ON THE RECORD: Two David Merrick Musicals: Promises, Promises and Sugar

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Two David Merrick Musicals: Promises, Promises and Sugar


Here, at long last, is the 1968 Promises, Promises, which until now was the most successful modern-day Broadway musical (and Grammy Award winner) never to have been released on CD. And welcome it is, too, one of Broadway's brashest and brassiest hits of the last thirty years.

I must confess to having a definite fondness for this show. As a teenager I followed its out-of-town progress, ordered tickets for the opening night, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Midway through the run I got my first real Broadway job: As an assistant to an assistant to David Merrick himself, working mostly on Promises. So I got to see the show quite often. While not overwhelmingly distinctive, it was a surefire crowd-pleaser that worked like a dream. And funny.

Promises brought the contemporary pop sound to the Broadway musical, in the person of hit maker Burt Bacharach and his lyricist Hal David. (Yes, Hair had already arrived, but that was not a book musical comedy.) Bacharach and David were responsible for such 1960s pop tunes as "What the World Needs Now," "Alfie," "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," and "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?" Their score was bright and friendly, certainly, including one folksy pop hit "I'll Never Fall in Love Again"; but it was actually the weak element of the show. Too much of it sounds too much alike, with an overly bouncy beat; there's lots of action, but to little purpose. This didn't matter much, as Neil Simon provided one of the funniest books in captivity; he had a lot of wonderful Billy Wilder jokes to work from. Promises also had three wildly funny performances, from Jerry Orbach (in his first starring role), A. Larry Haines, and Marian Mercer. Ms. Mercer didn't enter until the second act, wearing a ratty owl coat. (Don't ask.) She was on for two scenes, about ten minutes in all -- but nevertheless walked off with a Tony Award. The show also featured an interesting young choreographer and a talented young set designer, who combined to create something new: closely choreographed scene changes. Thus began the collaboration of Michael Bennett and Robin Wagner, which was to alter the way Broadway musicals looked altogether, culminating with Dreamgirls. Bennett -- and his featured dancers Donna McKechnie, Baayork Lee, and Margo Sappington -- also contributed a rousing first act finale, an office party bacchanal called "Turkey Lurkey Time." I don't suppose we'll ever see that number reconstructed, but it was something right out of "Hullabaloo" (the 1965-66 rock & roll TV series on which Bennett and McKechnie danced).

Bacharach's one and only theatre score brought revolutionary changes to the orchestra pit, the better to recreate the desired recording studio sound. The band was heavily miked; the trumpet and percussion sections of the pit were covered over; invisible "pit singers" were added, for vocal backup; and the now ubiquitous sound console, complete with an operator fiddling with hundreds of buttons, made what I believe was its first appearance at the back of the theatre. These innovations were implemented by a promising young orchestrator named Jonathan Tunick, who brought them along to his next musical Company. (With Tunick, Bennett, and featured dancer McKechnie on hand -- and with the similar 60s New York setting -- Company was seen by some as a sophisticated, intelligent Promises.) The album sounds great -- far better than it did on vinyl -- and seems like a time capsule from the swinging 60s. For years I played my worn out LP on Christmas Day (the plot climaxes with a Christmas Eve suicide attempt). Now, I'm plenty glad to have Promises on CD.

SUGAR (Ryko RCD 10760)

Having successfully transformed Billy Wilder's film hit "The Apartment" into Promises, Promises, it seemed a natural to do the same with Wilder's classic "Some Like It Hot." But having a great comic screenplay to work from does not in itself guarantee success.

The 1972 Sugar led a troubled existence from start (as a Jerry Herman-Mike Stewart musical) to finish (from Jule Styne, Bob Merrill, and Peter Stone). What can you expect when the director bans the writers from rehearsals? Gower Champion had traffic lights installed outside the rehearsal studio; a red light meant that he was working, authors forbidden. Of course, trouble might well have been foreseen; the mismatched team of Champion, Styne, and Merrill directly preceded Sugar with the out of town failure Prettybelle, a misguided Angela Lansbury vehicle about a manic depressive nymphomaniac Southern belle. Sugar's tryout was just as troubled, but master showman Merrick had an enormous advance sale in New York so he brought the show in and managed to turn a small profit.

This was a heavily rewritten show, and it seems that most of the rewriting was done without communication between the director and the authors. Half the score, actually, is tunefully amusing. The other half, though -- mostly in the second act -- is curiously substandard. Styne was a man of a million tunes, but not all of them were top notch. Styne was always at his best when he had a stern collaborator editing out the extraneous tunes; his most successful shows were the ones he did with Jerry Robbins. (The relationship worked both ways; Styne wrote more Robbins' musicals than any other composer.) Styne must have seemed a likely candidate for Some Like It Hot; he was a Chicago orchestra leader back in the days when Al Capone could, and would, show up and request to lead the band.

As for me, Sugar remains memorable solely for Bobby Morse's performance as the bass-plucking Daphne (the Jack Lemmon role). I used to drop by the Majestic whenever possible for his "We Could Be Close" duet, performed with Elaine Joyce in a crowded upper berth. "I'm a size eight with a C-cup," Sugar sings, "I'm a forty with a wee cup," responds Daphne. (Cyril Ritchard's performance as the doddering dirty old man drove me right back out onto 44th Street.) Sugar is typified by the song "Hey, Why Not!" -- an upbeat, nicely rhythmic piece of music which sounds great in the overture.

In the lyric, though, Sugar -- who thinks her millionaire is the heir to Shell oil -- incessantly labels herself "Sugar Shell," which helps ruin the number (and leads directly into three especially poor songs). Nevertheless, there was always something special about a Jule Styne musical. No matter how good the score might (or might not) be, you were sure to start off with a keenly exciting overture. This probably stems from Styne's bandleader-arranger days; he knew exactly what he wanted things to sound like, and he knew how to relate that to his music department. ( Sugar's orchestrations are by Phil Lang, with musical direction -- and rich, sturdy vocals -- by Elliott Lawrence.) The overture to Sugar sounds smashing, and so what if the score falls apart? Fans of the traditional Broadway musical are going to want to get this CD.

Sociologically speaking, Sugar, like Promises, might well sound chauvinistic to some; but they were products of the time. (Besides, the male characters in both shows were made to look pretty foolish.) Both albums have been nicely remastered and handsomely outfitted. (A detail of the cover art stares out at you from the spine of the jewel box, so you can instantly spot them on the shelf.) Inside, though, they have seen fit to merely reprint the outdated and rather boring liner notes from the original albums. (In reproducing Promises, they somehow managed to muff associate producer Biff Liff's billing, crediting him as costume designer.) Still, one can only be glad that the folks at MGM have at long last decided to open the vaults of their various labels. (Promises and Sugar originated on United Artists Records.) One can only hope that they'll follow these two with other long-lost titles under their corporate control.

-- Steven Suskin, author of "More Opening Nights on Broadway" (Schirmer) and "Show Tunes 1904-1998" (Oxford). You can E-mail him at Ssuskin@aol.com

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