
Walter Winchell, a former vaudevillian, born poor in Harlem in
1897, who had
become a nasty, mean-spirited martinet. Winchell had a column in the worst tabloid in New York, The Daily Mirror, a Daily News wannabe that few read. Pete Hamill has written, however, that Winchell's "boots were delicately--and sometimes vulgarly - licked by press agents, entertainers, night club owners, theatrical producers, movie stars." Winchell's column was syndicated through Hearst to every state in the Union, and he had a popular Sunday night radio broadcast as well. A mention in Winchell's column could mean the difference between the sweet smell of success - or the stench of failure.
The central protagonist of "Sweet Smell" is a not very veiled Winchellesque columnist, J. J. Hunsecker, writing for a tacky tabloid, The Daily Globe. In the film version, it was played to perfection by Burt Lancaster. Lancaster had a sinister, yet pathetic quality, an aura of a lonely man who grasps power, hurting all those around him because he can.
John Lithgow is a very talented actor who performs
in a lot of trashy films (e.g., "Cliffhanger," "Buckaroo
Banzai") and sappy cult sit-coms ("Third Rock From the
Sun"), but every once in a while actually gets to act ("M.
Butterfly," "Requiem for a Heavyweight"). He has
the evil, despotic side of Hunsecker nailed, but has a more difficult
time showing his pathetic side, the side that needs a sister's
companionship, that needs attention. He also, unfortunately, doesn't
have a rough interior, the memory of the pain of poverty that
Lancaster's character expresses. Lancaster's Hunsecker needed sycophants and toadies because of his insecurities (as Winchell presumably did). Lithgow, however, exudes Harvardese diction and poise. We don't believe for a minute that he actually trod the boards in the vaudeville circuit, nor pounded out copy in tacky Times Square.
Hunsecker's toady, lighting his cigarettes,
doing his dirty deeds, is struggling flack Sydney Falco (Brian
d'Arcy James) a character that has become semi-mythical, like
Sammy Glick. Falco owes his very name to Hunsecker, and his future
depends on remaining in his good graces. Falco is an eager-to-please
gopher, hoping some of Hunsecker's power and influence will rub
off on him. James, who has a
very thin resume (acting in films like "The Bee" and "Sax and Violins"?) tries hard to look like he's trying too hard. He captures some of that Ed McMahon toadiness, the desperation of a loser press agent with seedy clients and no connections. Again, he's no Tony Curtis, who gave one of his greatest performances in the film version as a smarmy, driven Falco.
Kelly O'Hara is believable as Hunsecker's sheltered
sister, desperate to break loose from her dominering, obsessive
Big Brother. Her musician boyfriend, Dallas, played by Jack Noseworthy,
is a little less authentic, given rather forced jazz lingo and
what is supposed to
be a slight Western accent. Stacy Logan is outstanding as Falco's wronged girlfriend, treated like a 1948 Chevy, to be lent out to a friend in need. She generates pathos and humanity, a person with some soul left in a Hell where most souls have long since been sold out.
The director, Nicholas Hytner, has made it clear that this musical is about a Faustian bargain. In case we miss that Hunsecker is a Demonic Mephistopheles, his pact with Falco is sealed in St. Patrick's, by candlelight. Later, Hunsecker reminds Falco, "Freebies have a price!" And, in case you missed it, he repeats, "Time to give the devil his due!"
Hytner's experience has primarily been with
classical drama, with the National Theater in Britain, but he
has directed successful productions on Broadway of "Carousel"
and "Miss Saigon." He has missed a bit of the gritty
ethos of Times Square, but he gives the
production a certain dignity, including a Faustian Greek Chorus to implore or beseech the protagonists into action. He keeps the
characters in motion racing from nightclub to nightclub like neurotic rats in a wire wheel cage, chasing the elusive scent of success.
John Guare ("Six Degrees of Separation")
has wisely left in the iconic phrases of the original ("I
love this dirty town!"; "You're
dead, now get yourself buried!") but has obviously looked through many old newspapers to remind us of what was topical in 1952, from
Ike to Marilyn Monroe. Marvin Hamlisch ("A Chorus Line") has written more memorable tunes, and Craig Carnella, as lyricist, is fairly
pedestrian (an important love ballad repeats "Don't know where you leave off and I begin...").
The scenery, by Bob Crowley, is outstanding-- tall, claustrophobic towers surround the players, and reinforce the Stygian atmosphere. The nightclubs look suitably seedy, but the pseudo-clubs in the show (Casa Havana and Club Elysian) don't look much like their real counterparts, El Morocco, The Stork Club and The Latin Quarter. The dancers have a great deal of energy and zeal, and Christopher Wheeldon, resident choreographer with The New York City Ballet, shows originality and creativity, using the vocabulary of Fosse and Robbins in a fresh way.
The show ends on a grim and somber note. We
are to believe that New York City Police officers murder innocent
people on the whim of a columnist - a hard proposition to swallow
even after the tragic events involving Amidou Diallo, but harder
to accept after the
death of officers on September 11.
But "Sweet Smell" is intended as
a cautionary tale, not an indictment: Beware of the Faustian deal,
don't sell your soul for a plug in
a column-- and don't believe everything you read in the papers.