Sweet Smell of Success, the juicy, jazz-pumped new musical starring John Lithgow as a powerful, venal columnist in the 1950s, ends its run in Broadway June 15 after being smeared by today's critics and columnists.
Why this once-promising show had such a short life has been the talk of armchair critics and industry folk since it opened to largely negative reviews March 14. It lost its entire investment of some $10 million.
The company at the Martin Beck Theatre was informed of the decision to close before the June 3 performance. By June 15, it will have played 19 previews and 108 regular performances.
Drawn from the film of the same name and headlined with star John Lithgow, who won the 2002 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical June 2, the show could not overcome mostly negative reviews (there were a couple of favorable notices) that came after several years of hopeful, positive buzz.
Sweet Smell of Success, directed by Nicholas Hytner and written by composer Marvin Hamlisch, lyricist Craig Carnelia and librettist John Guare, was thought by many to be the hope of the new season — an aggressive, grown-up American musical about competition, ego, sensationalism, power, greed and (as they say in the show) "dirt" in post-World War II America. Word following workshop stagings was very positive. When the show played a tryout in Chicago in late 2001 and early 2002, critics there did not embrace it. Subsequent changes were made to the show, including a surprise ending different that what was seen in the Windy City.
Lithgow plays J.J. Hunsecker, the powerful Winchell-like columnist who takes a young press agent, Sidney Falco (played by Brian d'Arcy James), under his wing only to use him to spy on his independent young half-sister (Kelli O'Hara). It was nominated for seven Tony Awards including Best Musical.
While the show seems to represent the story the creators wanted to tell, the way they wanted to tell it, it's likely the show will eventually resurface regionally in a tinkered form (this is the kind of rich flop that theatres such as The Marriott Theatre in Chicago love to re-explore).
The Broadway cast album of Sweet Smell of Success was released April 23 from Sony Classical.
The musical opened March 14. 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.
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 musical.
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, who makes a deal with the devil in the form of powerful columnist J.J. Hunsecker.
The Martin Beck Theatre, home to Kiss Me, Kate recently, is where Sweet Smell's Manhattan skyline of 1952 looms large and menacing — the set and costumes are by Bob Crowley.
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 musical.
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.
The 1957 film starred Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis (as a toadying press agent, Sidney Falco). 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.
The musical has Titanic's Brian d'Arcy James as the slimy Sidney. Lithgow is widely known for the TV series, "Third Rock From the Sun." 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.
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..."
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.
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.