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Brian d'Arcy James and John Lithgow
in Sweet Smell of Success
(Photo: Paul Kolnik)
At the beginning of Sweet Smell of Success, J. J. Hunsecker (John Lithgow), a powerful gossip columnist reminiscent of Walter Winchell in every way but height and hat, is perched on the edge of his desk, dictating the next day's column. "Advice to a certain polo-playing playboy after the brawl at P. J. Clark's last night," he rat-a-tats: "Learn the difference between men and pigs. Pigs don't turn into men when they drink." He has more copy to spit: "Item: Libby James, TV glamazon, at Toni's Caprice with married Wall Street biggie. She's learning the hard way that girls get minks the same way minks get minks." He forges on and, as he does, the curtain-up laughs mount.

These are librettist John Guare's pastiches of naughty, 1952 column items. As they speedily accumulate, it appears that this musical adaptation of the 1957 flick is on sure footing. The impression, however, is fleeting. Not long after Hunsecker leaves his desk to sing and move and bark orders at flunkies and political figures, the stop-the-presses news takes a turn for the worse and the scoop that emerges is this: Those bold-face names that have been brought together in an attempt to make something as hard-hitting as the Clifford Odets-Ernest Lehman screenplay (which was, in turn, based on Lehman's novella) have not come close to achieving their goal.

That's right, Mister and Mrs. North and South America and all the ships at sea: For all of their efforts on Sweet Smell of Success, the creative team--including Guare, composer Marvin Hamlisch, lyricist Craig Carnelia, director Nicholas Hytner, choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, orchestrator William David Brohn, and set and costumes designer Bob Crowley--have not inspired each other to do their best work but, rather, have somehow brought out their collective mediocre-to-worst qualities.

Putting a finger on what went so indisputably and disappointingly wrong here is difficult, since the team has stuck reasonably close to the movie script. Sweet Smell of Success is still about a nervous, ambitious, bottom-feeding press agent named Sidney Falco who believes that he can only advance by breaking into J.J. Hunsecker's orchids-and-brickbats column on a daily basis. He'll stop at nothing to do so, although he does try to stop himself a few times; for example, he balks when the bloodsucker Hunsecker bribes him with promises of taking over the column for a short time, but his hunger to be important gets the better (or worst) of him. The unpleasant, unraveling plot in which Falco involves himself concerns J.J.'s half-sister Susan, who is threatening to marry Dallas Cochran, a musician. It's not just that J.J. disapproves of Dallas; he himself has a letch for his blood relative, though he won't admit it and she tries to ignore it. Sidney, in his zeal to please J.J., sets in motion a scheme that eventually brings Dallas and him to dire ends.

The nasty tang of the Alexander Mackendrick film Sweet Smell of Success as it examines the destructive nature of gossip seemed like just the thing to serve as the basis of a nasty, tangy musical when Garth Drabinsky first announced it some years ago as a forthcoming Livent project. The movie also seems not so sacrosanct that it couldn't be changed and possibly even improved in the transformation. Taking that cue, Guare has made many a revision. In the show that he and his collaborators have concocted, J.J. and Sidney (Brian d'Arcy James) haven't met before the start of the action; in the original, J.J. not only knows Sidney and has already enlisted him to break up the young lovers but has long since come to despise the gravel on which Sidney grovels. In the film, the Dallas figure is a guitarist with Chico Hamilton who dresses in a boxy suit and thin tie, as jazz players did then; now, Dallas (Jack Noseworthy) is a solo pianist partial to a black leather jacket.

There is more. In the original, J.J. makes a lubricious late entrance, hosting a politico and his doxy at 21; here, he kicks off the show and only later does some double-edged entertaining in his modern penthouse with unseen terrace. Sidney's secretary in the film has eyes for him; in the musical, she's been conflated with hatcheck girl Rita (Stacey Logan), whom Sidney fancies...but not so much that he won't pimp her to a competitive columnist for a favor. Also in the film, the suicidal Susan always wears a calf-length mink given to her by J.J.; Kelli O'Hara only occasionally sports a mink and keeps a mental grip on herself throughout.

Nevertheless, these alterations are pretty small potatoes when all is said and done. The adaptation caveat should have been that there is no need to make what was already larger than life even larger. Mackendrick, Odets, and Lehman kept their work tightly focused, following their connivers around the crepuscular environs of Broadway as if catching close-ups of angry boxers in a ring. Not so the "let's make a musical" folks; they've tried to make sure that their treatment comes across as Terribly Significant, so they've set the action against a Manhattan cyclorama that looks like a shark's lower jaw. Behind it is a seething sky, the apocalyptic likes of which was most recently seen in the celluloid remake of Godzilla.

In front of this, on a usually dark stage, the players strut as if they're doing Greek tragedy. The writers underscore this style by continually sending out a chorus of Furies identified in the script as The Whisperers. "The whisperers are whisperin' / They hiss and they coo," one of Carnelia's lyrics goes--but they don't. Instead, these urban Eumenides shout and exhort. Better they'd been dubbed The Screaming Mimis...or, better yet, The Screaming Me-mes, since they go on and on about wanting to get themselves into J.J.'s column. They also collectively bellow "Sidney" into the antihero's ear with merciless repetition. Everything sinister and subtle in the Odets-Lehman script is played for an overt significance on the subject of how absolute power corrupts absolutely that the script can't support.

Brian d'Arcy James and company
in Sweet Smell of Success
(Photo: Paul Kolnik)
Another problem is that it's difficult, if not impossible, to make an audience cheer the sentiments behind anthems sung by unlikable characters. This only works when the con artists in question have a roguish charm, as Harold Hill does in Meredith Willson's The Music Man or even as Harry Bogen does in Harold Rome's I Can Get It For You Wholesale. Here, two scoundrels beg audience indulgence as they chant about their unsympathetic goals. Hamlisch and Carnelia, both of whom have done so much better elsewhere that their first-time teaming should have soared instead of sunk, get away with Sidney's first-act bleat "At the Fountain" mostly because d'Arcy James has such a persuasive baritone. They've also penned a smoky ballad, "I Can't Hear the City," that might pass muster in cabarets and piano bars in the months ahead. They pay the piper, however, when they have to provide a short hymn at a St. Patrick's altar where Sidney is swearing to do J.J.'s lethal bidding. And they fall even further into despair with a vaudeville ditty (remember that the young Winchell was a vaudevillian) called "Don't Stop Now," which is meant to look and sound like a music hall number but doesn't.

The leads and the chorus members burn a lot of fuel in trying to get this stalled engine of a show going. John Lithgow has J.J.'s bite and the scale that Burt Lancaster has in the movie; he also is aware that he's in a musical partly about incest and rises to that dubious occasion in the pertinent scenes. But, sad to say, he doesn't have much of a voice, and so the songs that Hamlisch and Carnelia have written for him seem more off-key than low-key. Brian d'Arcy James has a five-alarm voice and a three-card-monte smile but never gives in to flop sweat, as Sidney must. Kelli O'Hara, her blonde hair sometimes swept back into a Grace Kelly twist, sings like an angel slumming in Hades; so does Jack Noseworthy. But, aside from "I Can't Hear the City," neither of them has material worthy of their talents. (Indeed, Noseworthy has the show's worst song, a jazz number called "One Track Mind.") The rest of the cast is valiant but daunted. A special nod of sympathy goes to the dancers who are worked to the nubbin by the usually brilliant City Ballet dancemaker Wheeldon.

The sweet smell of success? Nix, guys and glamazons! The sour smell of excess is more like it.

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