The decidedly uneven show to which Lithgow lends his gifts is The Sweet Smell of Success, a musical adapted from the cult favorite film of the same title. Its protagonist, Sidney Falco (assayed by Tony Curtis on film and the up-and-coming Brian D’arcy James onstage) is a youngster consumed with a lust for power. Much like Leo Bloom in The Producers, he wants everything he’s ever seen in the movies. His key to the bright lights is the most powerful gossip columnist in the country, a vicious, preening Walter Winchel-like monster named J.J. Hunsecker (Richard Lancaster on film and Lithgow onstage). In order to get into Hunsecker’s precious good graces, Falco must split up the relationship between Hunsecker’s sister, Susan, and nightclub singer Dallas.
The movie starts off with an intricate enough plot and the play opens up the story even more by fleshing out the back-ground of Sidney and J.J. In his thoroughly enjoyable book, John Guare (Six Degrees of Separation) has captured the sort of razor-sharp stylistic dialogue that is appropriate for the piece. The show never bogs down with exposition, and the humor is both biting and plentiful.
If only the music were as successful. Instead of cohering with the book, the score works against it. None of the songs are particularly memorable, few serve to advance the action and several even bring the show to a grinding halt. Since the material started out without music and works best without it onstage, many have concluded that musicalization was unnecessary. Yet the few powerful musical moments, particularly Lithgow’s “For Susan,” a devastatingly creepy, incestuous waltz and “Don’t Look Now,” a vaudeville number, leave me convinced that the show might indeed work best as a musical—just with a different compositional team.
Academy Award-winner Marvin Hamlisch has assembled a score of nondescript pastiche; he imitates the various types of music appropriate to the 1950s setting without bringing any soul to them. A man whose best work was relatively schmaltzy and oft remembered more for the lyrics written by others, Hamlisch just seems ill-suited to the project. A better choice for producing jazzy period music with dark undertones might have been the young composer Jason Robert Brown.
Of course, Hamlisch is not all to blame for the weak songs; he is not benefited by the generally cliché-ridden and, often unintentionally laughable, lyrics supplied by Craig Carnelia. At one point, I swear I heard Kelli O’Hara’s Susan sing something that sounded like, “A couple of more breaks and he’ll be home / Combing his hair with my comb.”
The insidious music aside, Sweet Smell remains an often entrancing depiction of a man’s descent into indulgent luxury and moral bankruptcy. A number of remarkable scenes have been constructed, including a chilling midnight meeting between J.J. and Sidney at St. Patrick’s Cathedral that reveals the terrifyingly fierce will of the famed gossip columnist.
Also successful is the usage of the show’s ensemble as a sort of Greek chorus that comments on Sidney’s dark journey. As they caution and cajole Sidney, they encircle him in a perfect compliment to Bob Crowley’s brilliant set design. The ensemble becomes the living, breathing manifestation of the phantasmagoric city that is suspended in the background beneath an otherworldly sky.
It is the existence of these well-constructed elements that makes the show’s shortcomings so damnably frustrating. In a musical, there are moments which just have to happen: the ingenues’ ballad, the hero’s declaration, the ignored second banana’s moment to shine. Sweet Smell has those moments, but that’s all that occurs—they just happen. The lovebirds sing one insipid tune after another…well, actually, just a couple between them, but each with at least one ill-advised reprise. Sidney’s big moment, “At the Fountain,” (also reprised as his finale) never summons the right imagery—it’s almost as if they used placeholders from an earlier draft. Shocklingly, this seems to have actually occurred with the appropriately titled “Rita’s Tune,” an utterly unnecessary second-act number for a cigarette girl whose role now lingers between underwritten principal and overwritten symbol.
Most of the actors do credible work amidst the uneven material. O’Hara makes an appealing, if bland, Susan; Jack Noseworthy sings almost well enough as Dallas to offset his acting deficiencies; and James has enough range to hold down the center of a big Broadway musical, though one wishes he’d allow his voice more free reign.
But it is Lithgow who not only handles the material, but elevates it. Oozing confidence to spare, his J.J. is a mammoth creation, capable of expressing incredible charm and wreaking unspeakable evil in consecutive breaths. He is a creature of the city and, as much as he enjoys manipulating its underbelly, he is also a product of that environment and ultimately must answer to it,
The Sweet Smell of Success concludes with one of the most satisfying final sequences in recent memory. If James never quite has the realization necessary for his finale, Lithgow finishes strongly enough for both of them. Embracing this “dirty little town” to the upmost, his confidence makes us forget the score’s faults and his own vocal weaknesses. In the end, I suppose that’s why he’s the one prominently on the posters and the billboards and with his name above the title. He delivers as only a true star can.