Craig Carnelia grew up in Floral Park, Long Island, and, like so many other kids in metropolitan New York, was exposed to Broadway at a formative time in his life. He would become an actor and play The Boy in Off Broadway’s legendary The Fantasticks, and, stretching himself, would pursue cabaret songwriting and then musical theatre composing. His songs were heard (side by side with the work of other writers) in the conceptual revue, Working, and he would graduate to a full score, writing words and music for the short-lived, but cult favorite Broadway musical, Is There Life After High School?, which is still performed in stock, amateur and regional theatres. Fans of Carnelia's songs (for Off Broadway’s play-with-music, Three Postcards, and the cabaret revue, Pictures in the Hall) say his music is full of easy, sometimes folky, melodies and his lyrics spill over with heart and potent images. For the past several years he and writer-director David H. Bell have been developing an original musical comedy, Actor, Lawyer, Indian Chief, about a retired TV-western actor, a lawyer and a movie studio, on the themes of lost youth, public illusion and private reality. (It's also a sweet and sentimental good time.) It will have a staging at Goodspeed Musicals' Norma Terris Theatre in Chester, CT, this coming spring. Despite his solo work, Carnelia has switched gears and written lyrics only for his most high-profile show yet, the Broadway-bound Sweet Smell of Success, teaming with composer Marvin Hamlisch (A Chorus Line). "Heart," Carnelia's signature, is not exactly at the heart of the 1957 film that inspires the new musical (which opened its out of-town tryout Jan. 13 in Chicago): The movie is dark, cynical, acidly comic and full of bitter urban characters jockeying for position. Carnelia talked to Playbill On-Line about the show, his new collaborator, his past and his future. Sweet Smell of Success begins Broadway previews Feb. 23 at the Martin Beck Theatre.
PLAYBILL ON-LINE: Are you and Marvin Hamlisch officially a songwriting team?
Craig Carnelia: We've really hit it off as friends and collaborators. We just love working with each other. We've both been in search of something and we seem to find that answer in each other. He's been looking for a steady collaborator. I'm looking to be more successful than I ever have been by myself. I wasn't looking for a collaborator, I wasn't thinking of working with another composer. I was thinking of continuing in my very straight line of just writing what I felt I should be writing and sticking to it and ultimately breaking through. Then this opportunity came up and has presented me with a very different career than the one I've been having. It's given us both something we were lacking, and we both know it. We have a lot of fun when we work. We both love to work. We have a lot in common, also. We're both big New York Yankee fans.
PBOL: Over the past few years, there has been great buzz about the workshops of Sweet Smell of Success. What has the out-of-town tryout been like at the Shubert in Chicago? I hear you guys added an intermission to what was once intermissionless.
CC: While we've been making little cuts all along, we've also been adding. The minute we went to two acts, we were able to do more of that. We had a sense the audience would be much more drawn into our [story] if we'd given them a break. 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.
PBOL: How did you get the Sweet Smell gig? It started long ago, when Garth Drabinsky was in charge of Livent.
CC: First person on the job was [librettist] John Guare. While Garth was still the head of Livent, they commissioned John to do a treatment of Sweet Smell of Success. Next person aboard was Marvin. They were looking for a lyricist for Marvin and [producer] Marty Bell thought of me and they put Marvin and me together to write four songs as an audition, which was a way of working that had worked very nicely for them on Ragtime. We wrote four songs and they hired us that day, and we got to work with John and a month or two later [director] Nick [Hytner ] came on. This was the fall of 1997, and then we did our first workshop.
PBOL: Do those songs exist in the show today?
CC: All four titles are there, and all four songs exist in some form, all of them vastly changed. PBOL: What attracted you to the dark, 1950s, noirish world of the show?
CC: I had been interested in Sweet Smell of Success for a long time, just as a movie buff. What attracts me to it is that everyone in the story wants things ferociously in every scene, which makes them great fun to write. The other thing that both Guare and I have had great fun with is that two of the four main characters, [powerful columnist] JJ and [desperate press agent] Sidney, make their living with words, so that fact is a lot of what accounts for the density of the language in the screenplay, which is so great, by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets. We've enjoyed working with two characters who make their living with words, as well. Not only are they literate, they're of the street, these men. The combination gives you great possibilities for language: To be immersed in slang, and sometimes inventing slang.
PBOL: Ferocious, acidic characters are not really what you've done in the past.
CC: It's fascinating. When I first heard they were doing the project, like six months before they called me, I called and said, "You would never think of me for this show, but trust me, this is my show." You wouldn't think from where I've been that this would be something that interests me or something that I'd be good at: Because I tend to lead with my heart. My work tends to be very warm. These characters are so — what? What's the word?
CC: Brittle's a great word. It actually came to mind for me, too. The story is such an edgy one. It's been great fun working in that. It's been a stretch. Do I understand these characters? There are two ways of understanding: One is empathy and the other is identification: "I can understand this other person would feel this way, even though I don't," or "I could be that person." There are those two levels. I totally can step into the shoes of any of these characters and write them.
PBOL: How do you and Marvin write together, what's the process?
CC: One of the first things Marvin said to me when we met four and a half years ago was that he likes to write music first. He feels he's a better composer when he's working on impulse and concept rather than from specific numbers of syllables. It's exactly the way I work with myself as a composer for a different reason. When I work with myself, I tend to do the composing first because the composing is the fun of the job and the lyrics are like hauling bricks. I just gravitate toward the easier task, for me. In the case of Marvin, he feels he can fly when he's going music-first and he feels restrained somehow when he's forced to go to a lyric that exists. We work from an idea, or a character or a situation or an impulse, and then comes the music, and then comes the lyric. We work from a title or an idea, occasionally he'll need a line or two to go off on. Yes, we always work in the same room when Marvin's inventing music. Our sessions tend to be very active and loud and full of ideas. One thing I should make very, very clear: Even though I am often in the room and I am a composer, I haven't written one note of music on the show. Marvin Hamlisch doesn't need any help and hasn't had any. It's all him.
PBOL: I haven't heard a single note from the score yet. I imagine muscular, dark jazz, a lot of brass from Marvin...
CC: Very good description. The instrumentation is very much what you're describing. A lot of saxes, a lot of brass — what you're saying, "muscular jazz." What we used to hear that was so wonderful is a composer taking a time or a style or a just a type of music and then running it through his own sensibility, and it coming out reinvented. For me, that's what Marvin's done. He's created a score that doesn't sound like anything else and yet sounds like the time that the show takes place in, sounds like theatre, but it also sounds like a score to a show that is an entity unto itself.
PBOL: Do any of the song titles borrow lines from the picture, such as, "You're a cookie full of arsenic"?
CC: That line's in the play. There isn't a single title that comes from the language of the film. There's language in the lyrics that comes from the language of the film, and there's lots of lines in the [libretto] that comes from the film.