The hustlers, criminals, starlets, cops, reporters and power brokers of Sweet Smell of Success move like a jazz infected Greek chorus in the dark world of the new Marvin Hamlisch-Craig Carnelia-John Guare musical, opening on Broadway March 14.
Following its Dec. 23-Jan. 27 Chicago tryout, during which its writers and director Nicholas Hytner learned new things about their developing musical, the company plunged into rehearsals toward New York previews that began Feb. 23. Changes were made to the show following the feedback of Windy City critics, though choreographer Christopher Wheeldon's ensemble (one of the embraced aspects of the show in Chicago) still struts menacingly, egging on the hungry press agent, Sidney Falco (played by Brian d'Arcy James), who makes a deal with the devil in the form of powerful columnist J.J. Hunsecker (played by John Lithgow).
When the musical by librettist Guare, lyricist Carnelia and composer Hamlisch played the Shubert Theatre in Chicago, it was intermissionless, but it was decided for practical reasons to put a break in the darkly comic, muscularly-jazzy musical. Carnelia previously told Playbill On-Line the show had been inching over two hours long and there were questions about how long a contemporary audience was comfortable sitting. "While we've been making little cuts all along, we've also been adding," Carnelia said. "The minute we went to two acts, we were able to do more of that." A natural place to break the story was identified, so the intermission was added. "We had a sense the audience would be much more drawn into our [story] if we'd given them a break," Carnelia said. (Theatre owners like the break for commercial reasons — selling concessions.)
The musical is based on the novella by Ernest Lehman and the 1957 film of the same name, with screenplay by Lehman and Clifford Odets.
About rewrites in Chicago, Carnelia said at the time, "This time around, as opposed to the workshops, almost everything we've done has had to do with clarity and storytelling — figuring out exactly what the plot is we're trying to forward and making sure we're doing that. Guare has been doing a lot of work, Marvin and I have been doing mostly surgical work, meaning we haven't written any new songs in Chicago, but we've done lots of work within songs. Lots of it. I would say, since we started rehearsal, we've made shifts within more than half the songs."
The Broadway Playbill for the first preview (and the opening night) lists a slightly changed sequence of musical numbers than appeared in Chicago. The first Act One number is called "The Column" (rather than "The Rumor"); the last Act One section, called "End of Act I, has been added; a song for Susan and Dallas, "That's How I Say Goodbye" has been cut since Chicago; and the final sequence of Act Two, "Pier 88" has been replaced by something called "End of Act II." It is customary in previews for the creators to cut, add, paste, rewrite and reshape their material.
According to the opening night Playbill, the musical numbers include:
"The Column" (Ensemble & Sidney), "I Could Get You in J.J." (Sidney), "I Cannot Hear the City" (Dallas), "Welcome to the Night" (J.J., Sidney & Ensemble), "Laughin' All the Way to the Bank" (Club Zanzibar Singer), "At the Fountain" (Sidney), "Psalm 151" (J.J. & Sidney), "Don't Know Where You Leave Off" (Dallas & Susan), "What If" (Susan & Ensemble), "For Susan" (J.J.), "One Track Mind" (Dallas), "I Cannot Hear the City" Reprise (Dallas), "End of Act I."
"Break It Up" (J.J., Sidney & Ensemble), "Rita's Tune" (Rita), "Dirt" (Ensemble), "I Could Get You in J.J." Reprise (Sidney), "I Cannot Hear the City" Reprise (Susan & Dallas), "Don't Look Now" (J.J. & Ensemble), "At the Fountain" Reprise (Sidney & Ensemble), "End of Act II" (J.J., Susan, Sidney & Ensemble).
Stylistically, the songwriters have created a score that is filled with recurring themes and musical scenes, and not simple "numbers." Rita's Tune, for example, is the second song in Act Two, but a lot of territory is covered before the tarnished girlfriend of Sidney has her hopeful number about the future.
To a high-powered Manhattan newspaper columnist like J.J. Hunsecker, Chicago is just the "second city" compared to his beloved Gotham, but, nevertheless, he made his debut in the Windy City Dec. 23, 2001, singing in the first preview of the out-of-town tryout of Sweet Smell of Success.
John Lithgow (TV's "Third Rock Form the Sun," Hollywood's "The World According to Garp") plays Hunsecker, the egomaniacal 1950s gossip journalist (read Walter Winchell) who makes and breaks careers in the dark, cynically comic story first written as a novella by Ernest Lehman. The 1957 film starred Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis (as a toadying press agent, Sidney Falco). The musical has Titanic's Brian d'Arcy James as the slimy Sidney. Guare penned Six Degrees of Separation. Director Hytner is known for Miss Saigon. New York City Ballet's Christopher Wheeldon choreographs.
Singing and dancing their way through a dark and jazzy Manhattan world of cafe society are Kelli O'Hara (as J.J.'s sister, Susan), Jack Noseworthy (as musician Dallas, Susan's squeeze) and Stacey Logan (as cigarette girl Rita O'Rourke), with Timothy J. Alex, Mark Arvin, David Brummel, Jamie Chandler Torns, Kate Coffman-Lloyd, Bernard Dotson, Allen Fitzpatrick, Jennie Ford, Lisa Gajda, Eric Michael Gillett, Laura Griffith, Joanna Glushak, Michelle Kittrell, Jill Nicklaus, Steven Ochoa, Michael Paternostro, Eric Sciotto, Elena L. Shaddow, Drew Taylor and Frank Vlastnik.
Designers are Bob Crowley (set and costumes), Natasha Katz (lighting) and Tony Meola (sound). Orchestrations are by William David Brohn. Musical direction is by Jeffrey Huard.
What attracted producer Marty Bell, one of the producers, to the project?
"When I was kid my parents' coffee table had ashtrays from El Morocco, The Stork Club and 21 and I remember them dressing up and going out," Bell previously told Playbill On-Line. "I wanted to grow up and go to those places. This show was a chance for me to spend a few years in café society that I never got to be a part of..."
The original motion picture, "Sweet Smell of Success," was directed by Alexander Mackendrick and also starred Marty Milner, Sam Levene, Barbara Nichols, Susan Harrison, Joe Frisco and the Chico Hamilton Quintet.
Hamlisch, of course, wrote music for the Pulitzer Prize-winning smash, A Chorus Line, and Carnelia penned music and lyrics for Is There Life After High School? and Actor, Lawyer, Indian Chief, getting a staging by Goodspeed Musicals in spring. They consider themselves a team now, and are working on at least two new projects, including Bullets Over Broadway and Imaginary Friends.
Tickets range $26-$96. For ticket information, call (212) 239 6200.
Lehman, once a New York press agent (and later a successful screenwriter) based the character of Hunsecker on all-powerful New York Mirror columnist Walter Winchell. The story, in which Hunsecker sends Falco to bust up his sister's romance with musician Dallas, draws on real life events in which Winchell hounded his daughter Walda's boyfriend until they broke up, he eventually left the country and Walda was committed to a sanitarium.
The film was a flop upon release, but grew in stature over the years and is now considered one of the best films about New York City ever made.
To view Playbill On-Line's previous Brief Encounter interview with lyricist Craig Carnelia, click here.