Makin' Music to Make You Die

It's hard to write about music without the reader actually hearing it. But I've been doing my best in my books to write about really interesting scores as simply and accessibly as I can, and I'm gonna try to do the same with the sizzling jazz score for Sweet Smell of Success.

One of the things that provides the show's considerable suspense and tension, and that gives it such a relentless pace, is Marvin Hamlisch's remarkable music. As strong as all his scores are, this was his masterpiece, endlessly inventive and deeply expressive, while fully inhabiting the language of 1950s club jazz.

One of the central reasons the show works so well is the underscoring under most of the show. Jazz is part of the environment here; the music provides the story's cultural context as much as it's the language of our storytelling.

Hamlisch embraced the idea of film noir with this score, and his decades of experience scoring films gave him the composing chops to use music so effectively throughout the show. In this story, it's the stopping of the music -- emotional silence -- that provides powerful dramatic punctuation, rather than the other way around.

Like his film music, and like his extensive underscoring in A Chorus Line, the underscoring in this show is expressionistic music, built not so much on melody or harmony, but on the abstract expression of emotion.

He also uses leitmotifs throughout the score, small musical ideas that come to represent an idea or person. J.J. has an ironic vaudeville leitmotif that pops up here and there.

There's also a "column" leitmotif for Sidney, two notes that recur all over the score, two notes that are part of the show's central melody, first set in the opening number to the word "column" in the first line, "Gotta get in the column" (which shows up again in "Dirt"). These two notes come back every time Sidney makes another moral compromise. These two notes also accompany the disturbing, repeating "Do it... Do it... Do it... Do it!", from the Greek Chorus in "Break It Up," this time urging Sidney to pimp out his girlfriend.

In "Break It Up," the first song in Act II, the Greek Chorus goads Sidney into one more immoral act. But more than just a musical Devil on the Shoulder, it's also a deconstruction of Sidney's triumphant, hopeful, Act I "aria," "At the Fountain." "Break It Up" has one new melody, but the rest of this very long musical scene is built on musically tearing apart the optimism of Act I.

Likewise, the reprise of "I Could Get You in J.J." is also a dark deconstruction of the scene-song from Act I, as Sidney conjures up his destructive chaos. Another long musical scene, it's built on the Act I "I Could Get You in J.J.," with a new short leitmotif, "Bye bye, blackbird, bye bye Dallas, Bye bye blues," all peppered with interruptions, fragments, and lots of underscoring.

By design, there's really not a lot of new musical material in Act II. There's the new "Break It Up" music, the short "Bye bye blackbird" fragment, most but not all of "Dirt," and the vaudeville number, "Don't Look Now."

The rest of the music in Act II, and there's a lot of it, is built on the musical ideas established in Act I. Hamlisch takes those ideas, changes them, twists them, adapts them, interrupts them; and in the process he changes the emotional context and colors of those melodies we've already heard.

There are also only three self-contained songs in Act II, "Rita's Tune," the ironically retro torch song; "Dirt," the Greek Chorus' statement of purpose; and "Don't Look Now," J.J.'s old vaudeville number. Although really, "Don't Look Now" is more musical scene than self-contained song, with several ironically offset dialogue scenes with underscoring, inside the song.

It's a shame that they weren't able to make a two-disc cast recording and preserve this entire extraordinary score. Easily a third of the score is not on the recording. Maybe someday they'll "rediscover" this brilliant score and record the whole thing...

Meanwhile, we get to live inside this glorious, sinewy music for another three weeks! Come join us!

Long Live the Musical!