ON THE RECORD: Elaine Stritch and Sweet Smell of Success

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Elaine Stritch and Sweet Smell of Success
Elaine Stritch At Liberty is enchanting, exhilarating and, all told, the most entertaining new show on Broadway. You don't need a cast of 30 or scads of scenery, it turns out; just raw talent and something to do with it.

Elaine Stritch At Liberty is enchanting, exhilarating and, all told, the most entertaining new show on Broadway. You don't need a cast of 30 or scads of scenery, it turns out; just raw talent and something to do with it.

This, Ms. Stritch definitely has; and Elaine Stritch At Liberty is a show not to miss. It will be closing on May 26, so DRG has happily supplied a two-CD album of the proceedings. This is not the Broadway show, exactly; it was recorded live last January at the Public Theater before the show transferred up to the Neil Simon. Some of the material was cut for Broadway, while other sections were added. But it is close enough.

Stritch has had an unusual career, even by Broadway standards. She is considered an enormous musical comedy star. However, since making her Broadway debut in 1946, she has appeared in a mere four musicals (plus three revivals). She has starred above the title in only two new Broadway musicals, the consecutive failures Goldilocks and Sail Away.

Be that as it may, Elaine Stritch At Liberty handily demonstrates that the cyclonic "Stritchie" is a musical comedy star, all right. Grit, determination, talent and flair; it's all there in one not-so-neat package, an "existential problem in tights." The CD cannot equal the excitement of witnessing the stage performance, but it is required listening for those who are unable to catch her act.

This album makes clear just how expert a job Ms. Stritch's associates have done. John Lahr provided the words, Ms. Stritch peering over his shoulder with a sharpened red pencil at the ready. (Lahr's fascinating liner notes are as compelling as some of the extended anecdotes that comprise the evening.) Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations are especially helpful. Listen to the corny "Civilization," the comedic "Zip," the raucous Ruby Bentley specialty "I Want a Long Time Daddy" (which sounds like it's lifted from the stripper scene in Gypsy). Tunick has orchestrated some of the At Liberty songs before, but he artfully matches his new charts to the context. The singer of "Broadway Baby," for example, is here not a feisty old timer (as in Follies) but the young Stritch at 17; the orchestration is hesitantly hopeful halfway through, until the character builds up determination. Rob Bowman does a fine job leading the nine-piece band, playing the piano as well (and very nicely, too, on "But Not for Me"/"If Love Were All"). Absent from the CD but very much in evidence is director George C. Wolfe; every word counts, every idea lands, and I expect that Wolfe contributed mightily to the show's high polish.

Elaine Stritch At Liberty. Yes, indeed!

It is no surprise to report that Sweet Smell of Success sounds a whole lot better on CD than it does in the theatre. The stage production has an assortment of problems that we needn't expand upon here. The songs, though, tend to get lost at the Martin Beck. Stripped of the staging and reformatted for recording, we get a much clearer idea of what composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Craig Carnelia were trying to do. But it still doesn't work.

Sweet Smell of Success — the 1957 film — was quite wonderful, and remains so. It is about power and pressure; the action never stops, propelled by an expert jazz score by Elmer Bernstein. Like the film, the stage version is highly underscored; but the characters keep interrupting to sing to us. Music, yes, but a different type of music; place an actor in a spotlight so he can spend three minutes explaining his motivations and illuminating his aspirations, and the pressure is off. Imagine Sweet Smell of Success without pressure, and — well, that's what you have at the Beck. The authors have chosen to spread out the show's time span by adding exposition; they have also expanded the presence of two characters, Susan and Dallas, who serve as pawns in the film. This was done, presumably, to allow Hamlisch and Carnelia to write love songs — which, again, stop everything cold (and not in a good way).

I'm the first person to insist that changes are necessary when adapting a film to the stage; otherwise, the new product will seem like a pale carbon of the old. The songwriters and their librettist, John Guare, earnestly attempted to find a way to transform Sweet Smell. The results don't work, though; maybe it was an impossible dream. Poor guys, for their honest efforts they have been paraded into the town square and unceremoniously bopped in the nose with a rolled-up copy of yesterday's Globe. That's show business.

Only one song truly works in the context of the show, in my opinion anyway: Falco's solo "At the Fountain." This took us in the wrong direction, perhaps, humanizing and creating sympathy for a character who in the movie was chillingly inhuman and unsympathetic. Be that as it may, the song is strong and effective. Too many of the other songs in the score aren't; several seem to come from another score altogether, and not a good one. (Prime examples: "Rita's Tune" and "Don't Look Now.") I wrote several years ago that Hamlisch seemed stylistically well suited for Sweet Smell, and I'm afraid that turned out not to be the case. Listening to his work here, I can't shake the impression that he was consciously trying to write a score like Cy Coleman's City of Angels. But Coleman was rooted in jazz; at the time of the Sweet Smell film, he was a nightclub pianist (albeit very different and more talented than the corresponding character in the musical). This is not Hamlisch's milieu, resulting in a strained score. Some of the music for Sweet Smell sounds like it belongs, but none of it — sadly — has the authentic flavor Cy brought to his film noir musical.

The disc performances are pretty much as in the theatre. Brian d'Arcy James is very strong despite his material; John Lithgow isn't; the lovers are out-of-place and somewhat pained; and the poor girl who plays Rita does the best she can with her severely unsuitable solo (which I can only suppose was a desperate attempt to re create Oolie's second act showstopper in the Coleman musical). For what it's worth, the CD is well produced (by Hamlisch, Carnelia and Jay Landers) and features an impressively snazzy booklet with a well-turned — but uncredited — synopsis.

Despite its flaws, Sweet Smell of Success makes for interesting listening. Some CDs are played once or twice and then filed away. This is one that I suspect will remain on the changer for repeated listening. —Steven Suskin, author of "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000," the forthcoming "Broadway Yearbook 2000-2001," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by E-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com

Today’s Most Popular News: