On and On and On It Goes

I've been watching a lot of film noir lately, to get me in the right mindset for polishing Sweet Smell of Success. A few things I've noticed -- in almost all of them, there's a fundamentally corrupt, or at least unfair, world as a backdrop, almost everything happens at night, and there's usually a moment in which an otherwise innocent person makes the fateful decision to also lie, cheat, or otherwise manipulate.

All those thing are present in Sweet Smell.

And the cultural backdrop is almost as vivid a character as the four leads. The show is full of references to famous stars (Richard Burton, Marilyn Monroe, Lana Turner, Frank Sinatra) and politicians (J. Edgar Hoover, Sen. Joseph McCarthy), actual clubs (The Stork Club, El Morocco, The Blue Angel), pop culture phrases ("I'd walk a mile for a Camel [cigarette]," "I Dood It"), even actual scandals of the moment (rumors that Adlai Stevenson was gay).

For a while, mid-century, Americans devoured gossip about famous people more ferociously than at any other time before or since. Sure, that's always been a part of our culture, but there was a "Golden Age."

The story of Sweet Smell of Success is a very personal story, among just four people, of love, jealousy, greed, and ego. But underpinning the story is a moral and structural underbelly that makes this story unique, exploring the freaky barter system that fueled those mid-century gossip columns. That system is the "Underworld" that our heroes must learn to navigate.

And it worked like this:

Say you're a 1950s press agent. You make money by finding clients to represent, they pay you a regular fee, and you get them mentioned in the newspapers; and the best mention of all is one of the nationally syndicated "Broadway" (i.e., New York) gossip columnists. The king of those was Walter Winchell, only thinly veiled as the character J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success.

The price of getting your client mentioned favorably in a gossip column is a nasty, preferably scandalous, or at least witty, piece of gossip about someone else. You rat somebody else out, your client gets the prize.

Or the way Sidney and the other press agents explain it in our show:
Sidney: A press agent works for a client.
Press Agents: Yup!
Sidney: A press agent likes to eat.
Agents: You bet!
Sidney: The client says, “Get me in J.J.”
Agents: J.J.!
Sidney: The press agent feels the heat.
Agents: Ouch!
Sidney: J.J. says, “What’ll you give me?”
Here's where you crawl like a bug...
All: Just give him dirt,
Make it hurt,
He gives your client a plug.

Just listen to J.J.'s secretary Madge take his calls:
Madge: (answering the phone) J.J. Hunsecker…
Press Agent: Madge, any space tonight?
Madge: Depends on what you got.
Press Agent: The Democratic presidential nominee?
Madge: What did you find out?
Press Agent: Tell J.J. his divorce papers are sealed.
Madge: (To J.J.) Adlai Stevenson's divorce papers are sealed.
J.J.: Why?
Madge: (To Press Agent) Why?
Press Agent: Give me time -- he'll mention the Blue Angel?
Madge: Find out more and J.J. loves the Blue Angel. (picks up another line) J.J. Hunsecker…

And the result sounds like (also quoting from the show):
Kay Thompson and the Williams Brothers packing 'em in at the Persian Room ... Those rumors about Lena Home just won't quit ... Grace Kelly, fresh off High Noon, making yet another married movie star regret he ever said love, honor and oh the hell with it … Advice to a certain polo-playing playboy after the brawl at P.J. Clark’s last night. Learn the difference between men and pigs. Pigs don't tum into men when they drink … Talking of tippling: Dean Martin confessing at The Stork Club that he sees a psychiatrist once a week to help him stop drinking. It's working. Every Tuesday from three to four, he stops drinking ... Item: Libby James, TV glamazon, at Toni's Caprice with married Wall Street biggie. She's learning the hard way that girls get minks the same way minks get minks ... Question in Washington: Will Truman resign before he's impeached? Treason's never a pretty picture ... Ava Gardner is finding out that when hubby Frank Sinatra sends her flowers for no reason, there's a reason ...

That's the universe in which our dark, fierce, adult fable takes place. I keep thinking about that famous review quote of the original Pal Joey in 1940, "Although it is expertly done, can you draw sweet water from a foul well?" Yes, you could in 1940 and you can now.

