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."
Hayes, in his Broadway bow, behaves like a seasoned veteran, luring the audience into his corner with his asides and winning needed sympathy in the process. His moral missteps recede as the character turns into a victim of corrupt circumstance. "I love the innocence of the character," Hayes relayed. "I enjoy playing that, someone who's that optimistic because it's not so prevalent today. It's not usually done where you break the fourth wall in theatre, but that's the way it's written. If you fear that, it'll probably show. The audience is my scene partner — in a Ferris Bueller way."
Rob Ashford, the show's director-choreographer, relied on Hayes' comic instinct which he honed to Emmy-winning effect on the "Will and Grace" series. "That talking-to-the-audience thing came so naturally to Sean. It was on the page originally so we didn't do anything with it. We just let him go to town with it."
Ashford, who started out a dancer and was helped to hyphenation by Kathleen Marshall, is fulfilling a promise of his own with Promises, Promises. "I got my Equity card with this show — at the St. Louis MUNY in 1983," he beamed with pride, "and the woman who played Fran — Susan Powell — is here tonight."
After a couple of months off, he will get back to the director-choreographer grind. "The next thing I'm doing is Leap of Faith in L.A. with Raul Esparza in the Steve Martin role," Ashford said, rolling over his launching schedule in his head. "We start rehearsals at the end of July and open at the Ahmanson in September. It could come in after that, but I will be back next season for sure this time next year with How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying."
Cady Huffman, the Tony-winning sexpot of The Producers, was running around among the paparazzi, serving as Dick Latessa's own personal photographer. "Well, it's come to this, I hate to tell ya," she laughed. The two go back to The Will Rogers Follies, and Latessa racks up a fair share of the evening's laughs as the nosy doctor next door who mistakes Hayes for a sex machine in overdrive. "He is always, always, always, always good," trilled Huffman.
A surefire comic in a surefire role could lead to an acting nomination for Latessa. Jack Kruschen in the movie and A. Larry Hayes in the musical both made the race with it. "I hope I don't end the trend, but I can live without it," Latessa shrugged. (He already has a Tony for playing Harvey Fierstein's Hairspray hubby.)
But the person here in the express line for the Tony is Katie Finneran, who enters the play at the top of the second act, stays 15 minutes or so and then leaves with the whole show in her hip pocket. She's Marge MacDougall, a tipsy bar-tart who comes on to Hayes by protesting too much that she's not just a pickup. "I just love how she's trying so hard to be something she's not — cool and sexy," Finneran said.
She plays the part in a throaty theatricality that she said she picked up from an old Sally Kellerman movie. "Also, "I wanted to be the antithesis of Kristin Chenoweth."
This is not the only odd sound she emits. Cued by her costume — a coat of undistinguishable gray (said to be owl) — she dove madly into research for the role. "I wasn't called to rehearsal for four weeks so, as a joke, I started listening to owl websites which have owl fans with authentic owl voices. One day at rehearsal, I did a western screeching owl in rehearsal. I was just joking, but they said, 'Keep it in.'"
It bodes very well indeed for Finneran that Marian Mercer won a Tony for the part in the original production. "Another interesting thing about us as actresses is we're the only two actresses in New York who did Bosoms and Neglect, also," she pointed out. "I did it eight years ago, and she [Mercer] did it on Broadway in 1979."
Finneran's fiancée, actor Darren Goldstein, stuck around for her opening night before flying to Philadelphia where he is doing "Dark Fields," a Robert DeNiro film. "We're both having career highs going on right now," she said.
Goldwyn admitted being slightly surprised by finally making his musical debut. "I've always kinda wanted to," he admitted, "but I just never pursued it so when Rob asked me to do this, I said, 'But you're going to have to hear me sing because we have to go through this with our eyes open.' It has been an amazing experience."
