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A Qualified Success

Brooke Pierce takes a whiff of the Sweet Smell cast recording. logo

Sweet Smell of Success is a musical about the dirty, ambitious world of tabloid journalism: Sidney Falcone (later Falco), an eager young press agent, becomes the protégé of influential gossip columnist JJ Hunsecker and soon finds himself lying, deceiving, and raking muck with the best of them. The musical opened on Broadway to mixed-to-negative reviews, owing partly to the critics' distaste for a subject they considered to be a well-beaten horse. Everyone already knows that low-level journalism is an ugly thing perpetrated by ugly people, so what's new?

Well, if the score is anything to judge by--and in a musical, it certainly oughtta be--then what's new is the fact that this is a thoughtful, intelligent, and often tuneful musical fable about a subject that never gets old: success, and the price that some people are willing to pay for it. Fortunately, Sony Classical has provided an estimable cast album of Sweet Smell to survive the struggling show once it has left Broadway.

Marvin Hamlisch is a solid composer who has been known to produce interesting musical theater songs but who, with some major exceptions to be found in A Chorus Line, has rarely offered anything that can be classified as truly outstanding. If his work here doesn't exceed expectations, it is a very different sound than we're used to hearing from him. The music is jazzy and seductive. Aided by William David Brohn's rich orchestrations, it well conveys the moody, dark nightlife of New York City celebs in the 1950s. On paper (the lyrics are included in the CD booklet), Craig Carnelia's lyrics lie somewhere between straight talk and banality; but, set to Hamlisch's music, they sound appropriately punchy, if not as flashy and smart as one might expect in a musical about showbiz.

One of Sweet Smell's most distinctive (and often grating) features is the use of a Greek chorus whose whispers of encouragement and warning to Sidney create a kind of soundtrack of the city. From a musical standpoint, this conceit is dull, repetitive, and rather wasteful: Hamlisch has all of these voices at his disposal but he never gives them anything exciting to sing.

As Sidney, Brian d'Arcy James exudes an oily desperation and sings terrifically well, whether schmoozing his way through "I Can Get You In JJ" or belting out one of the show's best numbers, "At The Fountain." John Lithgow plays JJ, the oddly lovable bad guy. Though he has few songs and he's not much of a singer, Lithgow is always interesting in the role; he offers an especially eerie and convincing reading of "For Susan," the innocuous-sounding little waltz in which it becomes clear that JJ's affection for his younger sister leans toward the incestuous. Playing Susan's beau, musician Dallas Cochran, Jack Noseworthy displays a hard-edged virtuousness that keeps him from being very likable. Still, his songs--two smooth ballads ("I Cannot Hear the City" and "Don't Know Where You Leave Off") and a jumpy jazz number ("One Track Mind")--are some of the most enjoyable tracks on the album.

The detailed and cleverly formatted synopsis of the show contained in the CD booklet is worth reading before listening, as the plot is hard to follow otherwise. The disc's running time is only an hour (modest for your average cast recording these days), so it's surprising to find that neither the first act finale nor the "Psalm 151" sequence are included. Overall, the Sweet Smell of Success album is not a must-have, but it's definitely a good listen and a fine rendering of one of the few original scores heard on Broadway this season.

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