BACHARACH’S PROMISES, PROMISES: ONE SINGULAR SENSATION By Peter Filichia
Well, at least he gave us one musical.
Neil Hefti didn’t. Billy Joel hasn’t. Ditto Bruce Springsteen.
But Burt Bacharach, who worked in the same pop arena as they, did in 1968. He and Hal David, his longtime lyricist, wrote the sensational score for PROMISES, PROMISES.
The result was the longest-running musical of the 1968-69 season.
Usually when composers and lyricists have a big hit with both critics and audiences, they’re soon at work on another musical. Thus, PROMISES seemed to promise more Broadway fare from Bacharach and David.
It was not to be. Rumors have floated over the years that Bacharach abandoned Broadway because he didn’t have as much control as he did in the recording studio. And when your producer (i.e., boss) is David Merrick, well …
One could begin to understand if the tryouts had been torturous. No, the reviews in Boston as well as Washington were sensational. The only problem for Bacharach was pneumonia. Even that, though, didn’t stop him from composing one of the best songs ever written on the road, as well as one of the team’s most durable hits: “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.”
It wasn’t yet in the show when I attended in Boston. On that October day, I opened the Playbill, blanched and actually said to my companion, “Good Lord! Look at these odd titles! What could these songs possibly sound like?”
I still don’t know about “Hot Soup,” which was already cut before that performance. But the others? Darn good, that’s what they sounded like. Now that I know them and love them well, those titles – “Half as Big as Life,” “She Likes Basketball,” “Turkey Lurkey Time,” and “A Fact Can Be a Beautiful Thing” – don’t even strike me as bizarre. Bacharach’s music made me abandon and forget my original impressions.
Most pieces of sheet music have a word or two at the top of the page to guide the musician. For “Turkey Lurkey Time,” who would have assumed it would be the oxymoronic “moderately slow and excitedly”? That’s the label, and there’s a good chance that Michael Bennett was the reason that the final word “excitedly” was the final word on the song.
A theatrical truism is that when a show is excellent, it brings out the best in everyone. Here was choreographer Bennett’s first hit after two flops that had averaged 46 performances. That track record was better than that of orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, whose pair of Broadway shows had averaged a mere 11.
As for director Robert Moore, yes, he’d steered THE BOYS IN THE BAND to great success only a few months earlier, but that was a nine-character drama, not a musical with a cast of 37. Broadway is littered with directors of plays who couldn’t succeed with musicals, but Moore and PROMISES, PROMISES can’t be counted among them. This musical, then, was the jump-start to three great careers, and Bacharach was no small contributor in getting them on their way.
The original production didn’t have the marquee star value of the 2010 revival. Jerry Orbach, playing shy and insecure Chuck Baxter, wouldn’t become a household name for nearly a quarter-century, when Detective Lennie Briscoe and Law & Order came into his life.
Orbach received a Tony for his performance, although he probably would have lost had William Daniels – John Adams in 1776 – been placed in the Best Actor in a Musical category. But no: billing issues relegated Daniels to the Best Featured Actor in a Musical group (which so infuriated him that he refused the nomination).
But the 2010 revival did have a household name: Sean Hayes, whom the nation came to know, love and adore as Jack in another TV series that also sported an ampersand: Will & Grace. He brought the requisite sensitivity to Chuck, and he got a Tony nomination out of it.
As Fran Kubelik, the lass who causes Chuck to yearn, the original production had Jill O’Hara, who had a modest career. But the revival sported Kristin Chenoweth, whose rise to prominence didn’t take long.
In 1997, she had a small part in Kander and Ebb’s STEEL PIER, but she made enough of an impression to win a Theatre World Award. Almost two years later to the day, she won a Tony as Best Featured Actress in a Musical for YOU’RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN, playing Sally Brown, a character that didn’t exist in the original off-Broadway version. That of course meant that the song she got to sing – Andrew Lippa’s “My New Philosophy” – was new, too.
So why did the revival run less than a fourth as long as the original? PROMISES is based on the 1960 Oscar-winning film THE APARTMENT; each has a script that hasn’t aged well. In the ensuing years, America reached the realization that male executives taking advantage of lower-level female employees was unseemly and downright wrong.
That said, the score doesn’t suffer from any of that, for David didn’t stress salaciousness. The closest song that approaches any innuendo is “Where Can You Take a Girl?” which was sung by randy executives who wanted the use of bachelor Chuck’s apartment. Aside from that, listening to what Bacharach and David wrote still holds up wonderfully.
The 2010 revival gives us even more Bacharach and David, with Chenoweth singing both “A House Is Not a Home,” the theme of a 1964 film, and the better-known “I Say Little Prayer,” which reached Number Four on the charts in 1967. Hayes got to reprise the latter.
But what a missed opportunity not to include “This Guy’s in Love with You” which was released only months before PROMISES went into rehearsal. Because bookwriter Neil Simon had Chuck imagining and fantasizing conversations that he and Fran have, “This Guy’s in Love with You” would fit nicely into PROMISES. This guy’s in love with Fran, and nobody in the entire show looks at her the way he does. Shy guy that he is, he doesn’t know “What I’d do to make you mine” and dreams “Tell me now? Is it so? Don’t let me be the last to know. My hands are shakin’; don’t let my heart keep breakin’, ‘cause I need your love, I want your love. Say you’re in love, in love with this guy.”
That’s Chuck! Only 11 words of the existing lyric don’t apply to him and his unrequited love: “’Cause I’ve heard some talk; they say you think I’m fine.” But how hard would David have had to work to replace the line? The show would have profited from having what would become the Number Seven best-selling single record of 1968.
Bacharach had an EGO. This is not meant to imply that he had a swelled head; the capital letters are there to acknowledge that he won the Emmy, Grammy and Oscar (respectively one, six and three times, if you’d care to keep score). But he didn’t win a Tony for PROMISES.
The sad thing is that he would have, but before the 1968-69 season began, the powers-that-be decided that there wouldn’t be a Best Score or Best Book Award that season; those prizes would be lumped together with Best Musical; the bookwriter, composer and lyricist would each get a Tony along with the producer.
So, 1776 won that singular prize with Peter Stone, Sherman Edwards and Stuart Ostrow each getting a statuette. Yes, 1776 is many extraordinary things, but had there been a Best Score Tony that year, Bacharach and David would have certainly won.
Who knows? That snub might have been another reason why the team never had any interest in doing another Broadway show.
As the years and then decades went by, we knew Bacharach would never give us another one. Still, the prospect of that ever happening became impossible on February 8, when he died at 94. Mr. B, we’ll all say a big prayer for you and appreciate PROMISES, PROMISES.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – THE BOOK OF BROADWAY MUSICAL DEBATES, DISPUTES, AND DISAGREEMENTS – is now available on Amazon. See him do his one-man show PETE’s THEATRICAL ADVENTURES for free on Feb. 26 at 4 p.m. at Theatre 555 at 555 West 42nd Street; make a reservation at [email protected]