His is not a character who courts, or garners, audience sympathy, but the actor tries. "I feel he's a real human being, and there are a lot of people who find themselves in his situation, a lot of people who find it too easy to say yes to everything and feel entitled to say yes to everything. My point of view is he's really in love with this girl — and, yet, doesn't want to lose his family or his wonderful wife. I think it's a very human thing to be stuck, gotten yourself into such a mess, so it's a challenge to me to find that humanity in Sheldrake. It would be very easy to play him as a user."
Brooks Ashmanskas, Peter Benson, Sean Martin Hingston and Ken Land form a Greek chorus of gray-flannel philanderers in the show. Benson, in particular, proves himself adept at flinging himself about the stage: "It took a long time to get there, but Rob is one of these guys who can make a dancer out of anybody. I usually get 'Let's see what Peter can do, and we'll make a dance around him.' This is the first time I've been put in a room with all these Broadway dancers and said, 'You're going to do this, too.' My wife is very proud of me."
Ashmanskas has never been accused of not flinging himself about the stage and was delighted to do it again. "I like everything about it," he announced before slipping into italics. "Every. Single. Thing. In it. That's why I did it. I was rehearsing this the whole time while I was doing Present Laughter. That was hard. That was hard. I'm never going to do it again — but I'm never going to work again, either."
Bacharach and David's only Broadway score brought out an inordinate amount of Main Stem music men: Charles Strouse, finishing up his Minsky's score; Stephen Schwartz, gearing up for his operatic debut at New York City Opera in April 2011 via Séance on a Wet Afternoon; Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman focusing on an earlier D-Day (as in December) with their Catch Me If You Can.
Alan Menken, arriving with daughter Laura has 'em lined up like dominos: " Sister Act is running in London and coming over here, Leap of Faith is opening in L.A. this year, and I have a new animated musical, 'Tangled,' opening in November — it's the story of Rapunzel." And Lin-Manuel Miranda has his own (DreamWorks) animated feature to musicalize.
Harry Connick Jr., whose next Broadway gig is a concert date at the Neil Simon (July 15-26), whispered something into the ear of the pretty ticket-taker when she zapped his theatre ticket with a red laser. "He said, 'That looks like the thing they used to use on 'Star Trek' to beam me up.' We don't tear tickets anymore."
Bye Bye Birdie's John Stamos arrived with Liza Minnelli and a new beard he has grown for a role on HBO's "Entourage." He said he'd been offered some Broadway stuff, "but, if I do anything, I think it will be a drama."
When Phyllis Newman and Amanda Green made their mother-daughter entrance, someone teasingly inquired if they would be replacing Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones when they exit A Little Night Music in June, now that Blythe Danner and Gwyneth Paltrow are not in the running. "If asked, yes!" Newman shot back.
Tony Roberts, who followed the Tony-winning Jerry Orchard in the original Promises, Promises and then headed up the national company (and in London), was a cautious first-nighter. "A lot of people don't know I was in this. That guy over there asked, 'Why are you here?' I said, 'I'm excited to see this. I want to see if there are any laughs I missed.' I'm as anxious to see this as anything else in New York.
"A strange phenomenon happens when you go to see something that you were in: You get nervous in your legs as you get close to the song that you used to sing. It doesn't matter how many years it has been — when you hear that underscore, that's when you were in the wings and that's when you pulled yourself together eight times a week. That feeling stays there. It's like muscle memory."
When Roberts returned from the road with Promises, Promises, he went into another Broadway musical based on a Billy Wilder-I.A.L. Diamond movie, "Some Like It Hot." It was retitled Sugar, and in Marilyn Monroe's title role was the current Mrs. Neil Simon, Elaine Joyce. She hoped they'd meet at the party.
Promises, Promises had an inspiring effect of CBS humorist Mo Rocca. "I had a great time," he announced brightly. "In fact, I'm thinking of renting my apartment out to adulterous couples. With the real-estate market rebounding, we all need to be sensible. We need cut costs wherever we can so anybody who wants to cheat on their spouse can come to use my apartment for a small fee."