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How Sweet it Is!

A passionate rebuttal to the negative reviews of Sweet Smell of Success. logo

John Lithgow in Sweet Smell of Success
(Photo: Paul Kolnik)
I'd like to go to bat for Sweet Smell of Success. I've read Ernest Lehman's original 72-page novella and I've seen the 1957 film version, so I can tell you that bookwriter John Guare, composer Marvin Hamlisch, and lyricist Craig Carnelia made the characters much more compelling than they were in the source materials. I know that's a statement with which many will take issue. But let me count the ways:

Both of the previous properties told us about an all-powerful gossip columnist named J.J. Hunsecker, his aberrant love for his sister Susan, and the siblings' interaction with a hungry publicist named Sidney Falco. But if you want to know "How did you get to be you, Sidney Falco?" it's the musical that answers the question. In Act I, Scene One, he's Sidney Falcone--until J.J. suggests that he should change his name to the more pungent Falco, which, he says, has that nice "o" sound that well served Harlow, Garbo, and Monroe. And Sidney agrees! What a mighty way of showing us J.J.'s all-encompassing influence: He even has the power to change people's names. All it takes is one offhand suggestion from him. There's nothing in the novella or the film that more strongly suggests that Falco would do a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g to please J.J.

Neither do the book or the movie have the scene where J.J. is in St. Patrick's Cathedral after hours. J.J. tells Sidney that the Cardinal lets him drop in when he wants. That's another way of showing us J.J.'s power, for even the Cardinal is in his thrall. But being in church doesn't keep J.J. on a religious track. Instead, he uses the opportunity to make Sidney swear that he'll keep his eye on Susan and make sure nothing wrong happens to her. The operative word is "swear": J.J. literally has Sidney voice an oath while Hamlisch's religious-tinted music makes the moment all the more eerie.

The musical greatly enhances the character of Susan. Originally, J.J. Hunsecker's sister was a "late baby" to his father and mother--but in the musical, she's his half-sister, the product of his father's second marriage. No, I'm not going to say that lusting for your half-sister instead of your full-blooded sister is only half as bad, but I do think that the choice to make the two characters half-siblings is a more interesting one. Lord knows that, in this era when there are plenty of children whose parents have endured multiple marriages, I've heard many half-siblings tell me of their complicated feelings for their half-brothers and -sisters. Here's a musical that brings up the subject.

While all three properties show us that J.J. is much too enraptured with Susan, the collaborators offer another improvement from the novella and the film: J.J. doesn't try to keep her for himself but tries to fix her up with someone else, no less than Senator John F. Kennedy. This does make J.J. a bit nicer in that he wants the best guy for her, and that's not necessarily himself. (There is a nice irony, too, in J.J. believing that J.F.K. would be a good husband, now that we've learned he wasn't the most faithful of spouses. The collaborators show us once again, in a fascinating way, that what J.J. thinks is not always accurate.)

In the film, Susan is a shy and retiring type. This does make sense, for many people with powerful siblings become shrinking violets. She is much stronger in the novel, where she creatively enacts her revenge on Falco--but she still is not as strong as she is in the musical, where she brings down her brother. So while the film pits strong vs. weak and the novella offers strong vs. stronger, the musical goes for strong vs. strongest, which always offers the best dramatic possibilities. The musical's collaborators give us good reason why Susan is strong in the song "For Susan." Here's where J.J shows Sidney all the letters, postcards, and souvenirs from celebrities--Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, et al.--who have paid her great attention over the years. Naturally, anyone who's the apple of J.J.'s eye is going to have rapt and fawning admirers; that could make a girl feel good about herself.

I won't say that everything the collaborators have invented for the musical is dead-on correct. Making J.J. an ex-vaudevillian does seem to be an unconvincing and unnecessary stimulus for a song, though there is an effective piece of staging that accompanies it. But what I admire is that they've made Sweet Smell of Success their very own. They haven't just cut a bit of dialogue and replaced it with a song, as so many writers of dull musicals have. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall at the meetings that these guys had; they must have been so stimulating, given how the writers have added to the characters.

Kelli O'Hara and Jack Noseworthy
in Sweet Smell of Success
(Photo: Paul Kolnik)
I will say that one of the big problems of the show is the fact that Jack Noseworthy is terribly wrong for the role of Susan's boyfriend, Dallas. We've got to be on the side of these lovers, but we just can't get behind Noseworthy; he seems like a kid of the streets, a punk, a sewer rat, someone to really watch out for. J.J.'s not wanting his sister to hang out with the likes of him thus makes sense--and it's not supposed to. Martin Milner in the movie seems like a genuinely nice guy, so J.J.'s dislike of him comes across as wrong and misguided.

To be fair to Noseworthy, the authors have changed his character to be more worldly-wise; now he's an already-divorced father. Still, if someone like the young Milner had been cast in the musical, he would have made us think that the character's previous marriage was a youthful mistake. Noseworthy as Dallas is so repugnant that we start to suspect the breakup of the marriage was his fault and that his wife is well rid of him. Also: While the novel specifies that Dallas has a crew cut, Noseworthy has retained the anachronistic hair style that he sports in real life and that he sported as an abominable Pippin at the Paper Mill Playhouse. He also ruins the two important songs he's given by overdoing them with the amateurishness of a high-school boy who's been cast in the annual musical because no other boy bothered to show up.

That's a shame, because they are good are all the others. Thank the Lord that the cast album has been made, for I do believe that those who hastily dismissed Hamlisch and Carnelia's score will recant their opinions once they get to know it better. Hamlisch's batting average in terms of quality is among the highest of contemporary Broadway composers, and we'd best appreciate him while we can. While he started off with two hits (A Chorus Line and They're Playing Our Song), his next two scores (Smile and, to a lesser extent, The Goodbye Girl) were woefully underappreciated; with Sweet Smell faring even worse, we can't expect the man to continue writing for Broadway. I also am impressed by the fact that Guare and Carnelia had the exact same voice when writing for the characters, so that the work seems to the product of one bookwriter-lyricist. The language is always imaginative and in keeping with the harsh world of New York nightlife in the '50s.

When the film of Sweet Smell of Success opened, it was dismissed by reviewers and the public. Only after many years had passed did it become highly respected. I hope that doesn't happen with the musical and that theatergoers will appreciate it while it's still with us, not after the fact. ("You know, I'm sorry I didn't see that show...")

Listen: By now, you probably know my taste. You either share it, which is great, or you don't--which is fine, too, of course. But I've been seeing musical theater on a regular basis for more than 40 years and I do believe I can tell the worthy shows from the wastes of time and money. Sweet Smell of Success is an accomplished piece of work, and you can't be terribly interested in the future of the musical theater if you don't see it.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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