Larry Daggett and Carl Anthony Tramon inWhat Makes Sammy Run?
Larry Daggett and Carl Anthony Tramon in
What Makes Sammy Run?
That Hollywood rewards avarice and guile is not news, but when the news is delivered by Budd Schulberg, you know you're getting it from the horse's mouth. Son of B.P. Schulberg, head of production at Paramount in the 1930s, Budd was a Hollywood prince who got out before becoming totally corrupted by all those pool parties and starlets. In 1941, he wrote the novel What Makes Sammy Run?, an exposé of studio conniving. Its protagonist is a Pal Joey sort of heel who charms, lies, batters, and climbs his way to the top. After being filmed as a one-shot TV drama in the 1950s, Sammy was transformed into a big Broadway musical in 1964, with a score by Ervin Drake, a book by Schulberg and his brother Stuart, and Steve Lawrence in the lead.

It's hard to see the contours of a megamusical in the vest-pocket production of What Makes Sammy Run? at the West End Theatre, but some of the virtues that kept it on the boards for 540 performances remain intact. Foremost among them are Schulberg's jaundiced insider's view of Hollywood -- where the dollar is king, the women are easy but treacherous, and possessing a warm, human soul is a handicap. It's a polluted well in which those with integrity are left gasping for air while the vermin grow fat and happy.

"Vermin" is a fair description of Sammy Glick (Carl Anthony Tramon), born Glickstein, a Lower East Side kid who's impatient to escape the Rivington Street tenements and the smell of kosher cooking. In the Schulbergs' adaptation, revised for this production by director Robert Armin, Sammy runs first to a New York tabloid; he ingratiates himself with soft-hearted drama critic Al Manheim (Larry Daggett) and quickly grabs column space from him, then steals a fellow copy boy's idea and parlays it into a screenplay. Soon, Sammy is one of Tinseltown's most eligible bachelors -- though it's difficult to see why in Tramon's charmless performance. Manheim follows Sammy out West, and the two vie for the affections of screenwriter Kit Sargent (Moira Stone) while Sammy simultaneously chases Laurette Harrington (Kristin McLaughlin), the daughter of a studio head. He also becomes involved with a sleep-with-anyone starlet, played by Jessica Luck.

Sammy's rapid climb from plagiarist screenwriter to producer to mogul should be good, mordant fun, and it is whenever he's equipped with a smart Schulberg line ("Going through life with a conscience is like driving a car with the brakes on") or spitting out a pithy Ervin Drake lyric. But, like a bad print of a Warners epic from the '40s, this three-hour revisal of the show keeps going out of focus. It's not helped by the fact that Drake's songs are a mixed bag, ranging from the attractive "Maybe Some Other Time" and the semi-hit "A Room Without Windows" to the drop-dead-unfunny "Lights! Camera! Platitude!" While some of the dialogue has the snap of good high-gloss trash, more of it uncomfortably carries the plot. The fourth wall is knocked down, then built back up, then knocked down again, with Manheim rattling off needless exposition to the audience.

The larger problem with the show is that the characters' actions often ring untrue. At the tabloid where Glick first uses Manheim, the managing editor avidly approves of Glick's plagiarism. How realistic is that? Though Laurette finds Sammy's chutzpah unbearable in one scene, she endorses it wholeheartedly in the next -- not for any good reason, just because the script wants to push these two together and get them to their duet. Sammy's nice Rivington Street sweetheart, a character from the novel, has been added to the show and provides a contrast to the polished Hollywood ladies, but she's such an obvious "device" that it's a relief when she disappears in Act II. Also, the conventional adultery angle from the 1964 version has been replaced with some trendy girl-on-girl action, and this comes off as tacked-on titillation. The gals are treated pretty badly in general here; all of the fanny-smacking and insulting of women suggests that the writers aren't exposing Hollywood misogyny, they're wallowing in it.

The original Broadway production was huge, with sumptuous Don Walker orchestrations, carloads of sets, and a cast of 33. The scaling-down for this church-theater production hurts the show surprisingly little, thanks to clever dime-budget costumes by Joanne Haas and some intelligent double-casting that makes it seem like there are more than 10 actors in the company. They all needn't work so hard, though. As Sammy, Tramon leaps, dances, does impressions, hits his high notes, and practically does a decathlon around the stage; but the blocking is so busy that he can barely pause for breath, much less work up a characterization. Daggett, a reliable musical-comedy actor with a big, solid voice, is monotonously good-natured as Manheim. Stone acts well as Kit but sings with a wavery, undisciplined vibrato. The most fully realized performance comes from McLaughlin, whose spoiled Hollywood rich girl has the smarts and charm that Tramon's Sammy lacks. Something actually seems to be going on behind her eyes.

When the details of the story ring true, this Sammy works. But to the yards and yards of unfocused Hollywood yammering onstage, I would add two movieland phrases that are not in the script: "Get me rewrite" and "Cut!"