It makes me think of a conversation I had last night at rehearsal with Matt Pentecost, who's playing Sidney for us. We've both seen the movie, and Matt was feeling a little unsure since he was going in a somewhat different direction than Tony Curtis did. Matt's Sidney is not irredeemably sociopathic as he was in the film; this Sidney is more needy and weak. He's not fundamentally evil, just without any discernible moral foundation, like no one ever bothered to teach him the basics of right and wrong. And though he thinks he's a master con artist, he's as easily conned as anyone.

In the film, Sidney is as big a monster as J.J. is. In the show, Sidney is just a two-bit hustler, trapped by his ambition and his lust for power. But unlike the film, the stage musical allows Sidney some flashes of vague self-awareness, which arguably make his tragedy even worse.

The difference, of course, is the music. In the film, any emotions these broken people felt were fully submerged, subtextual. But because music is an abstract language, it conveys emotion more powerfully than words can, and so the musical theatre is an inherently emotional storytelling form. Sweet Smell of Success as a musical can explore those dark, complex emotions directly, and a song like "At the Fountain" can give us empathy for a character like Sidney that wasn't possible in the movie.

"At the Fountain" is one of the greatest moments in the show, Sidney's big Act I aria, in which he ponders his luck at becoming J.J.'s new best friend. Sidney is a small man who thinks J.J. will make him a big man. Not a gossip monger anymore, a gossip master. He's wrong.

In "At the Fountain" Sidney sings:
Hey Sidney, you finally found some luck...
You've always been an also-ran
Just racing for a buck;
A guy with a smile,
A way with a word,
Quick with a joke
We've already heard.

Y'ever hear the one about Lana Turner?
Sittin' at the soda fountain,
Dreamin' her soda fountain dreams?

But there was something he could see
For just a moment;
It's like he saw inside of me
What's really there –
What I was,
What I am,
What I'll be…

Maybe I'm at the fountain,
Maybe I'm at the start;
It's time to step up and drink
And not even think;
You don't have to think to be smart.

Sometimes the perfect timing
Feels like a work of art,
'Cause it can bring you your break
And answer the ache;
He offers, you take
The part...

More so than the movie ever does, this helps us understand why Sidney goes along with everything J.J. wants. Sidney is metaphorically at Schwab's soda fountain, and he fancies himself a "star" being "discovered" by J.J. He thinks he's the next Lana Turner. It's ironic that in the earlier scene in the Voodoo Club, Sidney's bullshit agent's pitch to Susan includes the line, "The Voodoo Club could be your Schwab's," but it turns out to be Sidney's Schwab's instead. He thinks.

But also notice, he thinks J.J. looked into Sidney's soul and saw greatness. (No, J.J. looked into Sidney's face and saw an easy mark.) Sidney thinks meeting J.J. was Fate. (No, J.J. looked into Sidney's face and saw an easy mark.) The grand, powerful emotion of the music takes us inside Sidney's head. This is how he sees himself.

That's some really complex character writing from lyricist Craig Carnelia, and coupled with Marvin Hamlisch's lush, soaring music, it's a powerfully emotional moment. It's almost impossible not to feel something for Sidney here. And then he destroys some lives.

And that's a big part of what makes this moral thriller so much fun. If you're not careful, Sidney will charm you too. I guess it's sort of like The Music Man, only this time the scoundrel isn't just ripping off honest small town people using their kids as bait; this time, somebody's apt to get killed.

I realized as we've worked on this show that the central conflict of the show is not exactly what it appears to be. The real conflict isn't about jealousy or power; it's about empathy. J.J. and Sidney are so broken, so damaged, they can't imagine how someone else feels, they can't put themselves in someone else's shoes.

And that makes it really easy to destroy people.

Recent brain research suggests that if a child doesn't get enough physical affection in the first years of life, they won't properly develop the pre-frontal cortex in their brain, the area which controls empathy. J.J. and Sidney aren't just cruel; they're incapable of feeling empathy. In the original short story, Susan says to Sidney, "We love each other in a way that you and J.J. could never understand." She's absolutely right.

There's so much complexity and depth to these characters, and the writing is exceptional. Our music director Jeffrey Carter calls it the "wittiest and wickedest" book he's ever worked on. And then there's the amazing music and lyrics... And this superb cast of ours...!

You gotta see this show. It's genuinely extraordinary, a real roller coaster ride, and when will you ever get another chance to see it...?

Long Live the Musical!