The Sweet Smell of Success

I used to go to New York at least once a year to see shows. Recently, neither New Line nor I have been able to afford to send me, so I settle for bootleg videos (don't judge me!). But I have seen a lot of really wonderful shows in New York over the years, quite a few of which New Line has produced soon after. In fact, our company has been the first to produce several musicals after their Broadway or off Broadway runs, short runs in many cases, 'cause that's the kind of weirdo, tourist-unfriendly shows we like...

It was in 2002 that I saw The Sweet Smell of Success on Broadway. I loved a lot about it, but somehow it didn't totally work for me. Now that I'm working on the show, I think I understand what it was missing. First, it's a very intimate story about four people with incredibly volatile, complicated relationships, and even though I had good seats, the theatre was too big for us to connect to these people emotionally, so that the tragedy of the ending couldn't really gobsmack the audience the way it should. I think doing the show in a 140-seat blackbox will fix that problem. There will be no distance from these ugly, ferocious, fragile emotions, no safety.

Second, this is almost a jazz opera. Like Sweeney, the music only stops periodically, to underline certain moments, to punctuate the flow of the story. But this kind of 1950s club jazz, as filtered through Marvin Hamlisch's rich, dissonant film and Broadway sound isn't a big, heavy, orchestral thing; it's an up-close, sweaty, sexy, subtle thing. A full Broadway orchestra, a big stage, and a big chorus, took the urban and the desperate out of this story. Our band will be two keyboards, bass, drums, reeds, and trumpet. The kind of sound you'd hear in a jazz club in the 50s.

The third thing was J.J. Hunsecker, the Devil/Evil Wizard figure in this Faustian tale. He's thoroughly despicable, deeply, irretrievably fucked up. And genuinely powerful. As much as I love John Lithgow, who created the role, I now think he didn't really access the full darkness of this terrifying man. Zak Farmer will play the role for us, and he specializes in deeply fucked-up villains. And again, the intimacy of our theatre will allow Zak to do much more subtle, more interesting work than Lithgow could do in a Broadway house.

A couple years ago, I came across a bootleg video of Sweet Smell of Success, and I really did love the material, so I watched it again. And it worked much better for me than it did the first time. I think it was because most of the video was shot in close-up. The bootleg provided the intimacy the theatre itself couldn't, the kind of intimacy which the Marcelle Theater gives the New Liners.

The reviews of the Broadway production weren't great, but I think many of them really missed the point. This isn't a conventional musical, if there even is such a thing anymore, and that's how they judged it. Like almost every show we produce at New Line, Sweet Smell is sui generis, one of a kind. But like a few other shows we've done in recent seasons, The Sweet Smell of Success is a moral thriller. It will leave you breathless, and the Act I finale is a killer cliffhanger! More than any other show I've worked on, this show is a virtuosic translation to the musical stage of the devices, tone, and atmosphere of film noir.

Which reminds me... one of the coolest things about The Sweet Smell of Success is that the story is so different in its three different forms, first as a short story by Lehman Engel, then a greatly expanded screenplay also by Engel, and then this jazz noir stage musical. Each one is so different from the others, each one brings unique elements to the story, and yet they all feel like they are fashioned from the same clay, each one so right in relation to the other two.

I was sick the first week of rehearsals, so I didn't start my blogging like usual. By now, we've finished learning the score, and Taylor Pietz has choreographed three of the four dances. Starting next week, I block the show. I've worked out all of Act I, and I may wait to work on Act II until after I see how my Act I blocking works... But I feel pretty good about what I've got.

Even though there aren't any other musicals quite like this, there are other shows that taught me lessons I can apply here. Working on Andrew Lippa's genius Wild Party was a show in which 90% of the staging was to music, with an ensemble both inside and outside the story at the same time, living the story and narrating it directly to us. Though Sweet Smell shouldn't look as stylized as Wild Party, it's very theatrical, very music driven, and constantly bursting through the Fourth Wall.

I think there are two keys to this show. First, we really have to swim in the period and the jazz. I've asked Rob for an all-blue, New York, 1950s set. Wait till you see it. There's an attitude to this world that's pretty foreign to us; we have to find it and get comfortable with it.

Second, we cannot fear the Darkness. As the great scholar Joseph Campbell taught us, in many Hero Myth stories, the hero has to go to the Underworld to do battle with the Evil Wizard and learn something about himself. You can't get more Under than the 1952 world of New York newspaper gossip. We have to embrace the Dark Side. That's our story.

I'm reading some great books about that time and place, and about Walter Winchell, the real life Broadway columnist that J.J. Hunsecker is based on. What surprised me the most -- and it made me understand better the high stakes in our story -- was that sixty million Americans across the country read Winchell's nasty, petty, shitty gossip column every morning over their coffee. Sixty Million People. That's close to half of all the men, women, and children in America.

This horrifying idea is explained in Act II as our Greek Chorus of press agents sing:
It's the reason I read.
It's an animal need.
I don't pick up the paper
For the sports or the news;
Those ain't the sport
That I choose.

With my bacon and eggs.
They go together like a skirt,
And a nice pair of legs.
Got the ink on my fingers,
Got the smudge of a smear.
Oh my!
What dirt we got here!

By the end of this song, you might be laughing, but you'll also realize deep down that J.J. only has power because sixty million people want their morning dirt. Like Chicago, Sweet Smell lays the responsibility for this nightmare world right at our feet.

But I don't read gossip columns. Yeah, nice try. Do you ever read the headlines of the tabloids at the checkout? Do you ever watch Access Hollywood, Entertainment Tonight, or E!...? Do you click on celebrity stories your friends share on Facebook?

I honestly don't. And maybe you don't either. But a hell of a lot of people do.
Got a hunger to feed,
Got a hunger and a thirst,
Gimme, gimme some dirt, take me down in the dirt!
It's an animal need!
Give it to me in the First Amendment!
Give me something that can get me through,
Something dirty on the whole who's-who
And keep this in mind as you do:
It don't have to be true...
Don't have to be true...
Don't have to be true...

Oklahoma! this ain't. In the age of Fox News, Breitbart, social media, and Fake News, The Sweet Smell of Success may be even more timely than it was when Hamlisch, lyricist Craig Carnelia, and playwright John Guare wrote it in 2002. This is muscular, fearless, adult musical theatre about the real world. Today's real world.

So we don't forget that information is power. And power corrupts.

It's already been such a great ride, working on this amazing piece, this rich, gorgeous music, these brilliant, caustic, acrobatic rhymes; now we get to really dive into these dark, complicated characters and their deliciously acid dialogue.

Another wild, awesome adventure!

Long Live the Musical!