The Most Underrated Musical of the New Millennium
By Peter Filichia
How well I remember the early morning of Friday, March 15, 2002.
I had to go out of town, and my friend Ken Bloom had volunteered to drive me to the airport, even though I was catching an early morning flight. En route, we commiserated on the not-good reviews that Sweet Smell of Success had received that morning. We’d seen the show, and thought it remarkable in many ways – especially with that terrific Marvin Hamlisch-Craig Carnelia score. The fact that our good friend Frank Vlastnik was in the cast wasn’t the reason we were enthusiastic; the book, music, lyrics and performances were.
“Have you talked to Frank?” we actually said at the same moment. Neither he nor I had, because this early in the morning was too soon for a call. Both of us, however, dreaded when early morn would turn to late morn, and we’d have make the call of condolence and cry out “It’s just not fair!”
It wasn’t. I’d read Ernest Lehman’s original 72-page novella of Sweet Smell and had seen the 1957 film version. So I knew that bookwriter John Guare, composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Craig Carnelia had made the characters much more compelling than they had been in the source materials.
Both of the previous properties had told us about an all-powerful gossip columnist named J.J. Hunsecker, his aberrant love for his sister Susan and their interaction with hungry publicist Sidney Falco. But if we wanted to know “How did you get to be you, Sidney Falco?” the musical – and the musical alone – literally answered that question. For in Act One Scene One, he was Sidney Falcone – until J.J. suggested that he change his name to the more pungent Falco; he said it had that nice “o” sound that well served Harlow, Garbo, and Monroe.
And Sidney agreed, en route to a marvelous song called “At the Fountain.” What a mighty way of showing us J.J.’s all-encompassing influence! He even had the power to change people’s names! All it took was one off-hand suggestion from him. There had been nothing in the novella or the film that more strongly suggested that Falco would do a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g to please J.J.
The musical greatly enhanced the character of Susan. Originally, J.J. Hunsecker’s sister was a “late baby” to his father and mother, but in the musical, she was his half-sister, the product of his father’s second marriage. Of course I won’t say that lusting for your half-sister instead of your full-blooded sister is only half as bad, but I did think that the choice to make the two characters half-siblings was a more interesting one. We live in an era where plenty of children have parents who have endured multiple marriages; I’ve heard many half-siblings tell me their complicated feeling for their half-brothers and sisters. Here was a musical that brought up the subject.
And while all three properties showed us that J.J. is much too enraptured with Susan, the collaborators did offer another improvement from the novella and the film: J.J. didn’t solely try to keep her for himself, but tried to fix her up with someone else – no less than Senator John F. Kennedy. This did make J.J. a bit better, for he wanted the best possible guy for her, which suggested that he doesn’t necessarily think it was himself. And wasn’t there a nice irony in J.J.’s thinking that JFK would be a good husband, now that we’ve since learned he wasn’t the most faithful of spouses? The collaborators showed us once again, in a fascinating and oblique way, that what J.J. thought was not always accurate or wise.
In the film, Susan had been a shy and retiring type – which did make sense, for many people with powerful siblings often become shrinking violets. She had been much stronger in the novel, but not nearly as strong as she was in the musical – where she actually brought down her brother. So while the film pitted strong-vs.-weak and the novella offered strong-vs.-stronger, the musical went for strong-vs.-strongest – which always offers the best dramatic possibilities.
The musical’s collaborators gave us good reason why Susan is strong, thanks to the song, “For Susan.” Here’s where J.J. showed Sidney the letters, postcards, and souvenirs from the celebrities – Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, et al. – who had paid Susan great attention over the years. That made sense; anyone who was the apple of J.J.’s eye would get rapt and fawning attention from VIPs. That could make a girl feel good about herself, and would almost inevitably lead to her becoming a strong woman.
How many thousands of love songs have been written for musicals? How many of them, however, exude sex and longing? Listen to “Don’t Know Where You Leave Off” – a song that more than suggests that Susan and her boyfriend Dallas can’t wait to rip each other’s clothes off.
Guare, Hamlisch and Carnelia didn’t just cut a bit of dialogue and replace it with a song, as so many writers of dull musicals have. They deepened the characters and raised the stakes. Better still, they had the same voice when writing for the characters; the work seemed to be from one bookwriter-lyricist. The language the men chose was imaginative and was in keeping with the harsh nightlife world of New York in the ‘50s.
Thanks to a cast album, those who missed Hamlisch and Carnelia’s score in the theater can still experience it. And let us remember that when the film of Sweet Smell of Success opened, it was dismissed by reviewers and the public. Only after many years passed did it become a highly respected movie. May it happen with this exceptional musical version.
But back to that March 15, 2002 day while Ken was driving me to the airport. Suddenly his cell phone rang. He took it out of his shirt pocket, glanced at it, and said, “It’s Frank. I’m driving. You’ll have to talk to him.”
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia;. His new book Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959-2009 is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com.