You Never Know When, Where, and How

In Sweet Smell of Success, many of the songs have an ironic under-layer; sometimes the singer is aware of the irony, others times they're not.

All through the scene-song "I Could Get You in J.J.," we already know Sidney can't get either of them in J.J.'s column, that in fact Sidney is a two-bit con man. We also already know that Susan has had dinner with J.J., even as Sidney is promising to get her in J.J.'s column.

Dallas' gorgeous ballad "I Cannot Hear the City," is straight-forward the first time we hear it, but when it returns late in Act I, it takes on a double-meaning, also reminding us that Dallas really doesn't understand how the Big City works... as we watch J.J. slowly realize he's being lied to. Dallas is in the big leagues now, and he's really not ready...

I've already blogged a bit about Sidney's big "aria" in Act I, "At the Fountain." It's another brilliant exercise in subtle irony. This big, gorgeous music camouflages the needy, creepy lyric. As I wrote in my other post:
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, Sidney thinks J.J. looked into his 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.

Dallas' clubby, sexy "One Track Mind" works both as an authentic period jazz number, as Brubecky as the real thing, but this is also Dallas' case for the nobility of impoverished happiness (we're to assume Dallas wrote this song), in stark contrast to the previous scene in which we learned, in waltz time, about the dozens of famous, rich, and powerful people who frequent the Hunsecker penthouse. Notice that J.J.'s music is all old-fashioned -- a hymn, a waltz, a vaudeville number...

Subliminally, the music tells us that J.J.'s penthouse world is old, creepy, oppressive, isolating, while Dallas' world is new, adventurous, romantic. The penthouse is (musically) minor and dissonant, while Dallas' club is major and playful. These are two very distinct worlds that Susan has to choose between. And when J.J. realizes she's made that choice, all hell breaks loose.

Likewise, "Rita's Tune" is a companion piece to "Somewhere That's Green," an ironic charm song about how little this women needs to be happy, all while we know she won't get even that. But "Rita's Tune" is even darker and more ironic. It succeeds brilliantly on three levels at the same time: 1.)  as a great, period pop tune celebrating domesticity; 2.)  as unintentional irony because we already know Sidney's a louse and bad shit is coming; and 3.)  like "Somewhere That's Green," it's such a naked, honest, simple plea, and we know she won't get any of what she needs. She won't get killed, like Audrey, but she'll come damn close.

As the song begins, we either know or suspect that Sidney's about to pimp out his "available" girlfriend, then we watch Rita sing of domestic bliss, and then we actually watch Sidney pimp her out to Otis Elwell, in exchange for getting an item in Otis' column. That's some heavy irony. And then after Sidney leaves, the writers drop one more irony on us, as Rita admits to Otis that yes, he does recognize her because she was pimped out to him two years ago. Holy shit.

Another example of shattering irony is "Don't Look Now," J.J.'s old vaudeville number, which he performs on his telethon.

This lyric is a fictionalized version of the real 1880 vaudeville staple, "The Fountain in the Park" (usually known as "While Strolling Through the Park One Day"). This number serves both as a J.J.'s famous signature song from decades ago, but also as a postmodern song-and-dance that slyly, almost subliminally, describes the danger of New York nightlife. The nostalgic music and choreography work ironically against the deceptively dark lyric, which literally describes the brutality taking place during the song, as Lt. Kello and his thugs beat Dallas unconscious. You just don't notice that's what it's doing...

J.J. starts the song, with a startlingly honest intro:
Magicians always tell you
They've got nothing up their sleeve,
But why would someone tell you that,
Unless it's to deceive?
There's always been a lie
To misdirect the eye,
Since Adam did his magic tricks for Eve.

Here, the song itself is the magic trick -- the music and dance misdirect us from the dark, violent content of the lyric.
Don’t ever trust a gent
Who pulls a bird from someone’s ear,
Who makes his living
Making you believe that he's sincere.
He's looking for a chump,
Expectin’ you to jump,
When he pours on all the charm and says,
“I need a volunteer.”

Underscoring continues as Sidney and Kello arrange the beating of Dallas over the phone. Dallas is the chump, the lyric is telling us, the "volunteer." And J.J. is the guy "who makes his living making you believe that he's sincere." It's both a conventional song and it isn't, at the same time. This is the territory of the neo musical comedy, the new form that uses the conventions of old-school musical comedy for more ironic, more socio-political aims. Sweet Smell of Success is not a neo musical comedy -- it's a thriller -- but this number works on the same principle.

J.J. sings the first verse now, surrounded by a chorus.
Don't look now
But somethin' that you had is gone.
It's somethin' you depend upon.
Don't look now...

Is J.J. talking to Dallas? Or Sidney...? Or is it a warning to the rest of us? Maybe it's the writers reminding us that everyone loses in this story. And in life...
Take a bow;
Someone made a fool of you.
You're standin' there without a clue.
Don't look now...

Again, which of J.J.'s victims is the object of this? Or is it all of J.J.'s victims, and all his victims to come...? Everybody (else) is a patsy...
He took you to the cleaners,
Don't you know.
He walked you like a dog,
The so and so...

Say "bow wow,"
A piece of what you had is gone;
The magic act goes on and on.
You're wonderin' when, where and how?
Well, don't look now.

The magic act -- J.J.'s column and the power it brings with it -- goes on and on. Both the opening and closing numbers tell us that "on and on and on it goes..." The closing also tells us, "There no end to the column..."

There's a short dialogue scene in which Sidney lies to Dallas to get him to the docks, where Kello will beat him up. The chorus continues the song, with a lyric that mixes the benign with the sinister, set to a sweet, swinging, old-fashioned softshoe:
Strolling along the avenue,
Cutting across the park,
Rushing to make a rendezvous,
You could become a mark.
Somehow the magic will find you,
Find you alone in the dark.

You could become the "mark," the sucker, the victim of a con or a crime, alone in the dark. Are Kello and his goons "the magic [that] will find you"...?
Maybe we get to pick our spots,
Maybe we choose the date,
Maybe we get to call the shots,
Maybe it's up to fate.
Somehow the magic will find you,
Find you alone,
Alone in the dark.

Are they talking about dying...?? Is this a threat...?
Don't look now,
But somethin' that you had is gone;
The magic act goes on and on.
You never know when where and how...

Now we start to wonder if "somethin' that you had" is your health or even your life, as Kello and his Goon beat Dallas to the beat of the music, while the chorus continues:
He'll make your bunny disappear
Along with your hat;
He'll saw your girl in half,
And then he'll leave her like that.

What the fuck...?
So don't look…
Don't look…
Don't look now!

Don't look, he says, because if we pay attention, people like J.J. can't get away with nearly as much. The whole script and score are this rich, this complex, this subtle, this beautifully crafted. It's been such a joy working on this show! I love my job!

Long Live the Musical!