How to succeed in business without really trying — merely by lending your pad to your bosses for their little liaisons — is the lesson to be learned from Promises, Promises, which began its first Main Stem revival April 25 at the Broadway Theatre. Sean Hayes of "Will and Grace" is slow to show those qualities in the role of Chuck Baxter, a nebbish accountant who discovers the key to his apartment can get him into the executive wash-room if he plays his cards right — only what's "right" in this situation? The strategy only produces a morally compromised hero to root for.
Alongside Finch, the fiercely focused corporate climber in Frank Loesser's How To Succeed musical, Chuck's the lesser of two evils—not blind ambition-on-the-rise as much as myopic about business and slow on the uptake about sexual politics. Neil Simon rounded off Chuck's rough edges by obliterating the fourth wall and allowing him to address the audience directly, letting us in on "Our Little Secret" and turning us into bemused, sympathetic bystanders. His book is the model of how to create a unique piece of theatre out of a very popular film ("The Apartment") — plus it's frequently hilarious on its own, borrowing sparingly from Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond's original screenplay while still following the same basic plot terrain.
Wilder got the idea from a throwaway character in "Brief Encounter" — the friend who lent his flat to Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson for their tryst. By pondering who that guy was and cynically transplanting him into the business world where his generosity could easily go to greed, he created a neat little amorality tale that paid Oscar dividends — for 1960's Best Picture/Best Direction/Best Original Screenplay.
Eight years later, a Broadway-musical remake came wrapped in a bright, bouncy 16-song score from Burt Bacharach and Hal David. All are reprised in the current revival, and two more of their Greatest Hits are tossed in for good measure, both written for Dionne Warwick — "I Say a Little Prayer" in 1967 and "A House Is Not a Home" in 1964. The latter also served as the title tune for a movie in which Shelley Winters played Polly Adler, the notorious bordello madam.
Plainly more Pollyanna than Polly Adler, Kristin Chenoweth plummets some new depths with these tunes — a relentless burst of sunshine surrendering to shadows — as Fran Kubelik, our morally compromised heroine who shares the bed of our hapless hero — albeit, with his married boss, J.D. Sheldrake (Tony Goldwyn). Bummer! Can these two get to a happy ending from here?
"There's a dark side there," Chenoweth conceded at the ritzy Plaza party that followed the opening-night performance. "People want to say it doesn't go with Kristin, but there is one. Fran is a real person with a real problem. She's got an issue. I understand that. I wanted to really challenge myself and play something different. If I just keep giving you guys all the same old stuff, I never get better."
She welcomed both songs with open arms and poured her heart into them. "I think they felt Fran had a middle and an ending, but she didn't have a beginning. The first week after I signed on, I found out that we were going to get to do those songs."
Craig Zadan, one of 15 producers who delivered Promises, Promises to Broadway, explained the musical augmentation further: "We never added songs for the sake of 'Let's add some more pop songs. We only added them based on the fact that we felt there was a lack of material to develop Fran's arc. We did a reading of the show two years ago with Sean Hayes and Anne Hathaway, so we made the decision about the songs before we had Kristin.
"We spoke to Neil and Burt and Hal, and it was agreed that Neil would craft some more material for the character — new lines and scene stuff — and Burt and Hal would give us the additional songs. They now give Fran a full character arc. 'I Say a Little Prayer' introduces her in an upbeat way. You understand she's optimistic about getting back together with Sheldrake so it creates a whole positive thing for her. Then, at the end of the first act, we have her do 'A House Is Not a Home,' which tells you that in Act Two there's going to be a very dramatic shift to the show."
Like the show, the opening harkened back to another era. It was the first black-tie opening of the season — and not a second too soon (this coming in the closing week of Tony eligibility). Everybody duded up to welcome the show like an old friend.
The biggest constellation of stars at a Broadway opening in recent memory showed up. We're talking: Neil Patrick Harris; Geoffrey Holder and wife Carmen de Lavallade; Kathleen Marshall and Scott Landis; T.R. Knight; Hugh Jackman; agent Biff Liff; Joan Rivers; Victoria Clark; Sutton Foster with brother Hunter and his wife, Jennifer Cody; conductor Rob Fisher; cabaret's Marilyn Maye with attorney Mark Sendroff; Vanessa Williams and Norm Lewis, relatively fresh from their Sondheim on Sondheim matinee; Jim Borstelmann; Cheyenne Jackson; Alfred Molina; Bobby Cannavale; Nora and Delia Ephron; Harvey Evans; Michael Urie; Jamie de Roy; Kevin Spirtas; filmmaker Douglas McGrath; Zachary Quinto; Chloe Sevigny; Chelsea Clinton; Brooke Shields; Amy Fine Collins; Lucy Liu; director Joel Schumacher; Lee Pace; Ellen Greene; Andrea Martin; Debra Monk; Maura Tierney; Red playwright John Logan; Mamie Gummer; Mary Kay Place; Alan Cumming; Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue; Elaine May; Kelli O'Hara; John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey; producer Samuel Goldwyn Jr. (Tony's dad); Lucy DeVito; Jo Sullivan Loesser; Jason Robert Brown; Alfred Uhry; George C. Wolfe; Kathleen Chalfant; Bryan Fuller; Jane Krakowski and Peter Cincotti.
The party started at the entranceway of The Plaza and spilled from The Palm Court to The Terrace Room, then upstairs to the densely packed second-floor ballroom.
[flipbook] Paparazzi were confined to The Palm Court where the celebs made their first stops and interviews were conducted for an assortment of television and print outlets.
"It's exciting seeing the three guys together again," Mrs. David whispered to Mrs. Simon from the sidelines, watching their husbands and Bacharach clustered together for the cameras like a suddenly aroused pride of old lions. Octogenarians all, the songwriters have birthdays next month — David turns 89 on the 21st, Bacharach hits 81 on the 29th — and Simon reaches 83 on the fourth of July.
"Oh, I loved the show," David admitted merrily. "I though it was so warm and funny, and the songs came off so well, sung by Kristin and Sean. I couldn't be happier."
Bacharach was of the same mind. "There were a couple of tunes I forgot I even wrote," he confessed. "I only did one show. I never did another Broadway show, but we're working on one now. It's a show with Steven Sater, who did Spring Awakening. It'll be based on the O. Henry fable, 'The Gift of the Magi.'"
Apart from the shoring up he did on Chenoweth's role, Simon said he confined his rewriting to nips and tucks. "I did some work on it, but there's not much to do. I think it's pretty much the same." He was particularly pleased with how the leading man ran with his script. "Sean's brilliant. He got better and better every night."
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