Jazz Noir

There are quite a few less conventional musicals that New Line has produced which serve as touchstones for me, shows that taught me important lessons, that expanded my vocabulary, that forced me into solving problems I thought were unsolvable.

Among that group are Hair, Bat Boy, Urinetown, The Robber Bridegroom, March of the Falsettos, Floyd Collins, Songs for a New World, Jacques Brel...

And maybe even more than the others, Andrew Lippa's brilliant Wild Party is one of those shows. What a challenging damn show that was to stage, to even conceive of how it should look and move. But we decoded it and we nailed its very special style and tone.

Working on and decoding that show taught me that musical staging can be fully expressionistic, having no specific concrete meaning, but expressing emotion, tension, opposition, psychology. I had used expressionistic staging before to some extent over the years, but Wild Party was the first show in which the movement for the entire show should be expressionistic. I found myself using circles (one of my favorite devices) but in new ways, to show opposition, to show chaos; I found myself using conventional movement but interrupting it, reversing it, perverting it, deconstructing it.

When I started working on The Sweet Smell of Success, I thought it was going to work a lot like Wild Party. The music is almost as continuous in Sweet Smell as it is in Wild Party, but Sweet Smell is a different kind of story. While Wild Party is wildly, passionately emotional, so much of Sweet Smell is cold as fucking ice. Sure emotions erupt in this story, but most of these character are icy, calculating cynics.

J.J. and Sidney are weirdly parallel to George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with the rest of the human race as Nick and Honey. They humiliate each other, study each other, admire each other, fear each other, hurt each other, and yes, love each other. They see a kindred spirit in each other, and they leave nothing but destruction in their path.

The real tragedy of this story is that Susan and Dallas (and Rita) are just normal people who feel normal human emotions, but they're surrounded by emotional pod people in J.J., Sidney, Madge, Kello, and the others, devoid of empathy. The only thing Sidney ever feels is fear.

And I've realized four things as I've been blocking.

First, this show is a double Faust story. Sidney sells his soul to J.J., but Sidney never really had much of a soul to begin with. And Susan sells her soul to Sidney, which is the real tragedy. Every time I hear Susan's song "What If" in the first act, I want to scream at her, "Don't do it! Don't become them!" The minute she decides she will lie and manipulate like everybody else, she assures tragedy.

Second, actors and directors love high stakes in a story. It gives the actor something really juicy and dramatic to chew on, and it give the audience the most compelling reason to engage. And Sweet Smell of Success has impossibly high stakes. Either Sidney's entire future is destroyed or Susan's is. There's no compromise possible, no win-win scenario. (The same is true of Bat Boy.)

Third, Susan is the protagonist of this story. She's the only character who makes choices, who chooses her own path, and who learns and grows by the end.

Fourth, this isn't just a drama; it's a thriller. We've realized over the last few rehearsals that the story of Sweet Smell is very parallel to Sweeney Todd, only in our show J.J. is both Sweeney and Judge Turpin. Pretty creepy...

I've realized that Sweet Smell is fundamentally film noir, or as I've been calling it "jazz noir" (which I discovered is actually a thing, although it has a bunch of different meanings). Film noir is economical, minimalist, austere, almost self-aware. It's not about emotion. So cool, detached jazz is the perfect musical language for these people.

But musicals are about emotion, right?

The beauty of Sweet Smell is that there are powerful emotions at play here, but only among Dallas, Susan, and Rita, and they all get, lush, rich music to express that emotion, in "I Can Not Hear the City," "Don't Know Where You Leave Off," and "Rita's Tune." The only time Sidney gets lush music like that is in the song "At the Fountain," where for just a moment, Sidney feels something like joy. But it won't last.

After all, this is a Faust story.

Understanding all that led me to decide that this show shouldn't be nearly as dancy as Wild Party. We have hired New Liner Taylor Pietz to choreograph because there are some real dance numbers, but during the rest of the show, the ensemble is a Greek Chorus, much more so than a usual musical theatre chorus. They are narrators, the public, Sidney's conscience, social commentators, devils, and all the Little People in Sidney and J.J.'s orbit. They're used in an unconventional way for a musical, so we shouldn't treat them as if they're conventional.

For much of the show, our ensemble will be on a raised platform, stage-right, hanging out, drinking, reading the paper, watching our story, and commenting. They'll leave the platform now and then, but that will be their perch. I think it will be cool for them to watch so much of the action. As with a few other shows we've done, this ensemble will be both inside the action and outside the action, occasionally at the same time.

The writing is really extraordinary, so I think everything will be very clear to the audience. This script is very film-like in the way it transitions between scene and locations, which I love, and it's so carefully and beautifully crafted, I'm confident it will guide our audience through this thicket of lies and schemes that is our story.

We just have to get out of the way.

A local reviewer recently marveled at seeing a "close-up" onstage, but stage directors have been stealing and adapting film techniques at least as far back as Michael Bennett's work on Dreamgirls, and probably back even further. Musical theatre directors now regularly use devices like zooms, close-ups, focus pulls, pans, split-screen, montages; which allows bookwriters to fashion much more continuous, uninterrupted action, what I like to call Perpetual Motion Machines.

Of course the other thing that freed musical theatre writers is the realization that the stage is at its best when it delivers what film cannot. When the stage asks its audience to fill in the details of environment, even costumes, when the stage requires the audience's imaginations to complete the act of storytelling, when the audience participates in the storytelling, they're much more engaged and they have a much better time,

All of this is there in Sweet Smell of Success. Rob Lippert has designed for us an exquisite expressionistic 1950s nighttime New York, that will suggest time and place, but also mood and character. We've finished blocking Act I and now we move on to Act II, where the pace of the story shifts into hyper-drive.

I started this project thinking this was a show in which I needed to be "clever," to make "pretty pictures," etc. It's not. My job with staging is nothing more than Clarity. I have to make sure the audience knows what's important at any given moment and that nothing gets in the way of their understanding. The less physical movement we use, the more the audience will focus on content. Humans are visual creatures first, so if you give an audience too much to look at, they will focus less on lyrics, story, character, etc. If I want the audience to really focus on a moment, we eliminate as much movement as possible.

That's why Elaine Stritch famously sat in a chair for almost all of "The Ladies Who Lunch" in the original production of Company. She barely moved at all, till the end of the song when she stood up for "Rise!"

Lots to think about with this endlessly rich, complex, amazing writing. All of us are already so anxious to share this with our audiences.

The adventure continues...

Long Live the Musical!